Yikes! This is a question that gives me the heebie-jeebies. The idea of mites living on our eyelashes and in the sebaceous glands around our lashes is horrifying. Sure, I’m an ophthalmologist so I probably shouldn’t sound so faint-hearted. But I’m also a human, and it’s just us talking here. In that spirit, I’ll be straightforward. I wish the idea of little prehistoric creatures living on our eyelashes and eating our skin oils didn't give me the heebie-jeebies.
And yet, sometimes they do. More often than you’d like to know. It’s not that everyone has mites living on their eyelashes, it’s just that many, many people do. They go by the name Demodex. Depending on your age, it’s usually anywhere from 33%-50% chance that you’re one of them. If I could give one piece of advice to you it would be this — don’t google Demodex and look at scanning electron microscopy images of these things. You’ll just ruin your whole day.
Are eyelash mites a hygiene issue?
It would be nice if it was just an issue of hygiene. Then we could feel okay about it. “Well, lucky for me, I’m not gross. I wash my face.” Face soaps and scrubs are great. I recommend them. But unfortunately, they’re not the issue here. You can have the clear, rosy skin of a cherub, and eyelid mites will still be in your selfies. Thank heavens they are only a third of a millimeter tall and like to bury their heads. Gosh, this topic is gross and I’m mad that I have to write about it.
It’s important though. Not because Demodex is an imminent threat to your eyes or your health, but because it’s misunderstood. There are cases of Demodex blepharitis (blephara- means eyelids and -itis means inflammation). But it is rare for it to cause problems outside of those with a very weakened immune system. In those cases, you treat it with tea tree oil, oddly enough. It kills the mites and (sorry for this) their eggs.
What should you do about eyelash mites?
So it is true that you can get mites on your eyelashes. It is less true that it happens if they’re not cleaned regularly. Once you’ve gotten over the original horror of the idea (which I’ve been waiting on for 15 years), it’s really not so bad. It was thought that they were commensal (they benefit from us, but don’t cause us problems) for a long time. It’s generally considered that they are parasitic now because of those cases when they cause eyelid inflammation. They are weak, scrawny, pathetic parasites though. It is rare that they can do anything to hurt us.
For most of you reading this, just know that I believe there are some facts of biology that are better left mostly forgotten. I encourage you to forget this one unless you can figure out a great way to bring it up at a party. That said, if you have chronically red and inflamed eyelids, then it is worth seeing an ophthalmologist to follow up on this. They can prescribe specific medications like tea tree oil to cure Demodex if that’s what’s causing the problem. Just don’t let them show you any photos of it.