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Wet Vs. Dry Heat: Which Works Best to Treat Dry Eye Disease?

Eye Care Professionals have recommended warm compresses to treat dry eye for years. For most of us, an at-home warm compress involves moistening a cloth with hot water or microwaving a dampened cloth. But is wet heat really the best way to treat dry eye disease? Could dry heat work more effectively?

In this article, we’ll detail the differences between wet and dry heat when treating dry eye, and help you understand which one may give you longer-term results.

How Does Heat Help With Dry Eye in the First Place?

Tears rely on a substance called meibum to keep them from evaporating too quickly, causing the eye to feel dry. When the meibomian glands don’t secrete enough meibum, it’s called meibomian gland dysfunction or MGD, which is a common cause of evaporative dry eye. In fact, as much as 85% of dry eye sufferers exhibit symptoms of MGD.

Heat can be an effective treatment for dry eye cases that stem from MGD because it softens the meibum. As the meibum gets softer, it flows more freely, creating a more robust oil film on the tear surface, thereby preventing tear evaporation.

Wet Heat

It almost makes sense that the moisture that accompanies wet heat would help counteract the dry eye symptoms, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that most dry eye cases don’t stem from a lack of moisture, but from a lack of meibum. While heat can help facilitate the flow of meibum, moisture does nothing to improve this issue. If anything, the added moisture may complicate or even counteract the efficiency of heat-based treatments.

Unnecessary Mess

Roughly ⅔ of American consumers wear makeup more than once a week. The introduction of moisture to the eye area is very likely to impact makeup, which alters the times and frequency a wet heat treatment could be done.

Premature Cooling

Imagine you’re swimming in a heated pool on a sunny day. Despite the heat of the day and the warmth of the water, your skin feels cool when you step out of the pool. This cooling sensation is due to the water evaporating from your skin.

Theoretically, a warm compress that uses wet heat will have a similar effect. While the wet heat is applied, the eyelid surface stays warm. However, once the source of the heat is removed, the moisture left on the eyelid surface immediately starts to evaporate, causing it to cool.

This cooling effect could limit the effectiveness of heat treatments as it could allow the meibum to stiffen sooner.

Too Many Variables

All thermal treatments need to be successful is the transfer of thermal energy from a source to the meibomian glands in the eyelids. Wet heat may complicate this somewhat by adding the additional (and unnecessary) element of moisture to the process.

When heating a towel with water or microwaving a moist compress, it is nearly impossible to achieve the ideal temperature for treatment. If the compress is too cool, the treatment will not work properly. If the compress is too hot, it can result in burns.

Dry Heat Offers Precision With Fewer Potential Complications

Dry heat has not previously been widely used for at-home dry eye treatments, mostly because there wasn’t a safe, simple, convenient, and economical way to apply it. Today, however, the EyeGiene® Insta-Warmth Mask System is a medical device that makes it easy to apply heat at precisely the right temperature without additional moisture or energy from external sources like the microwave.

This sort of treatment has been tested and proven effective by several academic studies. Given the efficacy of dry heat application, and the various complexities that may arise due to wet heat, it’s clear that dry heat may be the better option when using heat therapy to treat dry eye disease and meibomian gland dysfunction.