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Finding the Perfect Mascara

It's much easier than you think.

Most women probably agree that a good mascara is absolutely essential to any beauty routine. Or at least that's what makeup companies think, if the sheer and utterly confusing amount of mascaras on the market is any indication. There are volumizing, thickening and lengthening formulas; bristle, plastic, curved, and straight wands; ones that declump, ones that purportedly help your lashes grow longer--there are even mascaras that vibrate. But with so many options on the table, how does one even begin to choose the right mascara for herself?

To add even more confusion to the matter, pop culture and high fashion are sort of at odds over the issue of lashes lately. While there are celebs (hi, Kim Kardashian) who won't leave the house without three sets of falsies per eye, New York designers took a decidedly bare approach to lashes on the fall 2013 runways (documented nicely by Into the Gloss here). We think the majority of women probably want something in between Kardashian mega-lashes and minimalist runway lashes.

So how do you choose a mascara that's natural yet provides some drama when you want to go there? We decided to ask some experts to help us demystify mascara. They helped us decode everything from brush shape to how to apply it. A review of the 15 latest and greatest mascaras on the market follows.

What matters more: formula or wand? Both are equally as important. Debra Coleman Nally, the director for research and innovation for Maybelline New York, told us, "Mascaras are a marriage of formula and applicator. Brush shape impacts delivery of the formula to the lash, and enables the consumer to reach the smallest lash and to be convenient and easy to use." There are two types of wands now: the traditional bristle brushes and the more modern molded brushes. Neither one is necessarily "better." L’Oréal Paris Consulting Makeup Artist Billy B. (yes, the one on Project Runway) recommends trying several to get a feel for which one delivers the best result.

Brush shape: "Just like hair brushes, different brushes are designed to provide a different styling effect," Nally said. "For mascaras that may mean 'full charge volume' or 'highly defined lashes'." Mascaras that claim to be curling often have curved brushes, and lengthening brushes tend to be straight and narrow with more widely spaced, almost comb-like bristles. For volume, look for thicker brushes with denser bristles. In general, brushes with shorter bristles are easier to control.

Application tricks: "Curl the lashes really well, then apply mascara starting from the roots of the top lashes, moving the wand first side to side then upwards toward the end of the lashes," Chanel celebrity makeup artist, Fulvia Farolfi, recommends. "For an even application, put the wand in the mascara tube again before doing the second eye." Billy B. agrees that curling should be the first step. "Then apply a conservative amount of mascara and let it dry completely before applying another coat," he told us. Use as many coats as you feel comfortable with.

Speaking of curling, do curling mascaras really work? Not really. "You just have to manage your expectations about 'curling' mascara--it realistically can't do the same things that a curling apparatus can," Billy B. said. But it can help your pre-curled lashes retain a curl better, according to Farolfi.

Bottom lash mascara--yes or no? "Yes, always!...It doesn't have to be a lot, but it makes the eyes look bigger," Farolfi said. But use caution if you're a bit older. "I think for women of a certain age, keeping mascara to your top lashes only can have a very lifting effect," Billy B. said. You should also remember that a lot of brushes will potentially deposit too much product to bottom lashes, so use a light touch. (Fun fact: Clinique makes a bottom lash-only mascara if you really like specialized products.)

What about flaking? The bane of every mascara wearer's existence is the dreaded flake. Farolfi told us that if your mascara is flaking, it's time to get a new one--it means it's too old. It could also mean that you're using the wrong formula for what you're trying to achieve. Billy B. said, "[Flaking] tends to happen when you over-apply a thin formula mascara trying to build volume, rather than using a smaller amount of a volume-building formula."

So now that you know everything about mascara, allow us to help you choose one. Click through to see reviews for 15 different mascaras. (We stuck to standard formulas--no tube-forming or fiber-adding formulas here, just the basics.)

Luxury Brands (all are new to market):

Chanel Le Volume de Chanel, $30: One of the best mascaras we tested. Provides really noticeable volume with just a coat or two and does not budge throughout the day. Small compact bristles on a straight brush with a tapered end deposit the pigment evenly, with a bit of French smudgy sexiness (full disclosure: a little bit of subtle clumping is desirable in my book.)

Dior Diorshow Iconic Overcurl, $28.50: The newest addition to the cult-fave Diorshow line, it has a traditional bristle brush with a bit of a curve at the end. Despite the helpful diagram about how to hold the wand for maximum curling, I kept flipping it over, because that way seemed to deposit more formula and get that lash build-up I crave. The formula is one of the smoothest I tried--nary a flake or clump was to be found, although the curling effect was pretty minimal (even when I followed the instructions properly.)

