11 Secrets of Opticians

iStock.com/Emir Memedovski
iStock.com/Emir Memedovski

Whether they need glasses or not, most people understand what an optometrist does. The same doesn’t always apply for the optometrist’s in-office counterpart, the optician. Even people who have been wearing glasses or contacts for most of their lives might not know exactly what these eyecare professionals do. Here are 11 secrets about being an optician, some of which might change the way you see your glasses forever.

1. Opticians aren't salespeople, and they don’t get commission.

When you go to the eye doctor, you don’t just sit in the chair, read some letters off a chart at the far end of the room, and then walk out with a pair of glasses. After the optometrist determines your prescription, you’re typically directed to the office’s optician, who will help you pick out your next pair of glasses or contacts. Think of them as the pharmacist of the eyewear world: The doctor determines your generic prescription, but the optician is the one who fills it for you.

“I am the person that makes sure we get a frame that fits you, that is going to work for your prescription, and is going to last you,” explains Maayan Shuval, an optician at Eyedentity, an eye care practice in Kirkland, Washington.

And despite what some people seem to think, opticians aren't just there to direct you to the most expensive pair of frames in the office, or to up-sell you on the priciest add-ons. "People always assume we make commission and we want them to buy the most expensive thing," Shuval says. "I’ve never made commission."

Still, many customers think that opticians are just glorified salespeople out for more money. “The misperception comes from the idea that glasses are glasses or contacts are contacts, and they’re all the same,” says Steve Alexander, an optician in Arlington Heights, Illinois who worked as a practicing optician for 13 years and is currently a consultant with The Growth Cooperative, a national consulting firm for eye care providers.

But the upgrades that opticians offer can make a real difference for your vision, whether it’s transition lenses, anti-glare coatings, or another high-tech feature. “I think people think that the upgrades in lenses are kind of a scam, and they’re really not,” Alexander says. “The coatings make a significant difference in the physics of light and how light actually interacts with your glasses.”

2. Only some states require opticians to be licensed.

The requirements for becoming an optician vary significantly depending on where you live, and fewer than half the states require opticians to be licensed. Alexander, for instance, works in Illinois, where he’s not required to have a license, while Shuval works in Washington state, which does require licensure—meaning she had to do an apprenticeship and take a state exam in order to legally practice, and she now has to spend a certain number of hours each year doing continuing education classes to keep her license.

Even within states that require licenses, there are a lot of differences between the certification processes. Some states require opticians to be certified by the American Board of Opticianry and National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE), a national credential that requires continuing education and expires every three years. Other states have their own certification processes with different requirements for continuing education hours, expiration periods, and more. That means that a practicing optician in one state can’t necessarily practice in another state without going through the whole certification process anew. (Some of the national optical chains require their opticians to be licensed regardless of the state they're in—Warby Parker, for instance, requires its opticians to obtain the American Board of Opticianry’s certification.)

Becoming licensed is typically a lot of work (not to mention some money) but it does help opticians keep up with the current research on eyes and eyewear. “[One] class that I attended was a two-hour course about vision therapy, and how a lot of what we’ve known about and practiced with regards to amblyopia—which people call a 'lazy eye'—is entirely incorrect,” Shuval explains. The class had a profound impact on her practice. “My whole world shifted upside down over the course of this two-hour class. [Amblyopia] is super reversible if you have the right information. That’s amazing.”

3. Many patients have unrealistic expectations of opticians …

Patients aren’t always realistic about how much eyewear will cost and what is available. One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to Shuval, is assuming that all glasses and contacts are the same, when in fact, lens types, coatings, and other adjustments make a huge difference in how you see. They often suffer from sticker shock, too.

“I’m here to help my patients see and look better,” Shuval says, but customers don’t always appreciate how big of a purchase new glasses can be. “It can be a really angry conversation because people are like, ‘Why are you charging $600 for glasses?’” Aside from the fact that you’re probably going to wear those glasses all day, every day for a year or more, that price seems a lot more reasonable when you remember that every pair of glasses is a custom, FDA-regulated medical device. “What people really don’t realize about eyewear is 100 percent of glasses made are custom-made,” she adds. “No two pairs that I make are alike.”

Furthermore, as patients get older and start to need bifocals, they often don’t understand the limits of modern optical technology. “People just want to put on glasses and say, ‘Oh my god, I can see,’” Shuval describes. But adjusting to a new pair of glasses can take weeks. Your brain gets used to compensating for certain vision deficiencies, and you have to get used to a new prescription. And in some cases, lens technology still isn’t good enough to replicate the natural abilities of the eye. When it comes to technology like progressive bifocals, patients actually need to be taught how to use the lens, for instance.

4. … Especially when it comes to contact lenses.

Alexander says many patients get upset when they’re told that their prescription for contact lenses will expire after a year, and that they’ll have to come back into the office in order to get a new one. “What patients don’t consider is that you are putting a medical device into your face,” he says, “and if they’re not properly managed it can lead to serious complications—it can lead to infections and ulcers and corneal issues.” Patients don’t necessarily understand that they're paying for vital preventative care: “It’s a medical device in an incredibly sensitive part of your body," he explains.

