Readers, Cheaters and Magnifiers, Oh My!

Readers, Cheaters and Magnifiers, Oh My!

by Brian Chou, OD, FAAO, FSLS

  • March 14, 2022

Ever wonder about over-the-counter reading glasses at the drugstore? They go by different names: readers, cheaters, and magnifiers. These ready-made glasses are commonplace for those over age 40. Below, learn what they are for and why they go by different names.

Intended for age-related decline in near vision

Reading glasses are intended to help for presbyopia, the expected age-related decline in changing focus from far away to close-up. Reading glasses can help with near work – particularly when it is no longer practical to hold objects further away, increase font size, and brighten lighting. These over-the-counter glasses are relatively inexpensive and are helpful for many.

Professional diagnosis is key

If you notice a decline in your close vision, the first step is to schedule a comprehensive professional eye examination for proper diagnosis. Your eye doctor can advise if over-the-counter reading glasses are appropriate for you. If prescriptive glasses for reading are needed, your doctor will let you know. Prescriptive reading glasses can help when you have a focusing asymmetry between the two eyes, astigmatism, and/or the need for an expanded range of focused vision; all situations where over-the-counter reading glasses are suboptimal. Your eye doctor can also discuss alternatives to reading glasses including contact lenses, refractive surgery, and the drug called Vuity. Most importantly, the onset of age-related near vision changes also marks greater risk for eye disease including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. Therefore, a professional eye examination can give you peace of mind that your decline in vision is not due to disease.

Reading glasses as Class 1 medical devices

Just like adhesive bandages and tongue depressors, over-the-counter reading glasses are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Class 1 medical devices, or relatively low risk devices.

A manufacturer of over-the-counter reading glasses can only claim a therapeutic or preventative benefit previously authorized by the FDA. That is why you won’t see these reading glasses labeled as a treatment for presbyopia, even though that is what they are routinely used for.

Misleadingly called “magnifiers”

According to the FDA, over-the-counter reading glasses are categorized as “magnifying spectacles”, which is unintentionally misleading to many consumers. This is because the primary function of these convex lenses is to improve the focus of near objects. Image magnification is just a byproduct of convex lenses and a lesser effect, unlike a magnifying glass. Still, the authorized language is structured around enlarging images rather than bringing objects close-up into focus. For this reason, over-the-counter reading glasses are often marketed as “magnifiers”.

Why are they called “cheaters”?

“Cheaters” is what many in the public call reading glasses with the tongue-in-cheek connotation that the user is also “cheating”. The truth is that eventually all of us can expect to need help to see close-up. Admittedly, some of us feel some embarrassment in using reading glasses, as if they are socially unacceptable. Yet there is nothing to be bashful about presbyopia. There are excellent alternatives to reading glasses. These include progressive eyeglasses, contact lenses and refractive eye surgery for presbyopia, and prescription eye drops to temporarily restore focusing ability.

Over-the-counter reading glasses are restricted in some states

In Rhode Island, New York, and Minnesota, over-the-counter reading glasses are not for sale in high powers. Additionally, these same states restrict the sale of over-the-counter bifocals and requiring language about the importance of professional eye examination.

California does not have lens power restrictions on over-the-counter reading glasses, but California requires over-the-counter reader sellers with 10 or more employees to comply with Proposition 65. This proposition requires the seller to conspicuously warn if any of the 800+ chemicals known by the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, are present onsite. Over-the-counter reading glasses often have polycarbonate lenses which contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical listed under Proposition 65. Realistically though, a wearer of polycarbonate eyewear would unlikely absorb much BPA unless they chewed or licked their eyeglass lenses.


If you noticed trouble changing focus from far away to close-up, request your eye examination at ReVision Optometry, located in San Diego, or call our office at 619.299.6064.