Mascara is undeniably the magic wand of makeup. “It instantly enhances lashes, creating a wide-eyed, fresh appearance that can be completely personalized to look natural or dramatic,” says Gina Brooke, artistic director for Hourglass cosmetics in Los Angeles, who is responsible for getting celebrities such as Madonna and Anne Hathaway camera-ready.

QUIZ: What’s the best mascara for your lashes?

But it’s also one of those beauty staples that women go mad for, trying to land the perfect mascara that truly has the power to make all of their lash wishes come true. Some crave length while others dream of lift, curl, darkening, definition and volume in a single swipe. And everyone can relate to the never-ending story of mascara trial and error: buying a new mascara that you hope will be your very own mascara-in-shining armor, only to be left disappointed and immediately tossing it into a seemingly black hole of a drawer.

Don’t give up just yet. The truth is, there’s a basic story that mascaras follow.

“Most mascara formulas are usually pretty similar to each other,” says James Hammer, a cosmetic chemist at Mix Solutions in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. “They’re essentially emulsions which contain pigment, oils and waxes.” (Chemistry 101: an emulsion is when two normally unmixable liquids are put together.)

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.

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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.