The Science of Mascara

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.

1FEATURE: 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.

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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

TRY: M.A.C. False Lashes Extreme Black Mascara, $19; Hourglass Film Noir Lash Lacquer, $28.

2FEATURE: 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.

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RESULT: Extra volume and length

TRY: Estee Lauder Sumptuous Extreme Lash Multiplying Volume Mascara, $23.50; , $8.95; Avon Supershock Max Mascara, $9.

3FEATURE: 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?

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“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

TRY: Guerlain Noir G Mascara, $49; Dior Diorshow New Look Mascara, $28.50 (available February 2012—can’t wait? Try Dior Diorshow Extase Mascara, $28).

4FEATURE: Conditioning

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.

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RESULT: Strong, healthy lashes

TRY: Flirt! Agent Lash Mascara, $16 (available February 2012); Urban Decay Lush Lash Mascara, $20; Rimmel Extra Wow Lash Mascara, $3.99.


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.

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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.


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.

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“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

TRY: CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara, $8.49; Physician’s Formula Organic Wear 100% Natural Origin Jumbo Lash Mascara, $9.95.

7FEATURE: 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.

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“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.