Answer Man

Eyes can make clean sweep of rogue lashes naturally

Q. An eyelash got on my eye the other day, and I had a hard time getting it out with the old pull-the-eyelid trick. It made me wonder: What happens to eyelashes that you can’t get out? Do they slowly dissolve in the eye socket? How long does it take? Why doesn’t that cause irritation or discomfort?

— T.J., of Freeburg

A. “Mr. Sandman, take back your dream. The biggest nightmare that I’ve ever seen ...”

Homer and Jethro, “the thinking man’s hillbillies,” wrote that song parody decades ago to make people laugh. But people often fail to see the humor when they wake up in the morning and find their eyes nearly sealed shut by the collection of sticky grit that built up around them during the night.

Some call it “sand” (hence, the origin of the Sandman). Others call it “crust” or “sleep.” Since they often have more of it, kids have come up with a more disgustingly descriptive term — eye boogers. If you want to be scientific, it’s officially known as “rheum,” “gound” or even “mucopurulent discharge.” Whatever you call it, this unwelcome gunk that may take major finger-scraping to remove is actually the byproduct of a remarkable process that protects the eyes and keeps them healthy. Therein lies the answer to what happens to a fallen lash.

If you’ve ever seen a Restasis commercial, you’re likely aware of the peril of dry eyes. Unless the eye is kept moistened, redness, irritation and pain can result. Left untreated and in severe cases, it can produce eye damage and even, in rare cases, loss of vision. It is one of the most common eye complaints, affecting an estimated 6 percent of the general population but perhaps as many as 35 percent of the elderly.

That means most of us don’t have to give this natural moisturizing mechanism a second thought — and quite a mechanism it is. You may not realize it, but the film of tears on your eye actually has three components. The innermost layer coats the surface of the cornea and is called the mucous layer or mucin. On top of this lies a more watery layer produced by the lachrymal glands, which supplies salt, proteins and other substances to the cornea. Covering all of this is an oil called meibum, which is secreted by the meibomiam glands in the eyelids that German doctor Heinrich Meiborn discovered in the 1600s.

In a healthy eye, this combo keeps the eye moist as the oil prevents the aqueous layer from evaporating between blinks while, at the same time, it keeps tears from rolling down your cheeks all day by directing them through the lachrymal duct into the nose. But this thin tear film also serves another important purpose: It traps dust, pollen and other substances and ferries it across the eye to where it can be more easily removed.

This is how all that sludge builds up at night. As we sleep, our eyelids sweep across the eye, collecting dead cells, mucus, bacteria, dust and other garbage floating on the tear film. As the tears are pushed across the eye, this garbage eventually collects in the corners of the eye or on the eyelids themselves. When fresh, this goop is often yellowish and sort of squishy, but is usually hard and pasty by the time we get around to removing it.

This also explains what happens to those rogue eyelashes you ask about. After falling into the eye, the oily mucus in your eye will encase it, according to Dr. Ari Weitzner, a New York ophthalmologist. Then the mass will slowly harden and move elsewhere in the eye, where you can remove it, perhaps not even realizing it. Or perhaps, during the very act of blinking your eye, the lash may stick to your other lashes and be lifted out successfully.

“Sooner or later they become noticeable, and you will dig it out with your finger,” Weitzner said. “Or you may need an ophthalmologist to dig it out, (but) I have never seen that happen in my experience.”

I suppose for the record I should say that eye doctors recommend the use of a clean washcloth rather than an unwashed finger to clean your eyes of debris in the morning, although I must admit that I usually seek immediate relief. Also, if you’re finding a consistent increase in the amount of this grit, it could be a sign of an eye infection or other problem. And if you have so much that your eyes are frequently stuck together, it could indicate blepharitis, which involves a low-grade inflammation of the eyelids.

To prepare for a future renegade lash, you might want to bookmark (five ways to extract an eyelash illustrated) or — wouldn’t you know it? — with a dozen homemade remedies. Remember, however, that while they might get the approval of Homer & Jethro, neither is sanctioned by the American Ophthalmological Society.

Today’s trivia

You may have heard of the Hope, Taylor-Burton and Tiffany diamonds. What name was given to the largest diamond ever found in the United States?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: When Madonna asked Danny Aiello to play her father in her 1986 music video of “Papa Don’t Preach,” she got a little more than she bargained for. Not only did the then-53-year-old actor fill the role on screen as the pop singer’s dad, but he also later recorded “Papa Wants the Best for You” in reply to Madonna’s lyrical plea. Aiello’s answer song was written by Artie Schroeck, who, in 1967, earned a gold record for arranging “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for Frankie Valli, of the Four Seasons. Now 82, Aiello went on to show off his pipes in “Hudson Hawk” and other films and has released several big band-style albums.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.