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clean mascara: your rundown

photo by Alexandra Porter

If eyes are the window to the soul, then mascaras are the window treatments. Some prefer a sheer curtain, others opt for a little more drama with their drapery.

I remember the first time I wore mascara for a dance recital. The stuff felt funny on my lashes but I marveled at how they went from barely blonde to bold black. I steered clear of that silver trap of death (the eyelash curler) and it probably showed, with my straight lashes sticking out, rather than up. At the end of the night, I used a baby-oil soaked cotton ball to remove it, just like my mom did. I can still recall how the oil made my vision all foggy.

The brand was Maybelline. I started with ‘Full n Soft’, which my mom also wore. Then, it was ‘Great Lash’ in the classic pink and green tube. I dabbled in the new releases through the years, from ‘The Colossal’ to ‘The Falsies’ (very clumpy IMO). But in the last 8 or so years, there’s only been one— ‘Lash Discovery’. The teeny brush coats each lash, adding length without clumps for a more natural finish. How can another possibly compete?!

Lately though, I’ve been more concerned about what’s inside. After diving into research for my highlight on cleaner lip products, I became curious about the ingredient lists of the other items in my makeup bag— namely mascara. Due to its tendency to be formulated for water resistance, mascara has been reported to have one of the highest amounts of fluorine compound PFAS (aka the “forever chemicals” that are linked to cancer). While the FDA has yet to take action against PFAS, citing the need for more research, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) continues to advocate for banning the chemicals and has called out decades of inaction on the FDA’s part.

While new data continues to surface, I’ll be testing cleaner alternatives to find ones that work well from the inside out. I’ve always worn waterproof mascara so I figured this was the next best item for me to explore. I utilized the EWG’s database ranking system to search for cleaner products with a score of 0-4 (best to worst, 0-10). Let’s get to the reviews, shall we?

Honest Beauty Extreme Length + Primer

First up is Jessica Alba’s brand mascara. If you’re after volume and length, this is the one for you! The formula features jojoba esters and beeswax to condition lashes during the process. It’s got a dual-sided tube, one end is primer, the other is the mascara. I like that it’s buildable for your desired look, whether that’s natural or a little more oomph. That being said, if you don’t use a lash brush after application, it may cause clumps to creep in. The curl hold is good not great, probably due to the weight of two layered formulas. It’s the most affordable of the bunch, and it’s also ranked 0/10 by EWG, meaning it meets the strictest standards for health and safety.

MERIT Clean Lash

Have you tried tubing mascara? I hadn’t until I came across this option from MERIT. Tubing tech wraps and defines each lash to stay put. This is the one to use if you want smudge proof, silky smooth lashes, thanks to olive oil esters and fatty acids. It’s not necessarily big on volume, but it does create definition and length as advertised. The buildable, buttery formula takes a little bit to stick and coat the lashes, but it removes easily. Clean Lash does not have a product listing on the EWG, but based on my own study of the ingredients listing, it’s a cleaner pick that avoids PFAS.

ILIA Limitless

At the top of my list is ILIA Limitless. With 99% naturally derived ingredients like organic bee and carnauba waxes, shea butter and keratin, this one meets criteria for formula and function. I call it the ‘Goldilocks’ mascara. It does it all— definition, length, volume and curl-hold. One of my favorite aspects is the patented dual-sided brush. The shorter side creates volume, while the longer comb side lengthens, lifts and separates. The latter also helps reduce clumps. I am here to report that this comb helps gives that defined look I so loved from Lash Discovery, but with more volume!

While Maybelline LD will always be a favorite, there are some strong contenders for my new everyday. I like how the LD formula grabs onto lashes so easily (a property of PFAS) but I haven’t been a fan of the rubbing required to remove it. Each of the formulas reviewed here wash off with a gentle makeup remover (I’ve moved on from baby oil foggy eyes).

I’ve also changed my relationship with the eyelash curler— from ultimate fear to essential prep. No matter the mascara, it’s always my first step to lift my lashes for that eye-opening effect. Actually, one of my biggest hold-ups in switching over to non-waterproof formulas has nothing to do with water. Since waterproof formulas provide that great long-lasting finish, they also keep lashes lifted and curled. During the product testing journey though, I picked up a helpful application hack. For the first pass, I just coat the ends of the lash to set the shape of the curl. Then after a minute or so, I go over the lash from root to tip a few times. This step helps maintain curl-hold and gets me past this barrier to entry.

Sure, there will be times when a true waterproof formula will make more sense, come tearful weddings or water-related plans. But the everyday or multi-week use is what compounds over time, along with other lifestyle exposure. As I continue to navigate these murky waters surrounding suspect chemicals, it’s easy to feel helpless under the weight of the beauty industry’s unknown. Small, routine steps towards health can feel like pennies in a fountain. But to initiate change is to begin taking these little steps, that eventually become the sum of many. And as consumers, each penny, each purchase, is a vote to be counted.

It’s been quite a while since those early recital days. It feels good to still discover new things, especially about old things. Maybelline’s legacy continues, but there’s space on that stage for the ILIA’s of the world to offer something different.

Alexandra Porter is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fashion design. Her senior thesis collection of hand-sewn garments was chosen to be showcased at the SCAD Fashion Show in 2018. As a trend forecaster, stylist, writer and artist, she enjoys many vantage points from which to understand and contribute to the industry. With an intrinsic desire to pursue the purpose and meaning behind design and beyond, she is guided by this phrase: Think with dimension, Create with invention, Live with intention.

all opinions are our own; no free products or compensation were received from manufacturers for these mentions.

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