5. Opticians are obsessive about fit.

Adam Bentley, an Optical Field Leader at Warby Parker based in San Francisco, says his biggest pet peeve as an optician doesn’t occur in the office—it’s when he sees crooked eyewear around town. “I’ve often found myself looking at a crooked pair of glasses on the subway [and] wishing I could walk up and fix them,” he admits.

6. Opticians often choose which frames their stores carry.

In private practices, the optician might be responsible for more than just showing customers the latest glasses. They might also be the one determining what frames the shop offers. “I personally am the frame buyer for my store,” Shuval explains. That means she can answer a whole host of questions for customers beyond the realm of fit or function, including queries about where the glasses are made. That has become increasingly important as more and more customers become aware of the eyewear monopolies. Luxottica, an Italian frame company, makes an estimated 25 percent of the frames in the world, while Essilor, a lens company based in France, makes an estimated 45 percent of prescription lenses. Many blame the corporations' vast reach for driving the price of glasses up to artificially high rates. (The two corporations also merged in 2018.)

But Shuval says that buying glasses from shops like Warby Parker isn't the only way to escape the EssilorLuxottica monopoly. “I seek out the small companies [that make frames] and I can tell you about all the designers and factories where they’re made, because that’s important to me,” she says.

7. Many private opticians aren’t fans of online retailers.

In fact, despite the accessible price points, neither Shuval nor Alexander expressed much enthusiasm for the idea of buying glasses online. The main issue is that being fitted for glasses isn’t only a matter of finding a frame that won’t fall off your face. Online shopping can offer very inexpensive options, as Shuval explains, and “sometimes they’re good options for people, but it’s [about] making sure that custom medical device that’s sitting on your face all day is actually going to be helpful.”

One of the roadblocks patients run into while shopping for glasses online has to do with measuring the position of their pupils. Opticians measure your eyes to make sure that the centers of your lenses are positioned exactly over your pupils. While patients can try their best to measure this at home on their own, it’s not the same as having it measured in an office by a professional.

Almost any online glasses shop is going to ask for your pupillary distance (PD), which is the horizontal distance between your eyes. You might be asked for your binocular pupillary distance, which is the distance between your two pupils, or the monocular distance, which is the distance from the bridge of your nose to your pupil—expressed in two different measurements, since faces aren’t always symmetrical. However, those measurements aren't everything. “In order to make a really good lens you need more information than that,” Shuval says.

In fact, there is a secondary measurement that most online shops don’t ask about—the vertical measurement, known as the ocular center height. “[The] ocular center is a top-to-bottom measurement for the patient, and that can’t be measured until you have the frame,” Alexander explains. “If you don’t know where their eye sits in a given frame before the lenses are made, then while the optical center might be aligned left to right, it’s not going to be aligned top to bottom.”

If your lenses aren’t positioned over your pupils correctly, you won’t see as well, and the eye strain can cause headaches and other discomfort. Lenses that don’t fit you right might make you feel nauseous, affect your depth perception, and more.

While you can get your ocular center measured by an optician at a Warby Parker retail store, buying glasses from Warby Parker’s online shop doesn’t require ocular height, just pupillary distance. In response to questions about this policy, Warby Parker provided the following statement: “A common misconception is that this measurement is required for all orders, when in fact it’s not … For online orders, we’ve developed tools and proprietary technology that allows us to help predict this type of measurement based on previous customer data. We also have in-house opticians to help online customers in the event that customers need extra assistance.”

8. Opticians love to answer questions …

“I love when patients come and ask me, 'Is there any cool new technology we should be looking at?’” Shuval says. Opticians are experts in their field and spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the latest technological updates in eyewear. Most love to share that knowledge. “We like getting to explain stuff,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important for people to be educated consumers.”

9. … Except for one particular question.

Glasses are so personalized and there are so many possible options that it’s impossible to quote someone a single price tag, but that doesn’t stop patients from asking. “One of the more common questions that I used to get as an optician [that used to] drive me crazy,” Alexander explains, “would be, ‘How much are glasses?’ And it would be through gritted teeth that I answered, ‘Well, it depends on the frame that you choose and the lenses you need.’ But it’s a question that never made any sense to me because you’d never call up a car dealer and say, ‘How much is a car?’”

10. They'll gladly fix your glasses ... if you're a patient.

If you buy your glasses from an optician, adjusting and servicing those frames (for example, if they need to be straightened or have a screw replaced) is usually part of the initial cost. However, if you’re not a patient or bought your glasses online, you shouldn’t expect to get free repairs from the office.

“When an office charges for an optician's time or replacement of parts patients will get up in arms about it,” Alexander says. “If it’s somebody who wasn’t a customer of ours and has not taken care of their eyewear, to come in and get upset at being charged for a service we’re providing is always very frustrating for me.” That said, he says he would never charge one of his longtime patients for repairs.

But if you do need to get your glasses serviced and you're not already a patient, any charges will likely be minimal—at most, he says, you’ll probably need to pay $10 or so. So don’t be afraid to walk into your local optician’s office and ask. Just don’t get too snarky when they ask you to break out your wallet.

11. They don’t always follow their own advice.

“I clean my glasses with my shirt or whatever is lying around,” one anonymous optician tells Mental Floss. “It's a big optician ‘no, no.’” If you really want to take care of your specs, you’ll clean them with a microfiber cloth and lens spray instead, and always keep them safely tucked away in their case when you aren’t wearing them.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”