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So many women call mascara their must-have, desert island beauty product. For good reason: The makeup staple will instantly lift and darken lashes, open up eyes, make you look more awake, and make a look more polished overall. But if you have sensitive eyes, wear contacts, or just generally have easily irritated skin around the eye area, mascara comes with a challenge: Some find the product to irritate the delicate skin, cause irritation, itching, and more.
So what are you to do if your eyes don’t agree with mascara—but you personally love it? Simple: Find an option made for sensitive skin and eyes. Much like you can enter the skin care aisle looking for a plethora of sensitive-skin-approved tonics and formulas, makeup has come a long way in offering options for those with finicky skin. (This isn’t surprising: Sensitive skin is on the rise.)
Here, we gathered some of our favorites. And while we feel confident in the below formulas—which range from natural and organic to safe synthetics—we also know that everyone’s allergens are different. Please do a patch test prior to wearing regularly, and stop use if you find that your eyes are irritated. This is important for all beauty fans—but vital for those with sensitivities.
Luv+Co Luv Natural Mascara
This natural formula loads up on soothing, high-quality organic ingredients that aren’t commonly irritating for the skin. In fact, several of the items that make the ingredient list are recommended by skin care experts for those with sensitive skin: chamomile hydrosol, vitamin E, and sunflower seed oil.
Luv Natural Mascara, Luv+Co ($29)
Luv + Co
ILIA Limitless Lash Lengthening Mascara
This mascara is beloved by beauty insiders almost across the board (myself included! It’s a personal favorite). It’s an easy, thin formula that slicks on each lash individually—with the end result being your lashes, just about 10 times better. The 99% naturally derived ingredients are sensitive-skin-safe too: It’s made with a blend of organic bee and carnauba waxes, shea butter, and arginine.
Limitless Lash Lengthening Mascara, ILIA ($28)
RMS Beauty Straight Up Volumizing Peptide Mascara
Peptides are actually a very common addition to lengthening serums for both the brows and lashes, so adding it to this blend not only improves the look of the strand temporarily—but long term. The formula uses a cocktail of gentle plant-derived waxes and botanical extracts to condition and calm the area.
Straight Up Volumizing Peptide Mascara, RMS Beauty ($26)
Westman Atelier Eye Love You Volumizing Mascara
Anecdotally, one of the last areas that beauty fans make the switch to clean beauty is mascara. (Scroll down below for why, but I digress.) The reason is that there’s still a looming misconception that clean mascara just can’t hold up. I dare them to try this number. A whip-thick formula and larger-than-life brush make it a wand to be reckoned with.
Eye Love You Volumizing Mascara, Westman Atelier ($58)
Bite Beauty Upswing Full Volume Mascara
A vegan option for those among us who stick to plant-based lifestyles, this uses a tree berry wax that allows for a sturdy yet lightweight grip. We also love it for the hourglass brush, which means you get full-bodied lashes in just a single swipe (but you can absolutely go over it again if you want to build to a megastar look).
Upswing Full Volume Mascara, Bite Beauty ($28)
Tarte Sea Surfer Curl Volumizing Mascara
The star player in this blend is the algae extract. Algae is a common addition to many sensitive skin products as it has an incredible ability to soothe inflamed, irritated skin. (It also has some pretty impressive antioxidant properties, which can help protect your strands.) Another benefit? Users say it improves lash curl by nearly 50%—so grab this one if your eyelash curler needs an assist.
Sea Surfer Curl Volumizing Mascara, Tarte ($23)
BareMinerals Strength Length Serum Infused Mascara
Here’s another peptide serum option that uses a red clover extract and mineral complex to help lengthen and strengthen your strands. (In an eight-week clinical and consumer perception study with 30 women, 100% said they felt their lashes were longer instantly and through the course of the study.) It’s also ophthalmologist-tested and safe for contact lens wearers.
Strength Length Serum Infused Mascara, BareMinerals ($22)
Thrive Causemetics Liquid Lash Extensions Mascara
This wand made its rounds around the mindbodygreen office when it first launched, and let me tell you: There were capital-F Fans. The silky liquid coats individual lashes from root to tip—and then doesn’t budge. But then, when you go to take it off, the tubing formula washes away with just warm water and a washcloth.
Liquid Lash Extensions Mascara, Thrive Causemetics ($24)
Honesty Beauty Extreme Length Mascara & Lash Primer
A derm- and ophthalmologist-tested two-in-one: On one end, the tool has a mascara primer. Primers are ideal for coating lashes with a grippy layer that adds bulk and length. On the other, there’s the rich black juice that really makes your lashes sing.
Extreme Length Mascara & Lash Primer, Honesty Beauty ($16.99)
Why mascara may be irritating to eyes.
While daily mascara use is likely safe for most, it does have the potential to cause irritation for some. Read: If it’s never bothered you before, you can assume you’re part of the lucky majority and can keep on wearing it without reserve.
But if that’s not you: Here’s a little anatomy lesson on the eye itself to explain why it causes issues, from James Chelnis, M.D., oculofacial plastic surgeon and assistant clinical professor at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.
Your eyelid has three parts that produce various liquids: water (which we identify as tears), mucus (which you might notice when you wake up with “crust” in the morning), and oil. For our purposes, that last one is the most important. Oil actually forms a slick around the eye to keep the water in, keeping your eye hydrated. (“When I do surgery or an exam, I can actually see the oil layer over the eye,” he says.)
If our oil glands around the eye stop working properly, they can’t keep the water sealed on the eye. “Have you ever heard anyone complain about having ‘dry eyes’ but still tearing up? What’s happening there is the eye likely doesn’t have enough oil to keep the water in,” says Chelnis. And mascara can actually clog the pores in the area, leading to less oil production—especially when not washed off nightly. “This not only leads to dryness but sties and eyelid inflammation,” he says.
Additionally, “In doing exams or surgery, I’ve actually found mascara debris trapped under the eyelid, often causing inflammation,” he says.
Why you should choose a clean, safe mascara.
It turns out that your eye area is pretty absorbent given the thin skin. Research has shown that of the beauty categories that are important to switch over to clean versions, eye makeup might be the most important, as the eye area has been shown to absorb the chemicals it comes into contact with, according to research from reproductive epidemiologist Kim Harley, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley. The good news is that after research participants switched to clean personal care products, the presence of chemicals like parabens and phthalates decreased by up to 45% in three days.
“My advice is to pick as clean of a product as you can since the skin around our eye is so thin, which means absorption is higher,” says holistic dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. “And listen, even though it’s a small area and absorption from each application may not be much, cumulatively it can add up.”
Finding a mascara is a tricky thing, especially for those with sensitive skin or eyes. Luckily, new and exciting options abound in the clean and natural space.