YSL Mascara Volume Effet Faux Cils Baby Doll, $30: I was not expecting such an incredible volume payoff when I saw the skinny brush, but this one is a winner. The wand is really easy to maneuver because of the flexible molded brush. It also claims 24 hour smudge control, and I can say that it stayed put through a full work day and the sweatiest Flywheel class ever.

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Lancôme Hypnose Star, $28: The brush on this one requires a small learning curve, but once you get it, it's sort of a revelation. The brush head is shaped like a Christmas tree, tapering from wide to narrow in a triangular shape. It's also flat on one side, so you can control the volume, lash separation, and pigment deposition with a miniscule turn of the wrist, but it does take some practice.

Napoleon Perdis Magnif-Eyes, $25: An amazing lengthening mascara, this is Perdis' latest offering. The skinny brush with tightly-spaced bristles arranged in a sort of barber pole swirl was great for lash separation, length, and a bit of curl. It's hard to really load on the volume with the brush shape, but if length and a natural look are your thing, this is your mascara.

Drugstore Brands (all new to market):

L'Oreal Telescopic Shocking Extensions, $8.49: This one has a high tech rubbery, flexible brush, which is flat on one side, and very narrow with a convex center. Bristles are very short, and it lengthens with impressively precise lash separation. I needed to add several coats for a more volumized look, but the lengthening was impressive.

Flower Zoom-In Ultimate Mascara, $7.98: A clever mascara from Drew Barrymore's line that falls just a tad short of what it promises. With a turn of the top, the brush has three modes: lengthening, curling, and volume. It definitely works best in lenghtening mode when the rubber bristle brush is straight and narrow. The volumizing setting (twisted and bristles set closer together) required a good three coats for satisfactory coverage and deposited the pigment a bit unevenly. But I got rid of the clumps by doing a final brush through on the lengthening setting.

CoverGirl Clump Crusher by Lash Blast $5.59: This one is a Pat McGrath fave. It has a slightly curved rubbery brush, with short bristles that are compact and close together. The name is accurate--provides decent volume (we needed to add a couple coats) but does not clump. Ever. So if you like that clumpy look, this isn't the mascara for you.

Physicians Formula Organic Wear Fake Out Mascara, $5.99: I was expecting a much thicker pigment pay-off based on the size of the brush (squat and straight with bristles close together). While I needed to do three coats, the brush did a good job of preventing clumps.

Maybelline The Rocket Volum'Express, $6.22: If L'Oreal's Telescopic Extensions wins for length, this one takes the drugstore prize for volume. Just be aware--it's not actually waterproof, but it takes a little extra elbow grease to get it off (which makes it a good gym mascara. Yes, I wear mascara to the gym.)

Classics at a Mid-Level Price Point:

Benefit They're Real! Mascara, $23: The cringey, double entendre ads for this product notwithstanding, the product is a winner. The mascara gives you that holy grail: both length AND volume. The high tech and flexible brush makes it easy to focus on individual lashes and make quick fixes.

Cargo TexasLash, $21: Everything's bigger in Texas and that goes for this mascara, too. The brush is fat and really loads on the volume. But beware: What you get in volume you lose in precision. I made a mess of my eyelid a few times because the brush head is a bit unwieldy. But if you love your lashes big, go for this one for sure.

Clinique High Impact Mascara, $16: Clinique does classics like no one else, and this mascara is no exception. There's nothing gimmicky about the straight brush, and we'd say it's a perfect everyday mascara. It's a bit harder to get really dramatic volume with this formula, but the lengthening was good and the brush deposited the forumula evenly without clumps.

Stila Major Major Lash Mascara, $22: Much like Cargo's, this is a purely volumizing mascara. This revamped version of Stila's original Major Lash claims to really amp up volume and it delivers, again with a dense, fat brush. It gives that sooty full look--brush carefully to avoid too much clumping.

MAC Haute & Naughty Too Black Lash, $20: This is a MAC classic, but the brand releases new versions (and cap colors) with various new seasonal and limited edition collections. I was confused upon first seeing the brush situation here, but am now a convert. There are two different ways to apply: If you choose the "lower" brush, you get a fully-loaded, volumized, glam look. If you choose to unscrew the top brush, it is a much more natural look with some lengthening--less product gets deposited. I do the volume, then use the skinnier brush to separate lashes and finish them off. Overall a pretty genius mascara.