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Eye and ear care still driven by pandemic-related trends

Consumers are seeking products that offer relief from allergies, eye strain and the effects of too many hours with ear buds as they return to the office, school and their travel plans.
Nora Caley

People are emerging from the COVID-19 crisis with itchy eyes and clogged ears. They’re also increasingly interested in self-care, and those factors are driving sales in eye and ear care products. As people return to work, school and travel, they are looking for products that offer relief from allergies, eye strain and the effects of too many hours with ear buds. 

According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, sales of eye and lens care solutions in total U.S. multi-outlet (grocery, drug, mass market, military, and select club and dollar stores) increased 12.6% to $1.97 billion for the 52 weeks ending March 20, 2022, compared with the same period the previous year. The category fluctuated during the pandemic, as people stayed home and stared at screens initially, then ventured outside and faced the world and its various irritants. 

About 40% of the U.S. population lives with ocular conjunctivitis due to seasonal and year-round allergens. — Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information

“The eye allergy itch relief category continues to grow as consumers seek fast-acting relief that works all day to relieve ocular allergy itching,” said Ramin Valian, vice president of U.S. Eye Care at Allergan, an AbbVie company. In fact, Valian said, citing figures from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, about 40% of the U.S. population lives with ocular conjunctivitis due to seasonal and year-round allergens. 

Allergan, which is based in Dublin, Ireland and has U.S. headquarters in Madison, N.J., received FDA approval for an Rx-to-OTC switch for the original patented prescription-strength formulation of Lastacaft antihistamine eye drops. The company said one drop of Lastacaft works in as little as three minutes and lasts 16 hours to relieve itchy eyes due to pollen, ragweed, grass, animal hair and dander. 

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It’s not just allergens that are driving sales. As people look at their computers and smartphones, they are not blinking the usual 20 times per minute. “We blink less completely, often reducing our blink rate by half, which may cause eye dryness,” Valian said. In 2021, Allergan introduced Refresh Digital, designed to act fast to relieve mild-to-moderate symptoms of eye dryness that may result from digital device use. 

Retailers adapt to trends  

People are not putting up with eye strain. “The pandemic has made self-care an even more important part of health care for consumers,” Valian said. “Over-the-counter products are being turned to for treatment.” As foot traffic returns to many retail outlets, some stores are offering a more personalized experience by recommending products and deals that resonate with consumers. 

Shoppers want the eye care section to be easy to shop. Rohto, a Mentholatum brand, is working with retailers to streamline the purchasing process. In one initiative, the brand partnered with a chain to set up a screen in aisle, where shoppers can answer questions about symptoms to determine which product they need. “We are leaning on one another with this data to figure out how to make the user experience amazing for consumers, whether in store, online or pickup,” said Allison Sanders, senior brand manager of Rohto Cooling Eye Drops. The Horsham, Pa.-based Rohto offers several formulations, including Rohto Digi Eye and Rohto Optic Glow. 

Manufacturers competing for limited shelf space are developing innovative products. Rohto, which is the top-selling eye drop brand in Japan and globally, launched Rohto Digi Eye before the pandemic. “Digital eye strain and screen time were not top of mind to most,” Sanders said. “When COVID happened, people were on multiple devices, binge-watching their favorite shows, and people started to recognize, my eyes are red, my eyes are dry.” 

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Purchasing behavior changed. Early in the pandemic, shoppers made tough decisions about what to buy. They didn’t perceive eye care products as a necessity unless their healthcare professional told them they needed a particular product. Routine items, such as drops to relieve red eye, weren’t in demand. “People weren’t going out, they weren’t partying, they weren’t participating in pre-pandemic activities,” Sanders said. “Redness-relieving eye products took a huge hit.” 

The need for red eye relief products has returned, as has the demand for natural products. In a March blog post, the research firm SPINS noted that sales of natural products grew 4% over the past year, compared to conventional products, which grew 0.6%. 

