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How to Choose the Right Mascara

Updated on November 20, 2012
Image © Redberry Sky, 2012
Image © Redberry Sky, 2012

Choosing a mascara isn’t as bewildering as the huge array of plumping, curling, lengthening, primping and volumizing products would have you believe.

In fact, there are just four factors: colour, applicator size and shape, your sensitivity to eye make up, and cost.

Why does nothing else matter? And why are these four things important? Because despite the claims, all mascaras do the same basic job – they coat your lashes with colour in order to highlight them and frame your sparkling orbs. It’s the technique and applicator shape that matters – not the liquid inside the bottle.

The four factors that do matter are slightly more complicated.

# Factor 1: Colour

If your lashes are naturally dark, the chances are that they aren’t a beautiful deep and even colour all over. Tips are normally much paler, which makes them look shorter than they really are. If you have dark hair and dark eyebrows, then Black Mascara is probably the best choice for you.

If you have blonde or red hair and eyebrows, and lighter eyelashes, Brown Mascara might look better on you, especially if you have a very pale complexion, since black can be draining and can make you look tired and wan.

For a bit of zazzle, you might want to match your mascara to your eye colour and go for Blue or Green mascaras or a Dark/Light Brown that closely complements your eyes, which can really make your eyes sparkle when you team it up with matching shadow and kohl.

Glitter Mascara isn’t my cup of tea, because in the wrong light it will look as if you just rolled out of bed and still have ‘sand’ in your eyes, but if you want something special and you’re going to a black-light nightclub, it can add a real wow-factor to your make up.

# Factor 2: Applicator Size and Shape

Slim applicator brushes create Length because they hold less mascara, and coat the lashes with a small amount smoothly and evenly all over from root to tip. Thick applicator brushes hold more, which means more mascara goes on the lashes and creates the illusion of Thicker, Volumized lashes.

The problem is that if you have sparse lashes, nothing but fake ones will give more, and if you have short ones, nothing will really lengthen them. Applying a lot of mascara with a thick applicator will cause clumping no matter how expensive and good it is, whereas using a slim mascara wand and scraping off the excess before you apply will give you elegantly defined and evenly-coated lashes.

Picture 1: The three parts to 'Rimmel Glam Eyes mascara: the applicator brush; the tube, and the bottle. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.
Picture 1: The three parts to 'Rimmel Glam Eyes mascara: the applicator brush; the tube, and the bottle. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.
Picture 2: The Applicator being pulled through the tube, scraping off most of the mascara liquid. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.
Picture 2: The Applicator being pulled through the tube, scraping off most of the mascara liquid. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.
Picture 3: Look at the amount of gunk that's scraped off on the end of the tube as I pull the brush through. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.
Picture 3: Look at the amount of gunk that's scraped off on the end of the tube as I pull the brush through. Photo © Redberry Sky, 2012.

The Power of the Mascara Applicator - An Example

Don’t believe the trick is that simple? Rimmel do a mascara called Glam Eyes: Day 2 Night which, if you unscrew cap 1, it promises Length, and if you unscrew cap 2, it promises Volume. So how does this ‘Magic Cap’ work?

Well, it actually uses the same applicator and mascara in both cases. The mascara comes in three pieces – see Picture 1 on the right. There’s the mascara applicator brush, a tube, and the mascara bottle itself.

Undoing the ‘volumizing’ cap leaves the tube in place, and the applicator comes out filled with mascara (close-up it looks chock-a-block with it and really unsightly). Using the other cap pulls the applicator brush through the small tube, and scrapes off most of the mascara, so that I’m just coating my lashes with a little colour.

Pictures 2 and 3 on the right show the applicator being pulled through the tube – look at the amount of gunk it scrapes off – there’s no way I want that much mascara glooping up my lashes!

So if you unscrew part 1 of the Rimmel ‘Magic Cap’, you get an overfull applicator and according to Rimmel this gives you ‘volume’ (thicker-looking lashes) but if you choose part 2, it scrapes most of the mascara off the brush, and according to Rimmel this gives you ‘length’.

