That's why we're starting our new Beauty Decoder series, so you can learn all the little details that will help you dig through those seductive marketing messages and find the best match for your needs. First up: mascara. Turns out that little wand is way more complicated than we ever thought. From the formula and the brush to the nuances of application, we talked to the pros to find out everything you need to know about everyone's favorite lash enhancer. Read on to get the full scoop on fringe benefits and to learn how to maximize your mascara. Sorry kids, decoder rings sold separately.
Turns out, not all brushes are created equal. From bristle spacing to the shape and type of material the brush is made out of, they all have an impact on how your lashes look. First up is the type of brush. There are two main types of brush on the market: traditional twisted wire brushes, and the newer injection molded brushes (plastic bristles molded around a plastic core).
According to Dr. Sarah Vickery, principal scientist for color cosmetics research and development at Procter & Gamble, a traditional wire brush excels at picking up a lot of the formula in its brush and getting it on the lash, making it ideal for achieving volume. "You dump a lot of mascara at the base of the lash, and then pull it through," she says. But, because it also can cause the lashes to stick together, that means it is not ideal for those looking for a more defined lash look. Conversely, molded brushes are unmatched at creating individualized, separated lashes. Traditional wire brushes are created by taking a wire and extruding nylon through it, twisting and trimming the fibers to the exact length you want, says Dr. Vickery. "Each fiber is very tiny, but once you dip it into that formula, those tufts of fiber stick together. This means they do a great job coating and thickening the lash," she says, but aren't so hot at creating definition. Because molded brushes are made of plastic, there's no chance of the bristles sticking together, so you get that definition and separation more readily.
The shape of the brush also has a lot to do with the final look, as each brush is engineered to perform a specific task and determines how much mascara is deposited on the lash. According to Isabelle Bauer Rovner, executive director of MAC global product development, it's the marriage of a formula and a brush that creates the specific lash look. But, in general, a curved brush is for curling, a tapered brush can be used for multiple effects (depends on the formula), thick or bulbous brushes are for volume, conical brushes deliver volume and length, flat-edged and comb brushes define, and thin brushes define and separate.
According to Dior celebrity makeup artist Ricky Wilson, women who already have some curl to their lashes should avoid curved brushes, because they most likely will end up just pushing the mascara onto the eyelid. Tapered brushes are perfect for women with thin lashes or those that need lifting in certain areas, because it lets them be more precise with their application. Thick brushes work best with thick lashes — seems like overkill, but Wilson says thick brushes will deposit too much product on straight and thin lashes, which will only weigh them down. They're also not great for short lashes, as they can make it difficult to get to the root of the lash. Wilson says women with short lashes will benefit from thin, flat-edged, and comb mascaras, as they help to separate and coat the lashes.
Even the placement of the bristles makes a huge difference. Says Rovner, "A thinner brush with spaced bristles will give you a more lengthened look, but not as much product delivery as a bigger brush with less spacing, which gives you a much fuller look." She also explains that there are hollow versus solid fibers: Hollow fibers are lighter and allow the bristles to spay and give lashes separation, while a solid fiber is heavy and delivers more product onto the lashes.
Finally, the size — not to be punny (okay, maybe just a little) — definitely does matter. "Larger brushes tend to hold more product, giving you a heavier application," says Wilson. "If I have a client who has short lashes, I choose a mascara with a smaller brush so that I can really get the product at the root of the lash, giving me an easier application." He adds, "If I am doing a look that requires a fresh open eye, I grab a mascara that is small with comb-like bristles because it adds a touch of mascara without clumping or looking heavy. If I am doing something more intense, like a smoky eye, I grab something with a large brush that instantly applies a generous amount of mascara to the lashes for added drama." And, if you want to be really precise, there are now a whole slew of new mascaras for just your lower lashes. We think those teeny-weeny brushes are perfect for getting those tiny lashes on the inner and outer corners of our eyes, in addition to your lower fringe.
As all of our experts said, you can't get the right lash look without the right formula. "Your final mascara look is 70% formula and 30% brush," says Wilson. So, it's important to understand the breakdown of what each formula really does. Dr. Vickery explains that most cosmetics companies are working with a "limited toolbox" when it comes to formulas — because you are putting the product near your eye, the ingredients and formulas are highly regulated (as they should be), which is why most of the innovation in the market lately has been focused on the brush.
According to Dr. Vickery, there are two main classes of mascara: water-resistant (a.k.a. regular) and waterproof. "Regular mascaras are typically a combination of waxes, polymers, and pigments in a water-based emoulsion," she says. "Water helps enhance certain lash attributes — it can be absorbed into the lash and bloat diameter, and can also help curl. Waxes create a thick creamy texture to help the mascara glide on beautifully, and the polymers help bind mascara to itself and the lashes." Regular mascaras are easily removed with warm water and soap. The waterproof long-wearing formulas, she says, are anhydrous, meaning there is typically no water or very little water in them.
While one would think that the long-wear option would always be the superior choice — why bother putting on mascara if you can't guarantee it's going to last for a good long time? — Dr. Vickery says that there are some limitations to waterproof formulas. "You can't build quite as much bulk onto the lash, or incorporate ingredients that would go into a water phase, so you are more restricted with your ingredients," she says. And, points out Rovner, waterproof mascaras can be a pain to take off. They require a different type of removal, whereas regular mascaras can usually be taken off with just soap and water.