“The last two years have conditioned consumers to look to their pharmacy as a primary resource for care.” — Marsha Garcia, president, Doctor Easy Medical Products

Manufacturers are noticing the trend. “Specifically, consumers are looking for natural alternatives that can help maintain or improve overall health without the use of harsh chemicals or hidden ingredients,” said Susan Hanson, COO of Reno, Nev.-based The Relief Products. “For this reason, homeopathic products are appealing to an increasingly larger demographic based on three main factors: safety, effectiveness and the use of natural active ingredients.”

Another trend, Hanson said, is a renewed focus on personal accountability when it comes to health and wellness. A recent survey of more than 5,000 natural products by Social Nature, a website that helps consumers find natural and sustainable products, found that 44% of participants are now taking more preventative health measures than they were a year ago, and 45% of respondents said they will keep buying healthier products in the future. Hanson noted that a new generation of consumers are knowledgeable about health and wellness, are seeking minimal ingredients and greater product transparency, and are looking to address their health needs from the comfort of their homes. 

Preservative-free is another significant feature in eye care. “Preservative-free drops are very important in the dry eye symptom category,” said Joe Gordon, U.S. president of Bausch + Lomb. “They can reduce the risk of irritation associated with preservatives.” The Somerset, N.J.-based company makes Bausch + Lomb Biotrue Hydration Boost Lubricant eye drops that are preservative free and offer instant moisture. The multidose system bottle is designed to allow zero air from getting back into the drops inside. 

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Another driver of the need for red eye relief, Gordon said, is that people are traveling again. The World Travel & Tourism Council projected that travel and tourism in the United States will exceed pre-pandemic levels in 2022. “This means an increase in the potential of eye dryness and discomfort that comes with traveling,” he said. “For those who wear contact lenses, the symptoms of dry eyes can be further exacerbated by recycled air in office buildings and airplanes.” Bausch + Lomb Biotrue Hydration Boost Lubricant eye drops are also contact lens-friendly. 

Getting relief from red eyes is not only about comfort but also appearance, especially as people trade their video chats for in-person meetings and social activities. “Consumers — especially millennials — are seeking out options to have their eyes look their best, resulting in a blurring of the lines between beauty and health within eye care,” Gordon said. For its part, Bausch + Lomb continues to explore new options for those who want healthier, more beautiful-looking eyes.

Listening carefully 

Millennials and other age groups are not just watching their screens, but also listening to content, often through earbuds or headphones. Many workers are still attending virtual meetings, and wearing ear plugs to quiet their surroundings while working from home. That has resulted in some earwax impaction, and consumers seek relief through OTC products. Also according to IRI, sales of ear care products for the 52 weeks ending March 20, 2022 totaled $181.2 million, an increase of 18.8% compared with the same period the previous year. 

Many self-care focused consumers visited their retailers instead of healthcare providers’ offices during the pandemic. “The last two years have conditioned consumers to look to their pharmacy as a primary resource for care,” said Marsha Garcia, president of Orange Park, Fla.-based Doctor Easy Medical Products. “Retailers can build upon that closer relationship with consumers by better adapting to their desire for self-care in all categories, including ear.”

 Doctor Easy, which makes WaxRx Ear Wash systems, offers home-use kits and professional-use kits. Earwax impaction is an all-ages issue. Pediatricians are a huge market for the brand’s Elephant Ear Washer and other products, and the aging population is a big audience too. “There are eight recognized causes of hearing loss, and earwax buildup is one,” Garcia said. Also, people who use hearing aids are buying the products because earwax is the No. 1 killer of the devices.

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There are opportunities for retailers to add effective self-care solutions, Garcia said, to empower their customers to avoid doctor visits. The growth in ear treatment sales reflects consumers’ increased reliance on drug stores for effective treatments to ear problems. “Consumers will respond when retailers offer innovative, effective solutions to their health needs,” she said. 

