NEW! Vendor Spotlight
A key part of what the Dry Eye Shop does is to gather together a wide variety of dry eye and scleral lens products and wrap them up in information and practical tips to help you understand them from the patient's perspective.
We purchase from a growing number of companies, ranging from "mom & pop" developers of niche products for certain special needs of the corneal disease world to multi-national pharmaceutical companies selling familiar brands of eye drops.
We appreciate our vendors of all sizes and types and want to tell you more about them! This year, every week or so I'll be sharing about one of these companies - who they are, how and why (and what) we started purchasing from them and when, and what they mean to us.
So, I'm going to start alphabetically....
A is for ALCON
Alcon is of course one of the best known names in the eye care world - especially surgical equipment, but of course pharmaceuticals (including dry eye OTC products) and contact lens solutions.
Alcon's position in dry eye and scleral lens products
In the dry eye world, Alcon is best known for their Systane brand eye lubricant drop family, as well as somewhat older brands Genteal (acquired when they were part of Novartis) and also Bion Tears. Alcon also owns the iLux meibomian gland treatment platform.
In the scleral lens world, Alcon is currently best known for Clear Care and Clear Care Plus, the hydrogen peroxide disinfection systems with the "basket" case.
But for those of us who have been using scleral lenses for a long time, Alcon also holds the unforgettable position as the former manufacturer of Unisol 4, which for many, many years was the only preservative-free saline sold in drugstores, and was commonly used for rinsing and filling sclerals. Unisol 4 was discontinued in 2015, causing a panic and widespread saline shortages that went on for at least two years. This shortage resulted in the little-known Purilens brand suddenly becoming much better known, then eventually also led - along with scleral lens market growth - to the emergence of many new brands: Lacripure (Menicon), Scleralfil (Bausch & Lomb), Nutrifill (Contamac) and VibrantVue (Visionary Optics).
There are, of course, many other Alcon products you may be familiar with, from their contact lens supplies (which I remember even from my childhood) to allergy eye drops such Pataday.
2017: We start purchasing from Alcon - how and why
We first began purchasing from Alcon in 2017. I remember two different key motivations for purchasing from Alcon.
The first was Clear Care, the hydrogen peroxide disinfection product, which for years now has been the only brand name hydrogen peroxide contact lens system on the US market (after Peroxiclear was recalled). Lots of our customers who use scleral lenses were asking for Clear Care. Also, as the scleral lens part of our business grew, we were interacting with more and more scleral lens users who were struggling with lens issues and were unaware that for some people, switching from a multi-purpose soaking solution to hydrogen peroxide can actually significant improve their lens performance (comfort and/or clarity). Finally, there's lots of confusion about Clear Care versus Clear Care Plus, so stocking these gave opportunities to explain.
The second was Genteal Gel. This (and the nearly identical product Systane Gel, also from Alcon) is a really important product to the dry eye community because it's the thickest non-greasy night time lubricant. It has unfortunately been subject to backorders and shortages and even a recall or two over the years. When we have an account to purchase directly from a manufacturer, that helps us keep a finger on the pulse of what is, and is not, available at any given point in time so we can give people a heads up on where and how to find alternatives, when to stock up because of expected shortages, and so on.
Now, to actually get an account set up to purchase direct from Alcon was essential - but difficult. Most contact lens solutions are distributed by major wholesalers - who sell to pharmacies. We are not a pharmacy, so that option is not open to us. Through any other other type of distributor, the cost would be too high or we were not eligible because we were too small. So I was determined to go direct to the manufacturer. - On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies like Alcon typically sell to wholesalers and to doctors, but not directly to retail companies. Our strategy - with Alcon and with others - was to persuade them to treat us like a doctor's office (with the exception that we would only buy non-prescription products and would not request samples) on the basis that we play an important role in patient education.
Thankfully, Alcon was one of the first takers when we took this path, and we've been purchasing more from them every year. They're very easy to work with. We typically order by phone, and they are a very reliable supplier. They're a little old school and still do not have full online ordering for the products we purchase, but they'll get there eventually.
Alcon's dry eye products
We stock all of the preservative-free Systane and Genteal brand lubricant drops and ointments Alcon sells (Systane, Systane Ultra, Systane Complete PF and Systane Hydration PF; Genteal Tears; Systane Ointment; Genteal Ointment), plus the quasi-preservative-free gels (Systane Gel and Genteal Gel).
I have to put in a little word for Systane Hydration, which I really like. It is newest product and Alcon's contribution to the current trend of eye drops with sodium hyaluronate (as with all manufacturers in the US, it's tucked away inconspicuously on the inactive ingredients list due to current FDA rules). It's my favorite drop to keep on the nightstand in the winter for a middle-of-the-night douse. (MDPF bottle, of course, for me, though they also sell it in vials.)
Alcon's lens care products
Clear Care and Clear Care Plus (hydrogen peroxide disinfection systems) are very important products for the scleral lens community. With our large, but rigid lenses, and in the presence of sometimes serious dry eye disease, keeping the lenses clean and free of deposits can be a bigger job than a conventional multi-purpose solution can achieve.
We normally stock these products, but sadly, they have been been on backorder since early 2022, which has been a huge loss. They didn't disappear - you can usually get the larger sizes of Clear Care Plus at Costco, for example - but they've been scarce for a long time and we have not been able to purchase most versions for nearly a year now. (See our Backorders and Shortages resource page.)
Our wishlist for Alcon
1. Better insights into shortages and backorders
A drawback (from our perspective) of organizations as large as Alcon is that you rarely get useful information when there's a backorder or shortage situation. The sales people are not told the bigger picture and they can't share what they don't know. By contrast, most small to medium companies are only too happy to give us at least some rough idea of what to expect when there's a shortage. And some major pharmas also understand our work enough to clue us in in certain circumstances. This is very important to us because the dry eye and scleral lens community gets very anxious when we can't get the solutions and drops that enable us to function and see each day. Here at the shop, we work hard to get on top of all the best information about what's available, what's missing, and when things will be back.
So, at the top of my wishlist for our relationship with Alcon, there's a helpful senior manager somewhere in there that understood this need and was willing to help us out now and then, knowing we won't blast their secrets to the world.
2. Larger ClearCare basket case
Another wishlist item? A new version of ClearCare with a basket case large enough to safely handle scleral lenses of 16mm to 24mm. It's still apparently too much of a 'niche' market for them to tackle, but I hope the day will come.
3. More emphasis on preservative-free options
Alcon still sells an awful lot of preserved eye drops, which limits the variety of products we can purchase from them since we avoid preserved lubricant drops. I was very pleased when they finally made Systane Complete available in a preservative-free multi-dose bottle.
That's all for today
I keep thinking of more Alcon stories and I have much more to write, but I need to wrap it up here for today. I may add to the post, though, as other things occur to me.
Please post in the comments!