Can This Ancient Treatment Cure Dry Eyes?

While the term "ayurveda" might be unfamiliar, there isn't a category of beauty that the ancient Indian practice hasn't influenced. From treatments like oil pulling and body brushing to star ingredients like turmeric and ashwagandha, everything seems to have a storied past. (Oh, and did we mention celebs go crazy for the time-honoured rituals?) There's one remedy, however, that likely still feels pretty foreign to most — and it's not for the faint of heart. Enter: Netra basti, a simple procedure that uses clarified butter to soothe a very common eye issue.
The Mayo Clinic estimates that three million Americans deal with dry eyes — an annoying condition that makes simple things like reading, writing, and driving uncomfortable. One of those people is Taylor Smith, a video producer here at Refinery29. After finding limited answers at her own eye doctor, she sought out netra basti, which uses wheat dough and ghee (butter that's been clarified by heating and removing the milk solids, so it's more of an oil) to naturally moisturise the eyes.
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We know what you're thinking: Does that work? And more importantly, is it safe? While Martin Fox, MD, a surgeon specialising in cornea and refractive surgery at his practice in New York, utilises Western philosophies and cutting edge procedures, he sees the value in the ancient practice. "The use of ghee, with its high concentration of saturated as well as unsaturated fats, is likely beneficial in the treatment of dry eye conditions related to a deficient tear film lipid layer," he says. For the record, the "tear film lipid layer" is the outer film of the eye that keeps vision clear, guards against disease, prevents water evaporation, and more good stuff. "If the level of tear lipids diminishes or changes in composition, it can generate the symptoms of dry eye syndrome, which is characterised by a burning sensation," he adds.
Dry eye can also be caused by a variety of other things, according to Kambiz Silani, OD, a Los Angeles-based optometrist with an A-list clientele (just Justin Bieber, no big deal). It could be inflammation, medications you're taking (birth control, blood pressure medicine, and allergy meds), health conditions (like autoimmune conditions), contact lens overwear, improper application or removal of makeup, heavy computer use, or low humidity. The first step in treating dry eye is getting to the root of the issue. "Dry eye testing should be performed in symptomatic patients to determine the exact cause of dryness as well as to integrate the proper, customised treatment plan," says Silani.
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As for the netra basti treatment, he's a bit skeptical on the safety of the practice. "My concern with the ghee is the potential to clog the meibomian glands (oil glands) in the eyelids," Silani explains. It could also backfire because clogged glands could also lead to dry eyes.
With this information in mind, Smith still decided to go for it. But if opening your eyes under a pool of clarified butter seems intimidating, well, you're right. She admits she was nervous ahead of her appointment, but she trusted Kari Jansen, an experienced ayurvedic practitioner and owner of herbal body line Poppy & Someday. Jansen studied at The Ayurvedic Institute of America then spent a month in India learning about netra basti firsthand — having an authentic experience that is respectful to Indian culture was also very important for Smith.
For those who find this intriguing, but aren't quite ready to try it, you can follow Jansen's final advice to combat dry eyes: a little castor oil pressed into your tear duct with a clean finger. Of course, we asked Dr. Silani for his take on this, too. "Castor oil has been shown to positively modify the tear film lipid layer and increase tear film stability and tear quality," he says. "This may help alleviate some ocular surface symptoms or eye-related symptoms."
If you want to know more about the ayurvedic ritual, press play above to watch Smith's entire netra basti visit and see how Smith's eyes are feeling a week later.
As always, consult your own eye doctor before trying any treatment for a medical condition, including dry eyes, and always do your due diligence when picking an ayurvedic practitioner.
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