After putting in 30 hours of research while considering more than 50 mascaras, personally testing 29, and giving 13 to a panel for a trial run, we found that the best mascara is Buxom Lash Waterproof ($19). It lengthens and separates lashes with a formula that doesn’t clump, smudge, smear, or flake over many hours of wear, while still being easy to remove at day’s end.
Our five-person testing panel rated Buxom Lash Waterproof the highest for separating and lengthening, and the easiest among our final 13 mascaras to apply. Its brush shape covered the full lash line in a few swipes and rarely created clumps of stuck-together lashes that needed to be pried apart, and if any did appear, the brush’s well-defined bristles were able to comb them apart. As a waterproof mascara, it stood up well to all-day wear, yet among waterproof mascaras it was relatively easy to take off with makeup remover. At $19, it’s an expensive tube, but it’s still at the lower end of the non-drugstore mascaras we tested.
Buxom Lash didn’t test tops in volumizing: We found that volume claims on a mascara are usually a stand-in for the amount of product that ends up on lashes and the ability of that product to make lashes stick together in bundles, creating the illusion of thicker lashes. But more product also leads to clumping on lashes, so a mascara typically has to trade off between keeping lashes separated and making them appear thicker. Buxom struck a balance between the amount of formula that was transferred by the brush and the ability of that brush (with molded, spiky elastomer bristles instead of nylon bristles) to keep lashes separated or correct clumping after it happened. Buxom’s moderate difficulty in removal—you’ll do best to use a makeup remover—is balanced by its ease in application.
If you can’t find our pick, or you absolutely hate the idea of adding a makeup remover to your routine, Benefit They’re Real ($24) has a brush similar to Buxom Lash, with those same molded, separated bristles that are good at lengthening and separating lashes. They’re Real isn’t classified as waterproof, but it is quite water-resistant, leaving a shiny, slightly brittle finish that stayed in place better than other non-waterproof mascaras. And while makeup remover is helpful to get it off, it isn’t necessary. However, it didn’t provide as much staying power as our waterproof top pick, Buxom Lash.
If you want your mascara to give you more volume than anything but really hate the idea of using makeup remover, L’Oreal Voluminous Original provides a dramatic look with a non-waterproof formula that you can easily remove with water. At $6, it’s also one of the least expensive mascaras we tried and widely available at drugstores. This is the only mascara among our picks that doesn’t use a spiky, molded elastomer brush; it has a traditional nylon bristle brush. Among those with a nylon bristle brush, this provided the most volume with the least clumping after a single swipe, and didn’t smudge as much as some other non-waterproof mascaras. This thick L’Oreal formula gave even more volume than our top pick, but was much more difficult to apply and still prone to clumping, despite being the best of its class. Compared with the other non-waterproof pick, Benefit’s They’re Real, it didn’t separate lashes and was more prone to smudging.
If you want to try an elastomer brush but don’t want to shell out more than $10 on the experiment, the best one is CoverGirl’s Clump Crusher. It has short, evenly spaced molded bristles on a slightly curved brush that reaches all of your lashes easily. There is so little product left on the brush after it comes out of the tube that it’s hard to over-apply and create clumps, and the bristles are there to re-separate them if clumps do magically appear. It’s possible, then, to build layers of this mascara to create some significant volume and length, but the more layers you add, the more likely this slightly dry formula is to start flaking later in the day.
If you want to switch between natural and intense looks, get the CoverGirl Bombshell Curvaceous by LashBlast. This mascara’s dual-ended brush has a molded elastomer side for applying a light, separating base layer that can be worn on its own for a more natural look, and a second side with nylon bristles for adding length and bulk, without the clumping that you might see after applying multiple layers of a lesser mascara. Though the formula wasn’t best at either volume or lengthening/separating, our testers liked the overall quality and versatility of the waterproof formula. Compared with our top pick, this mascara was more work to put on, but it outperformed Buxom Lash in terms of length and volume (with a slight uptick in clumping).
If you’ve always stuck with non-waterproof formulas, take this chance to try a waterproof or water-resistant mascara. In our tests, they held their shape much longer than non-waterproof formulas. And if you’ve been devoted to traditional nylon bristles, give a molded, spiky brush a shot. Of the many, many tweaks makeup manufacturers have made in recent years to “improve” their product, this is a big one that can actually make the application process less finicky.
We talked with cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski for information about the formulation of mascara, along with employees at cosmetic development and manufacturing company Kolmar, including senior lab manager Michele Robertson and senior manager of product Ali Poston. The Kolmar reps and Stefano Vanoncini, CEO of cosmetic packaging company Brivaplast, also helped us understand the role of packaging in the performance of mascara. For insight into usage and professional preferences, we talked with local makeup artists Jane Kim and Stella Kae, and celebrity makeup artist Melanie Inglessis.
