If you are planning on attending any of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, make sure to wear a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19, change your phone settings and protect your eyes. The use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets by police can cause serious eye injuries or blindness, so it’s best to take precautions and know how to react. The following are recommendations shared by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and London-based Diopter Eye Clinic.
Wear eye protection like goggles or safety glasses
Wearing goggles and safety glasses can help prevent injury from rubber bullets, gasses and projectiles, but they are not completely effective. But, they are much better than nothing and are relatively inexpensive at your local hardware store or online.
Do not wear contact lenses if possible
Take out your contacts and wear optical glasses to protests, if possible. According to Diopter Eye Clinic, “Fine particles in the tear gas get embedded in the contact lens, making it 10x more painful.” Also, many goggles and safety glasses are designed to fit over optical glasses without altering the fit.
Avoid oil-based sunscreens
Diopter Eye Clinic also notes that oil-based sunscreens, moisturizers and make-up will absorb tear gas. These should be avoided — opt for a water-based sunscreen if attending protests during the day.
If you’re injured by a rubber bullet
The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises:
Step 1: Do not touch or rub the eye.
Step 2: Stay upright.
Step 3: Place a hard shield around eye. Even a temporary eye shield, such as paper cup or Styrofoam cup, may work in an emergency.
Step 4: Seek emergency room and ophthalmology consultation immediately
If you’re injured by tear gas
Tear gas — dispersed as a fine dust — doesn’t often cause irreversible eye injuries, but it can cause some serious problems if not treated immediately. If exposed to tear gas, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advises:
Step 1: Remove yourself from the contaminated area as quickly and safely as possible and seek fresh air. If possible, get to higher ground (aerosolized tear gases are heavier than air).
Step 2: Remove clothing near the face and remove contact lenses if you are wearing them.
Step 3: Blink frequently to promote tearing but do not rub eyes (it may spread crystals within ocular surfaces).
Step 4: Flush the eyes with lots of clean water.
Step 5: Seek emergency ophthalmic evaluation.
If you’re injured by pepper spray
Pepper spray contains a natural oil called oleoresin capsicum (found in hot peppers) and causes the eyes to burn, tear and hurt. If exposed, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advises:
Step 1: Don’t touch the eye area; touching the spreads the oil.
Step 2: Flush the eyes with lots of clean water.
Step 3: Wash the skin around the eyes with baby shampoo (it will break down the oil without irritating the eyes). “While there are lots of videos showing the protestors using milk, it only helps with the burning sensation but it doesn’t remove the oil (although a small randomized trial found milk wasn’t any better than water, Maalox 2% or baby shampoo at pain relief),” says Diopter Eye Clinic.
Step 4: Diopter Eye Clinic also recommends removing and disposing of contact lenses (if worn) with clean gloves or washing glasses with mild dishwashing soap and water. Then remove contaminated clothes and take a cold shower to remove as much of the chemical as possible. Wash contaminated clothes separately and discard severely contaminated items (seal in a plastic bag and discard).