# Factor 3: Sensitivity to Eye Make Up

If you have sensitive eyes, this might be the only factor that really matters to you. Getting a good hypoallergenic mascara is the best bet (although these don’t help everyone) – look to see that the brand has tested the product both dermatologically and ophthalmologically.

# Factor 4: Cost

As a general rule (and maybe an obvious one), top-of-the-range mascaras are longer-lasting, don’t flake, have better waterproof qualities, and are smoother than budget brands. Testing (hypoallergenic, dermatological, ophthalmological) is more extensive, and ingredients are of higher quality.

MAC, Clinique, Clarins, Lancôme, Urban Decay, and many others have a high reputation – and a price tag to match. But unless your eyes are very sensitive (or you’re rich!), you might balk at spending so much money on something that has to be replaced four times a year.

Four times a year? Yes. Once you break the seal on that new mascara, it is meant to last only three months – partly because once it comes into contact with air it starts to slowly congeal and become less fluid and more clumpy, and partly for hygiene reasons because the sticky liquid collects dust and other impurities that could cause an eye infection. Whilst I’m not a big fan of the use-by dates on things like face-powder, and will happily keep using one for many months or even years, I won’t risk it with mascara.

Good, reliable budget brands that I use or have used in the past are Rimmel, Maybelline, Elf, Barry M, Bourjois.

What’s the difference between a $30 mascara and a $5 one? This is actually hard to define. Packaging is the most immediate one – expensive brands tend to be sturdy, compact and chic, budget ones seem a little more brash and flimsy. But if that was the only difference I wouldn’t be willing to spend so much more money on them. They are all a thick, gloopy liquid, but for me at least, high-end ones seem to be much easier to apply, and seem to flake less. They also seem to care for my lashes more: when I wear a budget mascara, I always seem to find a lash or two coming out after a couple of hours, which I don’t notice happening with more expensive brands.

The applicator is another difference. Budget brands come with a wand that seems to be not as well-developed – it’s too thick, or too thin; the bristles are too sparse, or, worse, too packed together. A well-made applicator makes the tricky job of reaching every tiny lash easy, whereas some of the budget ones seem to be designed only to poke me in the eye. If you’re an expert make up whiz with a rock-steady hand, this might not matter, but for ordinary mortals like me it can be a huge plus to have an ergonomically designed mascara brush.

But expensive mascaras aren't necessarily or inherently better than budget ones, and simply checking out the customer reviews on sites like Amazon or customer review sites, and learning the techniques (and limitations) of applying mascara can unearth one that's perfect for you, and can save you a small fortune into the bargain.

So What Makes the Perfect Mascara?

For me there are only six things I consider when I'm choosing a mascara:

  • Hypoallergenic so I avoid that red-eyed look that makes people think I've been up all night crying.
  • Kind to skin (dermatologically tested) and eyes (ophthalmologically tested).
  • Comes in a colour that highlights and complements my colouring.
  • Has a well-designed applicator - for me this is long and slim with well-defined bristles to reach and coat every lash.
  • Waterproof and long-lasting – no flaking or smudging.
  • The various ‘qualities’ of a mascara (thickening, lengthening, curling) don’t matter so much as the technique used to apply it, and the shape of the applicator brush – get these right and your lashes will look good.


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    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 4 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Hi Red, I hope all is good with you. I agonise about which mascara to buy as I had eyelash extensions a year ago and my eyelashes were damaged and are only just recovering! The extensions looked fab but sadly knackered my own. I have false one's but i'm rubbish at putting them on and inevitably at some point in the evening, my eyelash will plop into someone's drink!

      I'm just trying to embrace my natural ones at the moment and love 'Benefit's They're real' it really makes your lashes look amazing! I also love Bourgois 'Coup de theatre' but they've discontinued it! I loved the primer, it really makes your lashes stand out. I'm using L'oreal 'double extension' at the moment which has the primer, it's pretty good too.

      The right mascara totally transforms your look. Voted up and shared!

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Hi Peanutritious - wow, that sounds awful for you, I hope it was only a cosmetic disaster and didn't cause you any pain! I'll have to try out the 'Benefit's' one you mention - I haven't heard of it before, but as you know, I'm always on the lookout for more make up to try!

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