A Mascara Expert Sets the Record Straight


We're all a little eye-makeup obsessed around here, right? So imagine our delight when we got an email from Cindy Lin, an ITG reader who also happens to develop mascara wands and other beauty products at Albéa for a living. After reading our Wands 101 post, Cindy alerted us to the fact that we'd really just scratched the surface of the brush/bottle discussion, so we asked her to put her expertise in an article. Here, Cindy tells us (and you) everything we ever wanted to know about mascara (but didn't know we...didn't know), and reveals the methods behind the madness:

Creating a breakthrough mascara isn't easy; you can’t just marry any old brush and formula. Mascara development can take years. It’s really the perfect storm of three things working in synergy: the brush, the wiper, and the formula. Here's a rundown on what each of those pieces really does:

People always ask, "Why is it about the newfangled brush, the innovative applicator? Why not the formula? Where’s the breakthrough technology?" Well, the truth is that mascara formulas have changed very little in the past 50 years. It's basically wax, pigments, and film formers. The most recent innovation was the 2004 FDA approval of carbon-black pigment, which gives you the darkest, blackest lashes possible. Now everyone's using it. Aside from that, the chemical companies aren't innovating new ingredients for mascara use. Who's going to spend the money to get it clinically tested and FDA approved? Let's not even think about potential lawsuits on an untested polymer, etc. All this costs a lot of resources and time. So it's actually easier and cheaper to create a breakthrough brush than a breakthrough formula. In fact, many brands "share" a formula, but the effects can be drastically different due to the brush, wiper, and bottle. MAC’s Haute & Naughty is a perfect example of this. It's one formula and one brush, but you get two different lash effects with a simple switch of the wiper and stem.

When it comes to formula claims, if you see “contains vitamin this, vitamin that,” argan oil, botanical extracts, etc., it's usually just promotional and at low percentages—the bulk of the formula is still the basic wax-pigment combo. A “wow” effect mascara is not attributable to the 0.001 percent of diamond dust in the formula, but again, the synergy of the brush, formula, and wiper all working together. "Ophthalmologist-approved" is an easy claim to make as well. You just hire one doctor to look at the formula, check to make sure there's no bad stuff, and sign their name attesting that they 'approve' it. If you have an ophthalmologist in the family, getting it cleared might only cost you dinner and a smile!

Traditional mascara brushes are known as either fiber brushes or twisted wire brushes. Nylon fibers are twisted around a wire, then given a quick haircut to get the desired shape—conical, waved, tapered, etc. The exact number and type of nylon fibers, along with the specific way they're twisted and trimmed, are usually trade secrets. Brands spend large amounts of money to patent a brush, with lawyers who literally count individual hairs on potential patent-infringers’ brushes to make sure no one touches their billion-dollar baby.

Plastic-molded brushes have become more popular recently because they allow for greater design control. For instance, you can create larger grooves that act as 'reservoir zones' for holding extra formula (i.e., mascara). The more finely spaced the bristles, the more separating/defining the result; Lancôme Définicils is the classic example of this brush type. If they’re further apart—think Maybelline Volum' Express The Colossal Mascara—you get more thickening and volumizing. You can also mold crazy designs and colors that express the brand’s image, like the topiary look of the Rimmel Sexy Curves brush.

After a brush is developed, it goes to our testing facility, where experts test it with different variables such as formulas, wipers, and packaging. Imagine someone applying mascara to rows and rows of lashes, measuring the results with fine calipers and instruments, calculating data that measure load (deposit), thickening, separating, and curling. This is done over and over, in different combinations, until the client’s desired results are maxed out (i.e. super volume or extreme length). The end result is a spider web-looking chart, which shows you the final evaluation. We also test with panels of real women to see brushes’ effect on different peoples' lashes.

The wiper is the plastic ring inside the mascara tube's mouth. It's absolutely crucial to the mascara's performance because it determines how much excess formula is wiped off versus how much is retained on the brush and therefore deposited onto your lash. If the wiper is too tight, all the formula gets squeezed off the brush. But too large a wiper and you get a goopy mess along with clumpy, slow-drying lashes—smudge city. You can invest tons of money in a beautiful, shiny bottle, technological brush, and amazing formula, but if you have a wiper that's too tight or too large, the effect can be disastrous. One millimeter can make a huge difference.

