PSA: Mascara Formulas are NOT all the Same

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Last week, a friend and I were leaving the gym together, and she said, “Let’s go out!”

Hmm.. yes, a spontaneous friend date would be awesome, I thought. But there I was in fresh sweats, barely-dried hair and no makeup to speak of–hardly “going out” attire. What to do?

As we walked from the gym to one mall, then the next, it suddenly hit me: I’ll use the tester makeup to do a quick makeover!

Yes, I am one of those people. If you’ve never done a full face in Sephora for convenience, I envy you; you have more dignity than I do.

I quickly put on the tester BB cream and tried out all the brow pencils to find the perfect shade, all while answering the sales rep’s questions rather evasively (in China, the sales reps follow you around the store and won’t leave you alone no matter how much you beg, so this is really just part of the normal experience). When it came time for my lashes, I realized there weren’t any tester eye lash curlers. I went and grabbed one quickly–I guess I’d have to buy something after all. I also didn’t really want to use test mascara (*shudder*). Gives me the heebie-jeebies. I still took a second to check the tester brush and make sure it would be a spiky, silicone brush, that could apply evenly and separate my lashes during the application.

29 RMB (~$5 USD) later, I was the proud owner of my very own lash curler and Hello Kitty mascara. The brow pencil/eye liner duo was surprisingly good, so the mascara would probably be awesome as well, right?

Not right.

A few minutes later, in the nearest bathroom, I was struggling. The lash curler didn’t really fit my eye shape and my lashes weren’t really curling the way they normally did. We were more at half-staff, so to speak.

Oh well, here goes the mascara.

Who knew my super full, envy-inducing eyelashes could look so spidery?

My friend actually asked me, “Did your lashes get.. thinner?” She used the Chinese word for thin, not sparse; as in each individual hair shaft looked thinner than normal.

That’s just.. not possible over night.

I wanted to cry.

“You do know this is my job?” I asked, feeling the defensiveness try to force it’s way out from deep inside of me. “It’s just the mascara!”

Why was I feeling defensive? My lashes definitely didn’t look as va-va-voom as usual, so there was that. But also, it was my job. I’m one of the top lash writers in the world. I’ve dedicated the last 5 years of my life to eyelashes. Why couldn’t I pick out a good mascara, even without testing it? Well, maybe that’s because it’s not just about the brush after all.

That night I had to confront it: No matter what I had heard, read or said before, mascaras are not created equally.

By the way, here is the Hello Kitty mascara (on the left, my good eye) vs. Better Than Sex (right eye). I had to take a picture showing both at the same time, because the difference is major. I even gave Hello Kitty the benefit of the doubt, by using my better eye (we all have favorites, right?). Still, this is the result:


The Mascara Formulation Breakdown

When I look back at some other blogs I’ve written, I could’ve almost predicted this incident before it happened. As I’ve said before and will say again, Asian mascara formulations are lighter, stickier and (in my opinion) suckier. It doesn’t matter how many different formulations I buy, they’re all the same. Sticky, sticky, sticky and make my lashes 细的,细的,细的。That’s thin, thin, thin–the same way my friend described my lashes. They can’t/won’t/don’t layer, so volume is out of the question.

While this particular formula wasn’t waterproof, I also find that waterproof formulations, because of the inclusion of dodecane, tend to end up the same: thin, sticky lashes–only this time it’s harder to remove the black goop coating them. Again, no layering = no volume.

Otherwise, mascaras are all variations on this basic general formula:

Mascara = 70% water + 10% pigment + 10% thickeners/viscosity enhancers+ 7% emollient + 2% humectant + 1% preservative

Not necessarily those percentages every time, but somewhere in that range. The thickeners, viscosity enhancers, emollients and humectants used can change–although not by much in the general makeup of the formula–so that can change some of the chemical and physical (stearic) properties of the formula.

And while it’s near impossible to break down what any formula’s exact percentage of ingredients is, you may be able to see some patterns in the formulas, so that you can tell at a glance what will and won’t work for your lashes.

Let’s take my favorite mascara–Better Than Sex–a dry, flaky, volume-building formula and put it up against my second favorite–They’re Real!–a wet, sticky formula and see what we can derive from this side-by-side formulation breakdown.

Test Case: Better Than Sex Mascara vs They’re Real! Formulation Breakdown

Note: I will, for the sake of simplicity, in this section, include “viscosity enhancers” and “thickeners” together as one “thickener” category.

