Can I change my eye color?

The short answer is that you can’t change your eye color. Safely, at least. But why stop there? The how and why of your eye color just might surprise you.

Joel Hunter, MD
Joel Hunter, MD
Refractive Surgeon, Hunter Vision Updated 07/14/17 8:12 AM

Sometimes it’s hard to have a long answer to a yes or no question like “Can I change my eye color?” The answer is no. There’s the summary of all that’s to follow here. But to me, the interesting part of the answer is why the answer is no. There are many scientific facts where we don’t have all the information to even know why they are facts. Why did Neanderthals go extinct? How does gravity influence the fabric of space-time? How does Pharrell Williams still look 19 years old despite having lived 44 years? When we have a genuine answer to a scientific question, it’s kind of exciting.

The color of your eye is determined by the color of your iris, which is the ring of tissue around your pupil. You can see it clearly because your clear cornea acts like a domed window letting you look in at this totally sealed off part of your body. Even though it is only about 3 millimeters away from being on the surface, your iris happens to be one of the few places you can look at genuine internal organs. That’s neat, isn’t it? To save you a lesson hard-learned, this interesting take on your eyes will serve you poorly if you try to use it in any romantic setting.

Your iris has a couple of layers to it. There’s some pigment on the surface of it, muscle to dilate and constrict your pupil for the meat of it, and then a whole bunch more pigment underneath that. The amount of pigment you’ll find in those layers determines your eye color. Here’s the surprising part about the pigment: there’s only one color for it. It’s just brown, through and through. If you’ve got the bright, blue eyes of a spring morning—brown pigment. Eyes of enchanting green? Pigment is brown. Brown eyes? Yeah, okay, I can see that one won’t be as surprising. Plus I couldn’t think of a good brown eyes descriptor. Maybe brown eyes of a girl in the most heavily-played song on any Pandora station?

Because of some tricks of refraction of light through your domed cornea, the amount of pigment in your iris will determine your eye color. The less pigment you’ve got, the lighter blue your eyes will be. Add some more brown pigment (it’s the only brand to choose from) and you’ve gone from green to hazel and eventually to brown. It stands to reason, you could make some of the pigment go away, you could get a different eye color. You’re exactly right. Evenly decreasing the melanosome population (tiny brown vehicles carrying only one thing, and that thing is the color brown) will result in eyes that are lighter colored. Brown to green or green to blue.

Someone actually decided to do something about it and created a laser procedure to decrease the amount of pigment and change eye color for people. I know that much of the story details are true. The rest of it remains largely apocryphal in ophthalmology circles. It is told over and over again in groups of older men wearing sport coats with patches on the elbows while they laugh and laugh. Depending on which parts are true, rabbits with different colored eyes or humans who developed glaucoma may be involved. I wish I could be more detailed, since it feels a lot like I’m writing a gossip column, but I’m passing along all the information I can remember.

The main point, and the definitive answer to the question about eye color change, is that we know how to do it—just not well or in a remotely safe way. I hope it comes to pass at some point, because it would make a lot of people happy. I’m a fan of more happiness pretty much every way. It’s why I’ll sometimes stand at the edge of those groups of older ophthalmologists telling stories of the eye-color-changing laser and enjoy their howls of laughter at the idea. Secretly I’m rooting for the hero who only has a laser and a dream, that he’ll crack the code on how to change eye color, and get the last laugh.

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