In general, Dr. Vickery says that if you want lengthening, you should look for fibers and polymers in the ingredient list, and if you want volume, then it's waxes you are after. Look to see where your desired ingredient falls on the ingredient list — the higher up it is, that will be a dead giveaway to how it will perform. "The idea behind fibers is that when you apply them, they extend beyond the edge of the lashes, giving you that long, lengthened appearance," says Dr. Vickery. For volume, she says waxes help build up that bulk that will make the lashes appear thick, but she also says that hollow sphere particles work wonders for volume, too — they create bulk without the weight. As far as curling goes, Dr. Vickery says that a mascara formula can only do so much — your best bet to get that look is to curl your lashes first. "Curling mascaras usually have curved brushes to help push the lashes up, and certain polymers in the formula to help maintain the curl, but they won't be as effective at creating the curl as using a lash curler first would be."
One of the more recent advances in formulas are tubes. These mascaras have special polymers that create a complete film around the lash when they dry, creating a solid "tube." These tubes have more cohesion than adhesion, says Dr. Vickery, meaning they have strong bonds with themselves and weak bonds with the actual lash. This allows them create lots of length, but they can be easily removed with water. Dr. Vickery cautions that tubes are only effective for lengthening purposes — they can't build up the bulk needed to thicken the lash significantly.
Another important factor of the formula is whether it is wet or creamy. Wet formulas tend to be very thin and easy to spread across the lash. These formulas create a very dark and dramatic look, but they aren't buildable on the lash — applying too many coats will just wind up making the lashes clump together. Thicker, creamier formulas are much easier to build, so you can thicken the lashes with them much more effectively. "One drawback to wet mascaras," says Wilson, "is that because they are more fluid, they take longer to dry." This leads to printing and smudging on the eyelid, if you don't wait for them to fully set. Wilson also says they aren't ideal on thin lashes as they can lead to lashes sticking together and not looking full. Creamy formulas, on the other hand, are great for most lashes, except those with naturally long, Bambi fringes. "Mascara that makes your lashes reach your brow are way too much, even for me," says Wilson.
And then, of course, there's the actual color of the mascara. No, we're not talking about rainbow lashes — we're referring to the bevy of black options. There's your basic black, blackest black, carbon black, onyx, graphite, glossy black, midnight, blackened brown — who knew there were so many shades of a non-color? According to Wilson, the shade of black does matter, as the darker you pick, the more intense the look will be. "A darker color can make your lashes look fuller from afar," he explains. Adds Dr. Vickery, "The more obvious the contrast, the more noticeable the lashes." If you want something less extreme, look for a shade like soft black or graphite — you can even do brown, for a super-subtle effect.
Now that you know the right mascara for your lashes, it's time for a little technique tutorial. While you can just swipe it on haphazardly and hope for the best, why ruin all that hard work you just spent sleuthing out the best fringe enhancer? You wouldn't spend all morning at a farmer's market buying the freshest ingredients, then try to cook without a recipe, would you? Fortunately, Wilson has you covered.
For a fresh, wide-eyed look, he says to "gently sweep one to two coats of mascara in an upward motion to lift and add length to the lashes. This is wonderful if you didn't sleep well or are tired because it just looks effortless and really opens the eye." For those of you looking for a little more drama-rama on your fringe, Wilson says your goal should be to deposit more mascara at the root of the lash. "Take your XXL brush and wiggle it at the base of your lash before moving the brush through the lashes," he says. You'll want to keep building (read: layering) the mascara on, so to avoid clumps, Wilson says it's imperative that you give your lashes a "breather" between coats. "You can't build on lashes that are still wet — think about it like painting your nails, or a wall," he explains.
And, if all of this info seems like way too much detective work to you, Wilson has boiled down his years of experience into one, no-nonsense tip: "I find that a creamy formula with a straight brush is the easiest to work with because I am able to tweak the amount I use and create different effects with this style. So, for women applying their own mascara, I say a larger brush with a creamier formula will make for the easiest application. I always suggest for a mascara newbie to stay away from large brushes and wet or gel mascaras, as they can create a mess." So not the look we are going for.
Still feeling a little lost? That's okay, because we've done you a solid and put together a shopping list of some of our favorite fringe enhancers. Check out our mascara must-haves, then tell us in the comments below which lash lengthener or fringe thickener you love most.
CoverGirl LashBlast Volume Mascara, $6.23, available at Drugstore.com; MAC Studio Fix Lash, $16, available at MAC; Dior DiorShow Mascara, $25, available at Dior; Lancôme Hypnôse Drama Mascara, $27, available at Lancôme; Hourglass Film Noir Full Spectrum Mascara, $28, available at Sephora; L'Oréal Voluminous Carbon Black Volume Building Mascara, $7.99, available at Ulta; Benefit They're Real! Mascara, $23, available at Benefit; Maybelline Volum'Express The Rocket Mascara, $6.22, available at Drugstore.com; Kevyn Aucoin The Curling Mascara, $25, available at BeautyBar.
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