What’s in Your Mascara?

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Photo: Florent Tanet

Eyelashes have the impressive ability to transform your face. The Everything Guide to Eyelashes is a week of stories on the Cut about lashes, from all the mascaras we’ve obsessively tested to our personal feelings about why eyelashes matter.

How many people does it take to create something black that goes on your lashes? Hundreds. Your “perfect” mascara is the result of multiple Ph.D.s, advanced chemistry courses, and industrial engineering degrees. At big beauty companies like L’Oréal Paris, Maybelline, and CoverGirl, there are multiple mascara brain trusts so specialized they can spend years working on selecting, testing, and fine-tuning just one part of a mascara. “There’s a team of people in Paris who work on just mascara brushes,” says Orrea Light, L’Oréal Paris vice=president of global marketing beauty innovation and acceleration.

A Ferrari sports car is made up of 30,000 parts. An award-winning mascara is made up of just three. But each of these parts contains hundreds of options, which, multiplied like a math combination problem, means hundreds of thousands of possible permutations (and now you know how so many mascaras can exist in the world). The Cut spoke to several product-development people to determine what’s really in your mascara, how the formula has evolved from coal dust, and the secret component that’s hidden inside the tube.

The Formula

Mascara formulators also call this “the build.” Back in the day, mascaras were essentially hard cakes of pigment which women would “grind” to grind to apply to their lashes. (For a period of time, coal dust, ashes, and petroleum jelly were also used.) According to current-day mascara formulators, waxes have changed the game and made mascara formulas malleable and liquid so that they no longer have to be ground like guacamole and be poured handily into a tube. In effect, when you’re applying a mascara, the process is practically alchemical — you’re brushing a semi-solid creamy formula that then sets into a solid on the lash. It’s some Transfiguration Harry Potter–level stuff.

According to Anke Ginsburg, director of scientific communications, global consumer beauty R&D for CoverGirl, all mascara formulas — regardless of whether they’re waterproof, smudgy, tubular, or fiber, have a few common ingredients. Water is the first ingredient, because it is always the essence of beauty, even in mascara. It evaporates and is a key element of what allows the mascara to dry and transform. Waxes and oils are next, with some emulsifiers so that oils and water can blend. A polymer that enables the mascara to “film” is next, and then, thickeners, fillers, and preservatives finish it out. Each company categorizes their formulas differently but in broad categories. At CoverGirl, there are three main different types of mascara formulas: waterproof, “wet and shiny,” and then “matte and solid” formulas.

Despite what mascara conspiracy theorists may believe, no two mascara formulas are exactly alike (although I can’t argue with the observation that some appear very similar). Much like ingredients in different recipes for confetti cake, many of mascara’s core ingredients are common to all, but there are variations, including in the process. Some newer mascaras, for example, are even infusing alternatives into their formulas like scent or CBD oil. Maybelline’s new New York Total Temptation Mascara was created to be a “sensorial” mascara experience — each tube is infused with a coconut aroma.

The Brush and the Rod

You screw open a mascara and yank off the top. That top is what we civilians call the wand, and what mascara engineers call the brush and the rod. The rod is attached to the brush, and the brush is what often is bragged about in mascara commercials. 360-degree-flexible brush! Max-density brush! A brush formulated with Marilyn Monroe’s measurements!

In fact, there are roughly three different types of mascara brushes. Until 12 years ago, Light says that all wands were twisted wire/fiber brushes. These are the ones that most resemble toothbrushes, like the ones you see with L’Oréal Paris Voluminous Original or Diorshow mascara. Light explains that these wands were generally best for creating more of a feathery lash look.

Innovation in the last few years has yielded the elastomere or molded, extruded brush. These are brushes that look like they’re made out of plastic, often with spikes rather than bristles. I always joke that they look sort of like a Fisher-Price mascara, as the wands are chunkier, thicker, and easier to hold, like CoverGirl’s Lash Blast and Benefit’s They’re Real. Light says that these mascaras tend to give a cleaner, sleek, elongated look without clumps. The third type of brush is a hybrid brush, a combination of elastomere and fiber. Within each of these categories, there can be variations of shape, softness, and curve.

The Wiper

This is the least observed part of the mascara. The wiper is a piece of flexible material shaped like a Cheerio that sits inside the mascara container, close to the opening. Every time you pull out a mascara wand, the wiper controls how much formula is deposited on the brush. It’s generally made of rubber, polymer, or silicone. In most mascaras, you encounter a bit of resistance in pulling it out and feel as though you’re almost scraping it against something inside the tube — that’s the wiper. If you’ve ever opened a mascara and had your hand instantly coated in a layer of black soot, it’s due to a faulty or poorly designed wiper (somewhere, an industrial-packaging-design major who spent months working on it in Paris is crying).

According to Light and Ginsburg, there are soft and hard wipers. “There’s no real advantage of one over the other,” Ginsburg explains. There’s no rule of thumb for what type of wiper goes with which brush. The size of the wiper is really what most affects the mascara experience. A smaller wiper means you get more formula on the brush. A larger wiper ensures less formula and a bit of a cleaner look.

“Mascara is a big topic. It’s not so simple,” says Light. You’re telling us — and it’s why we’ve been exploring the topic all week.

What’s in Your Mascara?