Here’s Better Than Sex‘s Ingredient List:

Water/aqua/eau, Synthetic Beeswax, Paraffin, Glyceryl Stearate, Acacia Senegal Gum, Butylene Glycol, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Wax, Stearic Acid, Palmitic Acid, Polybutene, VP/Eicosene Copolymer, Cera Carnauba/Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax/Cire de carnauba, Aminomethyl Propanol, Glycerin, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Disodium EDTA, Polyester-11, PVP, Cellulose, Trimethylpentanediol/Adipic Acid/Glycerin Crosspolymer, Propylene Glycol, Acacia Senegal Gum Extract, Potassium Sorbate, Dextran, Acetyl Hexapeptide-1. May Contain/Peut Contenir/(+/-): Iron Oxides (CI 77499), Black 2 (CI 77266), Ultramarines (CI 77007).

I can tell you right off the bat that I see:

Water, wax (thickener), thickener, emollient, thickener, emollient, thickener, emulsifier, emulsifier, emollient, thickener, thickener, vitamin, humectant, humectant, thickener, preservative, thickener thickener, thickener, thickener, humectant, thickener, preservative…

There’s a LOT of thickeners in the Better Than Sex formula. It’s exactly what I would expect, as it’s fairly dry, flaky and builds, builds, BUILDS! It’s like lego blocks for you lashes.

Now, for They’re Real!‘s ingredients:


When I read this, I see:

Water, thickener, emollient, thickener, thickener, emollient, emollient, emulsifier, emulsifier, emulsifier, thickener, thickener, thickener, preservative..

It may look like all the same words to you, but even the fact that a wax (paraffin) is the second, but not third ingredient makes a big difference. The third ingredient is already an emollient (polybutylene), followed by a copolymer–a different type of thickening agent than a wax. This formula is miles apart in terms of what you can expect for the application.

Better Than Sex will be more waxy, flaky and They’re Real!, which is full of emollients, will be smooth, glide right on, but won’t build. Reading the ingredient lists makes it really clear, but it’s something I had never even thought to do before. 

That’s because, for the most part, mascara ingredients lists are full of really long named, chemical-sounding chemicals! It feels like wading through a moor. It’s something you just want to give up on after 5 seconds, like “ugh! I really have to look up EVERY SINGLE INGREDIENT?” You almost forget what you’re doing.

I know which brushes I like for my mascara–that’s easy–and after lots of testing, I generally know that I like more wax-heavy formulas, but half of the time, I can’t even figure out what’s going on with the formulas, so I get frustrated and just buy one (sound familiar?).

What’s a smart consumer to do?


Tips: Breaking Down Your Mascara Formula

  1. Find Out Who’s The Leader – What types of ingredients are leading the formula? I gave a general formula for mascara up above, but as we saw in the two breakdowns, those percentages can change. They’re Real is emollient heavy and Better Than Sex is wax/thickener heavy. I for one, like a more wax-heavy mascara. The wet formulas (emollient heavy formulas) just make my lashes stick together. So if you’re like me, scan the ingredient list for waxes, paraffins, and other thickeners or “viscosity enhancers” like gums and co-polymers. If you like a more wet mascara, look for -butenes, -amines, -methicones and other emollient ingredients.
  2. Call in Back Up: If you ever need to know “What the heck is this ingredient and what does it do?!” go to and search for it. You can do it on your phone while shopping; it’s really that easy.  I find that EWG’s Skin Deep Database gives a more comprehensive review, including their safety rating of the ingredient, but doesn’t always have everything I’m looking for.
  3. Bonus: Check for Safety: If you’re worried about the toxicity or safety of your mascara formula (which is a separate issue aside from “how does it wear?”), check out EWG’s Cosmetic Database.

It can be difficult to tell what’s going on in a formula, between the strange, long-named ingredients and the fact that percentages are not disclosed, but I believe with some common sense, you can figure it out.

Or, you know, if you shop at Sephora, you can always return something you don’t like! Whichever is easiest I suppose. As a manufacturer myself, I know how much that practice hurts manufacturers–especially small manufacturers–so it’s better to do a little homework first and rule out any chance of dislike or discomfort.


Takeaways: All Mascara Formulas are NOT Created Equally

I hope you enjoyed that little breakdown of how mascaras are made and what gives them their unique formulation properties!

Again, each wax / thickener / emollient / emulsifier / humectant has its own unique properties, so even a formula with the same ratios but different ingredients should perform a little differently. This guide should still serve as a basic “aha!” moment, so that you know what to expect next time before you buy.

As always, the mascara brush is important, as are the application techniques. For a more thorough breakdown on choosing your mascara brush to fit your lashes/lash needs read our blog here, and read here for tips on how to best curl lashes and here for how apply mascara for long, full lashes. And for specific mascara/formula questions, feel free to email me anytime!

In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own mascara formulation, scheduled to launch next summer. Because what better way is there to use my 5 years of lash knowledge than to help all of you show off your #WinkGains? To stay up-to-date with the testing and launch, sign up here!


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Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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