© 2016 Elsevier Ltd How the lens ages successfully is a lesson in biological adaption and the emergent properties of its complement of cells and proteins. This living tissue contains some of the oldest proteins in our bodies and yet they remain functional for decades, despite exposure to UV light, to reactive oxygen species and all the other hazards to protein function. This remarkable feat is achieved by a shrewd investment in very stable proteins as lens crystallins, by providing a reservoir of ATP-independent protein chaperones unequalled by any other tissue and by an oxidation-resistant environment. In addition, glutathione, a free radical scavenger, is present in mM concentrations and the plasma membranes contain oxidation-resistant sphingolipids what compromises lens function as it ages? In this review, we examine the role of small molecules in the prevention or causation of cataracts, including those associated with diet, metabolic pathways and drug therapy (steroids).