If you want to see how wiper size can dramatically change application, look at all the adjustable mascaras. Products like LashControl work by allowing you to modify the width of the wiper. Since payoff is directly related to how much product is left on the brush, ratcheting the wiper down gives you more definition, while opening it up makes for a high-impact look.

—Cindy Lin

Cindy lives in NYC and is Albéa's Director of Product Development, Beauty Solutions. Photographed by Emily Weiss.

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  • http://nomadic-d.blogspot.com/ Nomadic D.

    Whoa. We've been schooled. In such a good way. Thanks to the ITG team and to Cindy for giving actual information about a beauty product and how it works. Genius.


  • Mina

    More of these, please! Let's learn where are products come from! After all, there are only so many beauty products you can buy, but we can learn to make better choices when we do.

  • Liz Malay

    As an attorney who works on patent litigation, I can confirm that the part about the lawyers is totally true!!!

  • gleepface

    This has absolutely fascinated me. I've learnt so much in the past five minutes from reading this! I did always suspect that the forumals containing crazy things were just a bit of a fad, and couldn't imagine how the formula of a mascara could vary so wildly, but I never truly grasped how much of a difference a different brush or wiper could make!
    I am curious though, as to how the Benefit They're Real formula feels SO different to any other mascara I've ever tried. Did they just invest a lot of money into coming up with something new?

    • prairie_dogs

      I was wondering about Benefit, too-- I think that it's the silicone-type brush and the unusual bristle shape, at least that's what makes it seem different to me. It seems like that mascara gets so much press as being really singular and standout.

      • gleepface

        It really does feel completely different on the lashes to other mascaras though. I'd say it's 'sleeker' if that makes sense, where as other mascaras I've used are more 'powdery' in a way. They're Real is like a second skin for my lashes, but not in the way tubing mascaras are.

    • Guest

      I've wondered about this, too. I loved the way "They're Real" made my lashes look, but I had to stop using it because the brush really hurt my eyes. First time I've ever had something like that happen.

  • julia

    This is a terrific piece!

  • Ivy H.

    I'd love to hear which mascaras Cindy would recommend herself!

    • Cay

      Albea works with a ton of brands, so I bet she's not allowed to pick favorites :)

  • Jenny K.

    This was unexpectedly fascinating.

  • http://fancylauren.blogspot.com/ Lauren Ashley

    Wow - who knew? This was great!

  • Lana

    Well, this opened my eyes. Thanks Ms. Cindy Lin!

  • luftstrom

    Nice mascara insight.

  • Hallie

    Incredible and fascinating piece! Would love to see more technically-focused stories like this :)

  • Chantel

    Awesome post, I love mascara!!!

  • Rachael T

    this article was amazing! Can we get tour pics of the research facilities - i'd want to go on a field trip there so bad. Funny enough i feel like had noticed in increase in "Super Ultra Black" "Blackest Midnight" kind of ads - and the FDA approval of the carbon black pigments makes total sense for this timing-wise

    • Sylvie

      I would imagine none of these companies allow ppl into their research facilities- they all test on animals. Unless that's done elsewhere, I'm sure they don't want ppl to see that because no one would use their products.

  • Zuly

    Good to know, thanks for the info.

  • Candace

    This was really, really fantastic! Such an engaging read. You guys should make this into a recurring feature - a deep explanation of how each type of product is conceived, tested, and developed.

  • lynnjamin

    This is such an amazing article!!! More please! It's so interesting to hear about products from actual developers instead of the usual model-actress-dj-brand figures

  • Roxana Phillips
  • Nina R.

    I am a bit confused by the statement "mascara formulas have changed very little in the past 50 years." What about the famous japanese "tubing" mascaras? My personal favorite is Trish McEvoy's Lash Curling mascara, the only cosmetic product I have been loyal to for at least 10 years. The absolute best of the bunch - stays wet so you can apply many coats and then dries to a glossy, smudge proof finish which only comes off with warm water.

