Illegal practice

More action is needed to protect patients

A woman putting a contact lens into her eye

Spectacles and contact lenses are medical devices which can harm people if they are badly made or wrongly used. The illegal supply of these eye care products is a problem in the UK and causes health risks for the public. We want the regulator, the General Optical Council (GOC), to do more to stop illegal activity. 

To protect the public, the law says that some eye care services, such as supplying contact lenses, can only be provided by qualified and registered professionals. However, some businesses provide these services without meeting the legal requirements.

Providing such services without the involvement of appropriate professional staff is illegal, and potentially dangerous. Wearing contact lenses can carry significant risks, such as infection and eye injury1. That is why the law requires them to be dispensed with the oversight of registered eye care professionals who can provide expert advice on how to use and care for the lenses.

Illegal practice – the risks

Illegal practices that affect patients in the UK include:

  • Selling cosmetic zero-powered contact lenses – often as novelty or fancy-dress items – without the involvement of a registered eye care professional. Cosmetic lenses may not be manufactured to the same high standards as prescription lenses. Some users will have never used contact lenses before, or treat them as toys, even sharing them with friends – which adds to the health risks

  • Supplying prescription contact lenses without proper oversight by a registered eye care professional. These suppliers often work online using websites based outside the UK. It is legal to supply contact lenses online as long as the supplier checks that the patient has a valid contact lens specification, and a registered professional oversees the process – but these conditions aren’t always met

  • Unregistered suppliers dispensing prescription glasses to children. This is illegal because only registered professionals can dispense to those under 16. Supplying inaccurate spectacles can in some cases lead to permanently impaired vision

  • Businesses using legally protected titles such as ‘optician’ without GOC registration, which is misleading and illegal

Tackling illegal practice

In the past the GOC has brought a private prosecution against an online supplier for selling contact lenses without verifying the wearer’s contact lens specification, which resulted in a conviction. It also works to raise trading standards officers’ awareness of the law on cosmetic contact lenses, and this has led to local enforcement action.

Many online contact lens suppliers now use overseas websites to serve their UK customers. We realise that the GOC faces real practical and legal challenges in tackling overseas businesses that don’t comply with UK legal requirements. However, the purpose of the GOC is to protect patients and the public, and in our view, it isn’t currently doing enough to protect them against illegal practice.

What we’re calling for

Robust enforcement action would encourage suppliers to follow the rules – either by using properly trained and registered professionals, or by stopping their illegal activities altogether.

Some businesses that illegally supply cosmetic contact lenses in the UK genuinely don’t realise that they are breaking the law. We have worked with the GOC to produce an information leaflet to help these suppliers understand their obligations. We also encourage our members to raise problems with their local trading standards office.

But that isn’t enough to solve the problem of illegal practice, particularly by suppliers based overseas. The GOC’s current protocol for criminal prosecutions2 says it will close complaints about suspected illegal practice without investigating if the suspected offender is based abroad. We don’t think that’s good enough. Where a supplier based overseas appears to be acting illegally, we think the GOC should try to contact the supplier, and the local law enforcement authorities where appropriate, to resolve the problem.

We would also like to see the GOC publish information for the public about the benefits of sourcing contact lenses from suppliers that comply with UK legal requirements, to help protect patients and the public.

In May 2021 the GOC asked us and other stakeholders to answer a short survey about the risks associated with illegal practice in the optical sector. Our response was informed by a discussion about illegal practice and the GOC’s survey questions at the June 2021 AOP Council meeting.

The GOC ran a consultation on its illegal practice strategy review in 2022 and the AOP Response to a GOC stakeholder survey on illegal practice was submitted in January 2022. 

The GOC consultation focused mainly on its revised illegal practice protocol which will sets out its criteria for managing complaints about alleged illegal optical practice. We said that although the GOC protocol was clearer than its current document, there was far more that the GOC needs to do as part of the wider strategy to manage the risks to public protection that arise from illegal and unsafe optical practice. This includes action to raise public awareness about optical regulation and the risks of purchasing from unregulated providers, clearer information about raising complaints, better managing the risks from overseas online optical sales, and improved engagement with the sector and registrants.


  1. Contact lens risks. US Food and Drug Administration (accessed November 2018)
  2. See the GOC Protocol for criminal prosecutions (described on the GOC website as a “protocol for the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences”), page 10 (Accessed November 2018)

November 2018

Read the rest of the AOP position statements