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Everything You Need to Know to Find the Perfect Mascara

Your guide to navigating all the wands, formulas and colors out there.
So many options! Photo: Instagram/@marcbeauty

So many options! Photo: Instagram/@marcbeauty

If you've ever walked into the mascara section of Sephora, then chances are you've been overwhelmed by the wide array of tubes and large-format photos of models with insanely good eyelashes (...and lash inserts). But finding the formula of your lash dreams doesn't have to be complicated, we promise. Here, your guide through navigating all the market's offerings to find your mascara lobster

Let's start with lengthening

Lengthening formulas are an ideal option for those who have naturally short or sparse lashes. "Not everyone needs volume," says makeup artist Nick Barose, whose celebrity clients include Lupita Nyong'o and Maggie Gyllenhaal. In fact, volumizing mascara can sometimes be counterproductive when it comes to getting longer-looking lashes. "Sometimes when people with sparse lashes go for a heavy-volume mascara, it ends up making their lashes look stubby and actually accentuates how short they are." When shopping, look for a wand with short bristles that'll be able to get super-close to the lash line and then coat the individual hairs from the root, creating a more effective lift. Barose calls out It Cosmetics' Tightline and Lancôme's Grandiôse as favorites (he has worked with the latter brand in the past, though is not currently an official spokesperson).

Lengthening mascaras are also perfect if you're already blessed with dark or thick lashes and are simply looking to enhance their reach, so to speak. "It's really about polishing it up," says Barose. "It's almost the same idea with people who have naturally long or thick hair — you wouldn't necessarily want to add extensions."

Then there's volumizing

If big, bold lashes are your makeup M.O., then a volumizing or thickening mascara is the one for you. Unlike lengthening mascara wands, these will usually feature a much bulkier brush with longer, more dense bristles that work to bulk up your lashes as much as possible. (Have you seen the Eyeko Fat Brush wand? It's basically a small-scale shrub.)

Volumizing mascaras coat lashes with formula, which means clumping can be more of an issue than it might be with other formulas. To avoid a gunked-up shoe polish effect, be sure to remove excess formula from the wand prior to application by swiping it gently against the side of the tube as you remove it. (But don't "pump" your mascara — this will only create air bubbles in the tube, which will make the formula dry out and deteriorate in quality.) Makeup artists swear by Sisley So Intense Fortifying Volumizing Mascara, but since it's a bit on the pricey side, L'Oréal Voluminous Original Mascara makes for a solid drugstore beauty alternative. And if you're looking to really, really bulk up lashes, reach for a lash primer like, Urban Decay's Subversion Lash Primer, before brushing on mascara to maximize the impact.

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Don't forget curling

The third major category of mascaras incorporates elements from its lengthening and volumizing brethren, but usually differs when it comes to the brush. Curling spoolies are often curved so that they can manipulate the shape of the lashes for a more effective curl. "I really like wands with a curve because it really fits the eye shape," says makeup artist Neil Scibelli. "It helps to lift the lashes to get that curled shape." Barose also recommends using a cone-shaped mascara wand to achieve a "false lashes" effect. "You can hold it from root to tip, and since it's pointy at the end, you can use the wand vertically and use the tip to push the lashes up," advises Barose.

But wait, there are colors, too

Black mascara is without a doubt the most common shade you'll see at any beauty counter, but if you're feeling experimental, a swipe of colored mascara can be unexpected and subtle. "Emerald greens, deep blues and purples are becoming more available, and I think they can be easily incorporated into a makeup regimen, either as a statement eye, or as an add-on to complete your makeup look," says Scibelli. To test the waters, try Marc Jacobs O!Mega Lash Volumizing Mascara, which comes in five  shades, ranging from deep burgundy to Yves Klein blue. 

And what about waterproof?

Waterproof formulas get a bad rap for being more prone to drying and flaking (not to mention being a real beast to take off). Our advice? Use it sparingly, because while yes, it'll hold up against water and sweat better than a regular formula, it can be more irritating for sensitive eyes and can cause damage to lashes and the delicate skin surrounding your eyes when it comes time to remove it. Waterproof formulas also tend to include fewer conditioning ingredients than their water-soluble counterparts.

But if you're headed to a special event or somewhere where you're planning on shedding some tears (a wedding, masochistically re-streaming Barack Obama's farewell address, etc.), try Barose's trick for making the removal process a bit easier: "Sometimes what I'll do is use a regular mascara as a base coat, and then I'll use a waterproof mascara on top, so that way it's almost like wearing a glove, and you don't have to scrub the lashes."

So, to sum everything up...

Next time you walk into a beauty aisle or are scrolling the mascara section of and find yourself experiencing mascara overload, take a breather (or keep this handy guide bookmarked on your phone!). When in doubt, start with a formula that's all-in-one and go from there, since this will help you narrow down your exact mascara needs. "See what you need more of, or how your lashes react," says Scibelli, who recommends the unconventionally-shaped Givenchy Phenomen'Eyes Mascara and Benefit's They're Real!, which, in his words, "hits all the bases." In short, there are more mascara options available than ever before, so odds are, your perfect one is out there, just waiting for you to find it. 

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