  • Camille Ervin

    Mascara is everything!

    Check out my new beauty blog!


  • SM

    This was a fascinating and absorbing read. Thank you ITG, and Cindy, for teaching us so much about that black goopy stuff we love!

  • Marie

    Thank for another great post. I love that photo too, please, what's that perfect shade of lipstick? I love it!

  • Daria

    Ok, so now that there's an expert on the panel, I've got a question:
    My eyelashes are super blonde and super straight. I always curl them. However, most mascaras "uncurl" them when applied, same as when I wash my face.
    I guess this is because the non-waterproof and "wash away with water" mascaras are water soluble, therefore reacting like water on the lashes.
    I'm currently using a water-proof mascara to counteract those effects but it's annoying trying to take it off (like glue).
    What are the ingredients I should be looking for (or excluding) in a mascara? (would be helpful if someone could suggest a specific brand or mascara)

    • Melissa

      I'm not an expert but I find that spraying a little hairspray on a clean mascara brush designed to curl, right after using a lash curler, really helps before applying mascara. When I want a more natural look, I just tint my lashes & do the hairspray technique.

  • eastvillagesiren

    A great, informative, article. Thanks, Cindy and ITG. And yes, as many others have said - more of the "behind the scenes," please, with cosmetic chemists, formulators and product developers.

    Cindy's explanation is why I think I've always had better results with high-end mascaras - it's the brush. I've tried the big drugstore bands, and never got that "ooomph" factor I was hoping for. Then I bought Armani Eyes to Kill and found my holy grail. The brush gives me just enough color and separation, without any glopping.

  • April Herrera

    Us paralegals count the bristles :)

  • Camellia

    Makes perfect sense to me re the tubing - I got a Chanel sample mascara a few years back and I thought I had found my HG mascara. However, when I purchased the full sized product, the wand was always too dry and I was left disappointed and confused. I bought another, thinking maybe the batch was old, but it was the same. The tubing must have been too tight!
    Think you, fascinating article,

    • Camellia

      I meant the wiper not the tubing...oops

  • Camellia

    Check out the blog,"beauty and the bulls@$t" -ex beauty company dishes the dirt on subjects like this

  • Lena

    Wow, I loved the article!! thank you so much, and thank you, Cindy for telling us all this! It's so interesting!

  • http://www.thepartyforone.com/ Lauren Harper

    Obsessed. With. These. Lashes. This would go perfectly with my Fall Basics blog post, featuring a selection of beauty products that I use to achieve the sexy vamp look. http://thepartyforone.com/2013/09/28/fall-basics/#more-2281

  • Laura C

    Genius is right. Thanks from the base of my soon to be glammed lashes!
    I've had the pleasure of meeting Cindy, happy to have her as our lash coach!

  • Julie

    I found a really natural mascara called Cherry Bloom Brush on Fibre. Like you said all mascara is basically the same but this one has a highgrade beeswax that actually promotes lash growth. The results are amazing and are better than any mascara I've used before! The fibres are really black and add dramatic length (and if you like thickness) to your lashes. Its a must try!

  • Ruba Ayoub

    I NEVER comment on articles but this was the most informational article on makeup I have ever read on any Beauty site. Bravo!!

  • Beauty Armour

    You should try Beauty Armour 60 Second Eye Lash Extension Fiber Mascara, it is amazing on Natural Eyelashes or can be used with EyeLash Extensions too in between fills... Unlike other fiber mascara's Beauty Armour does not flake or dry out and will not weaken the bond of eyelash glue... it's an amazing mascara

  • ihavenobones

    Would LOVE more product development articles!


Maybelline The Colossal
Maybelline The Colossal Volum’ Express Mascara
MAC 'Haute & Naughty Lash' Mascara Haute And Naughty Black
Lancôme Definicils Waterproof High Definition Mascara
LashControl Mascara
Rimmel London
Rimmel Sexy Curves Mascara