The use of earbuds and headphones, and the focus on self-care, are not going away. “Consumer interest in the ear care category has exploded since the start of the pandemic,” said Lauri Gosline, category development manager at Quest Products, based in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. “Total households shopping in ear care has increased from 8.1% during the start of the pandemic to 11.8% post-pandemic, with growth coming from both online and in brick-and-mortar.” 

Quest makes the Clinere line of ear care cleaning tools and kits, and the company found that 37% of Clinere users use headphones regularly or often, and an additional 33% use these occasionally. Retailers have added innovative products to their assortments, so the opportunity now is for the stores to educate consumers. “We recently learned that while many consumers are beginning their research online or getting recommendations from doctors or friends and family, consumers are still going to the shelf to look for solutions,” Gosline said. “Fifty-five percent of Clinere users learned about Clinere at the shelf.” 

Retailers’ ear care sections should include both ear drops and tools, Gosline said, as consumers use the drops to soften their earwax, then use a tool like Clinere to remove the softened wax from their ear. “The key to retailer success is dedicating the right amount of space to support the increase in new shoppers and household penetration, and that they are making the segment easy to navigate and shop.” 

Another way to make the segment easy to shop is to take an omnichannel approach. “While in-person shopping for immediate product needs has seen a resurgence, online sales, subscription options and click-and-collect fulfillment are convenience options that consumers expect and increasingly leverage,” said Les Hamilton, chief revenue officer at Los Angeles-based Hyland’s Naturals.

Retailers and brands are broadening their advertising strategies to include digital marketing. Hamilton also noted that there has been an increase in retailers and brands leveraging social media advertising, especially on TikTok and Instagram. They are also collaborating with influencers to promote products and direct consumers to specific retailers for purchase.

Product picks

Rohto Sun&Sport Lubricant Eye Drops (Coming in July 2022) 
Sun&Sport helps to protect eyes against the wind and sun, as well as prevent eyes from further irritation. Its defense against the sun comes from its Cornea Protection Formula, and its lubricant helps to keep eyes hydrated. It is also BAK free. The eye drops offer cooling, soothing comfort. 

Rohto Digi Eye, SRP: $11.49 
Rohto Digi Eye helps relieve symptoms of digital eye strain. Its redness-relieving, lubricating formula is boosted with an instant cooling sensation that helps soothe eyes for up to eight hours. The pink color comes from vitamin B12.

Rohto Optic Glow, SRP: $13.99
This formula is packed with maximum-strength redness relief, dual lubricants for added hydration and HydroGlow Technology to help improve the health of the corneal surface. It’s BAK free and soothes eyes for up to eight hours. 

Clinere Carbamide Peroxide Kit, SRP: $7.99 
This method for loosening earwax includes carbamide peroxide drops and Clinere Ear Cleaners. The Clinere Carbamide Peroxide Earwax Removal Kit works by softening and loosening earwax. When drops are placed in the ear, the carbamide peroxide will release oxygen, which will begin to foam, breaking down the earwax. Once broken down, earwax can be removed using the Clinere Ear Cleaner tool. 

The Relief Products Dryness Relief, SRP: $10.99
TRP’s homeopathic eye drop is formulated to naturally moisten dry, irritated eyes. Dryness Relief uses 100% natural active ingredients to temporarily relieve symptoms including extreme dryness, redness, lack of tears and achy eyes. Dryness Relief is safe and gentle to use with no known side effects or interactions with other medications or contraindications.

Allergan Lastacaft, SRP: $18.96 to $21.33 for the 5 ml 60-day supply
One drop of Lastacaft antihistamine eye drops works in as little as three minutes and lasts 16 hours to relieve itchy eyes due to pollen, ragweed, grass, animal hair and dander. Lastacaft is now available without a prescription at major retailers in store and online.

Hyland’s Naturals Dry Ear Relief Oil, SRP: $12.99
Consumers are not going to give up their earbuds and headphones, so Hyland’s Naturals developed Hyland’s Dry Ear Relief Oil, a product designed to address the need for ear itch relief with fast, effective and natural relief. Hyland’s products have no artificial flavors or dyes and are cruelty free and allergen free. 

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