Within that tiny tube is a half water, half oil mixture. However, unlike other standard emulsions like, say, salad dressing, the water portion contains various film-forming polymers such as polyvinylpyrrolidone (aka PVP), acrylates copolymer or methacrylate polymers. While the oil part has emulsifiers and texturizing agents, including waxes such as carnauba and ozokerite, which provide stay-put properties.
It’s when you factor in fringe benefits to this bare-bones concoction—and the flair that’s really going to get you to fall in love with your lashes—that things get complicated.
Check out our ingredient glossary to brush up on common label lingo so you can stop lashing out over formulas that don’t make your lashes darker, fuller and shinier ever after.
What exactly is in an innocent-looking little tube of mascara? We break down the science so you can discover lash bliss by knowing which ingredients are guaranteed to make all your mascara dreams a reality.
FEATURE: Carbon-black color
INGREDIENT: “Carbon black is pure, elemental carbon, which comes from the burning of organic matter, like hydrocarbon oils,” says James Hammer, a cosmetic chemist at Mix Solutions in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. It’s what gives mascara a kohl-like finish.
Typically iron oxides, which are inorganic, chemical compounds formed from the reaction between iron metal and oxygen (like rust) are used to color cosmetics (as well as paints and concrete), but they create more subdued earth tones like red, brown and plain old black.
RESULT: Jet-black, Sharpie-like dyed lashes
FEATURE: Lash-lengthening fibers
INGREDIENT: Legit micro-fibers typically made of nylon or cellulose (a polysaccharide polymer that provides structure for plant cells) attach to each other. This allows them to build up between, as well as on, the ends of lashes, creating a web and extension-like effect.
RESULT: Extra volume and length
FEATURE: Shiny finish
INGREDIENTS: Pearl, mica or (eek!) glass is shrunk down to sci-fi-like tininess. “As long as they’re shaped properly, it’s not likely they’ll be a source of irritation,” says Hammer. But what about actual glass near your eye?
“I always thought it to be sort of urban legend in mascara formulation,” he says. “If it is in there, the particles would have to be very small, fine and smooth.” Hammer notes that, in all the products he’s seen, it’s not actual glass that’s in mascara but fumed silica—a fluffy form of silicon dioxide, the chemical which makes up glass—since it thickens emulsions and prevents clumping.
RESULT: Super glossy finish
INGREDIENT: Panthenol (a provitamin of B5) isn’t only good when it’s dropped into your fave smoothing shampoo and conditioner. “Eyelashes and scalp hair are really not that different in composition”—they’re mostly protein—“so they benefit from the same types of moisturizers,” notes Hammer.
RESULT: Strong, healthy lashes
INGREDIENT: Acrylic copolymer, which belongs to the plastic family. Instead of the traditional mix of oils and waxes, tubing formulas use this rubbery polymer that acts as an excellent film former.
The thin tubes cocoon lashes (instead of adhering to hairs directly like standard versions), and then need to be saturated in water and gently “pulled” off because they’re water-soluble.
RESULT: Zero smudges
TRY: Blinc Mascara, $25.
FEATURE: Natural formula
INGREDIENT: Rice proteins and tapioca starch (a thickening agent often used in cooking) typically replace the synthetic polymers usually found in classic mascaras.
“These natural ingredients are capable of producing resilient films on the lashes, similar to, but not quite as durable as, the films produced by synthetic polymers,” explains Hammer.
RESULT: Fewer chemicals
FEATURE: Reparative formula
INGREDIENT: The same way clay masks are good for your skin, powders and clay-type ingredients are particularly effective oil-absorbers because they have a lot of surface area.
“By absorbing excess oils near the lash line, they help mascara to bond to the lashes more completely, helping with overall adhesion, and preventing smearing and smudging,” explains Hammer.
RESULT: No sign of raccoon eyes
TRY: Tarte Gifted Amazonian Clay Smart Mascara, $19.
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