For many of us, mascara is a makeup bag essential, yet have you ever stopped to consider what mascara actually does and how it works?
There are thousands of brands, wands and variations – each with their own marketing claims – meaning it can be confusing to know what the best mascara is for you and your lashes, budget or occasion.
To help cut through this confusion, we’ve explained the basics of mascara below – from what is mascara made of to how mascara works.
The first-ever mascara, as we now know it, was invented by Maybelline in 1872 using a combination of Vaseline and charcoal. These days, the ingredients involved in making a mascara are more complicated than rubbing charcoal in Vaseline, but the general recipe for mascara is relatively simple.
Most mascaras include a pigment, a polymer, a thickening agent and a preservative and the aim of mascara is to darken, lengthen and thicken your eyelashes.
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The pigment is used to give your eyelashes colour, usually black or dark brown, but other colours of mascara do exist. Pigments tend to be carbon black or iron oxides if there are brown pigments. Carbon black is a pure form of carbon in a powder or pellet, and it is manufactured in labs using incomplete combustion of fuel.
The role of the polymer is to coat each lash and give them a stiffer consistency, while also making them longer, it’s what makes mascaras sticky. These tend to be ceresin, gum tragacanthin, or methyl cellulose which are plant-based polymers that attach to each other and to your lashes.
The thickening agents, that give your lashes more volume, tend to be waxes or oils, like beeswax, paraffin, carnauba, palm wax or sesame, eucalyptus, or other oils.
Then you have the option of going for a waterproof or a non-waterproof mascara.
Waterproof mascaras are hydrophobic, meaning they repel water and do not dissolve in it, while non-waterproof mascaras are the opposite, they attract water and readily dissolve.
Oil is incredibly hydrophobic, so most waterproof mascaras will contain a large proportion of wax or oil compared to water-based products in those that are not.
Another important part of mascara is not what mascara is made of, but how it’s applied, which is where the shape of the wand comes in. We’ve explained this step-by-step guide in more detail in our how to apply mascara like a pro guide, written by our resident makeup artist, and we’ve summarised it below.
There are three main wand shapes in most mascaras, classic, tapered and curved, then you’ve got the thin, classic wand for length versus the thick wands, typically marketed because they apply a bigger volume of mascara to each lash, making them appear thicker.
The type of brush or wand you use is crucial to making sure whichever mascara you use is applied evenly and coats your lashes properly.
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Depending on whether your priority is to make your eyelashes longer, darker or thicker, or just a bit of all three, you should consider the type of brush best suited to your needs. Generally speaking:
To get the desired combination of lift, length and volume there are few mascaras that offer an all-in-one solution so you may find yourself needing to buy different types. Check out our best mascara list for help choosing.
We should also mention eyelash primers. These are similar to mascara in the sense they lengthen and thicken your eyelashes, but they don’t contain the same pigment as mascara.
Most eyelash primers are white and act as a base upon which to put your pigmented mascara.
Yes, you could just put multiple coats of normal mascara on, but you run the risk of clumping. Lash primers also tend to have longer, more comb-like wands that separate your lashes, making them ready for mascara, which may negate the need to buy two separate mascaras.
Buy a primer that lifts and a mascara that lengthens, for example. Our favourite eyelash primer is Lancome’s Cils Booster XL. It’s not cheap but not only does it fantastically prime the lashes ready for mascara, but it also contains vitamins to condition your lashes to keep them healthy and long.
Abigail is a leading science journalist writing about space, sustainability, technology and culture. She is author of The Art of Urban Astronomy, a must-have guide to the night sky that guides you through the seasons and learn about the brightest stars and constellations, the myths and legends of astronomy and how to identify star clusters and galaxies.