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Perspective | Magazine

What your optometrist doesn’t want you to know

Your pupillary distance measurement is key to ordering eyeglasses online, but getting it can be a battle — and it shouldn’t be.

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Last year, I was in the optical shop at my eye doctor’s office buying my 7-year-old her first pair of glasses. The optician was measuring the distance between her pupils with his viewfinder-like device, and I asked him what her PD was. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “Don’t you dare order her glasses online.”

If you’ve never been called “four eyes,” you might not know that a PD is your pupillary distance and that it’s a very valuable number. The folks making your lenses need it to get them matched up properly with your eyes. If your PD is off, the “optical center” of your lenses will be, too, and your glasses won’t be as effective as they should be. You also need your prescription. Lots of optometrists will give you a copy of your prescription but not include your PD. That’s because they know that, armed with both, you can order your glasses online. And that hurts their bottom line.


But that’s their problem. And it should no longer be ours. At the optical shop that day, I kept my cool in front of my kid, but I was steaming. Clearly we were ordering a pair of glasses there. But I wanted that number because if my daughter broke or misplaced these purple cheetah-print beauties, I wasn’t going to shell out another $300 for a replacement pair. The optician grumbled her PD, then went on to say that he was fed up with people coming in with glasses they ordered online just to save a few bucks and asking him to fix them.

I’ve worn glasses since I was 2. I squint all day at my computer and struggle with fine print, even with my glasses on. I inherited my mom’s lazy eye, and it returns, to my husband’s great amusement, when I’m tired. When I was a kid, I had braces, freckles, and ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I’m a redhead with some crazy cowlicks. To say my awkward stage lasted longer than most is being kind. Add in the fact that it was the ’70s and my glasses were Coke-bottle thick, and you might understand why I wasn’t prom queen. I certainly did.


Also, my hard-working parents weren’t exactly worried about my being on-trend. If my prescription didn’t change, I could be stuck with the same tired pair of glasses for years. I had Strawberry Shortcake frames well into middle school. Cue the mean girls.

And then at a party a few years ago, a woman rocking a very bold pair of frames I admired told me she got them online for next to nothing. I swear that at that moment the clouds parted and angels began to sing, though maybe that was the punch. I could get fashionable glasses for less than $100? Free shipping? And I could return them hassle-free if I looked ridiculous? I was sold.

I did some research about online glasses and found that Warby Parker had good reviews and a home try-on service. I fell in love with the Finch, in Violet Magnolia, if you must know, and logged in to order them. Then I got to the part of the form where I had to enter my PD. I didn’t know it. The website noted I could upload a picture of myself holding a credit card under my nose and they could measure it that way. (I made sure the signature side was facing out.) I sent off that silly selfie and soon got confirmation that I was all set. A week later I had adorable new glasses, with high-index lenses even! I was used to spending $400 at the optical shop; these cost me just $125.


For the record, I saw no better or worse with my discount glasses than with those purchased through my optometrist. But I felt like a million bucks and had several hundred more in my wallet.

I’m not alone. I’ve talked to dozens of fellow four-eyes who want to buy online but haven’t worked up the nerve to ask for their PD, fearing a stern talking-to from their eye doctors. The doctors and their staffs are just as worked up, too. Search this topic online and you’ll turn up headlines like “Give me my damn pupillary distance!” as well as “Responding to a request for PD measurements: How to keep patients in-house, not online.”

But this has to stop. The Federal Trade Commission requires eye doctors across the country to give patients a copy of their prescription for free. But the rules about PD, where they exist, vary from state to state (some doctors even make patients pay a fee for the number). In Massachusetts, regulations require doctors to give you your PD at no charge — if you ask. It should be an automatic part of the process everywhere.


I recently had my annual eye exam. I love my optometrist, and I don’t hold him responsible for that off-putting optician. I worked up the courage to ask him what he thought of online retailers, and his answer secured me as a patient for life. In a somewhat hushed tone, he admitted he uses them himself. “For that money, you can’t go wrong.” Then he gave me my PD, no credit card needed.

Chris Morris is the Boston Globe’s travel editor. Follow her on Twitter @morrisglobe. Send comments to