I’ve been wearing mascara since high school, and of the products that I use, it’s the one I consider the most essential. Over those 15 years or so, I’ve gone through different makeup phases: I started out using very low-coverage mascara that just darkened my lashes, then transitioned to something with a little more volume, and most recently started the search for a hardcore waterproof mascara that would survive a swim (none did—at least not without smudging the inside of my goggles). Before starting this process, I had probably tried about 25 different mascaras over my life, a lot of them in sample-size form, but I never really tried to carefully track which of them performed best for me personally, aside from that waterproofness. So I started the research process pretty much from scratch.
If you haven’t tried either an elastomer brush or a waterproof formula and your current mascara is just okay, use your next buying opportunity to try one of our picks in that category. Waterproof formulas turn a lot of people off, but all of our experts preferred them, and using a makeup remover can reduce irritation when you remove mascara, even a non-waterproof one. Elastomer brushes are one of the only advances made in mascaras recently that actually make a difference in performance and your overall look.
If you have a mascara that you already love, by all means, keep on using it—and if you have friends with similar lashes, recommend it to them, since performance of a mascara can depend on an individual’s lash density and length, and even the shape of their eye socket and brow ridge (for instance, a smaller brush helps people with deep-set eyes to avoid smudging during application). But consider how much overall effort it takes to get your desired look and whether you’re fighting the product or brush a lot; a good, new mascara shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds or so to apply per eye, per layer.
You should also check the ingredients list in your current mascara to make sure that it includes a preservative—it’s essential to avoid the growth of microbes in the formula when you’re using it so close to your eyes. (Read more in the What’s in the formula section below.) If yours doesn’t have one, switch to one that does.
Speaking of microbes, it’s a good idea to get rid of your mascara after two to four months to make sure germs don’t have a chance to grow inside a tube after going from your eye to the tube several dozen times. If you’re using the product every day, the consistency will likely have changed significantly by that point anyway and you’ll want to start fresh. That may impact your mascara choice; if you buy one of our non-budget picks, that switch-out means you’ll be spending $60 to $120 a year on mascara. In our opinion, our top pick, at $19, is worth it over a budget pick—and if the price bothers you, as long as you’re careful not to share mascara and keep your hands clean while applying, swapping out every four months rather than every two should be fine.
Almost every single mascara we looked at used inflated marketing language on the packaging to try to sell its unique formula and brush. Repeated claims of lengthening, volumizing, and clump-free wear can make it infuriatingly difficult to find a mascara that works for you. Numerical claims from company-conducted surveys—70 percent longer lashes, 100 percent saw long-wearing results—don’t mean anything, either. And even though most people know enough not to trust those claims, they’ll still be gently swayed; you’re more likely to think a mascara does a good job at curling lashes (spoiler: it doesn’t) if “curl” is somewhere in its name.
That makes it especially difficult for people to know what they’re getting into when they buy a mascara. Even if you get to try a mascara out before you buy, you’re probably doing it in a makeup store like Sephora, where you sub in one of the cheap, disposable nylon-bristle testing brushes retailers put out for sanitary reasons and that will completely change the amount of product you would get on the brush and the way it’s deposited on your lashes. Again, it’s the amount of fussing you have to do to get a mascara to look good that separates the great from the good.
Really, it’s all about the brush. That’s what every interview—with cosmetic chemists, makeup artists, and industry experts—came down to: skinny brushes, fat brushes, nylon brushes, elastomer spiky brushes, brushes with weird shapes. In the absence of any real advances in mascara formulations over the past 50 years or so (and we’ll get to that “real” later), the brush is where mascara makers can define themselves in product performance. “It’s pretty easy to make a good formula, and everyone has access to the same tech,” Romanowski said. “So [companies] try to differentiate themselves with packaging and brushes.”
Recently there’s been an explosion in the popularity of spiky brushes created by molds, exemplified by Benefit’s They’re Real at the high end and CoverGirl’s LashBlast line at the budget end. While more traditional nylon bristle brushes can still do a good job, elastomer brushes are popular because they are good at separating lashes without depositing clumps of extra product. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how Audrey Hepburn would go through and separate her individual made-up lashes using a needle—similar idea, far safer execution. The two main types of molded brushes are made from thermoplastic elastomers (plastic) and vulcanized elastomers (rubber), though the differences are primarily in manufacturing, not in performance.
Nylon brushes, which are more like toothbrush bristles, are the more traditional option and have a wider variety of shapes for different purposes. Nylon brushes can work well when their size, density, and shape cooperate with the formula; not all brushes do this. Popular full-bodied, dense, thick brushes, like those with Maybelline Full ’N Soft and Dior Diorshow, can hold a lot of product, so they’ll add volume to lashes more quickly than elastomer brushes. Depending on the type of formula loaded on that brush, the result from a dense brush can be long, feathery lashes (from a dry, cakey formula like Benefit’s Bad Gal Lash) or huge, thick lashes (from a goopy formula like L’Oreal Voluminous). Romanowski likes this type of brush for its bristle density: “The more bristles on the brush, the easier application will be.”
The other major class of nylon brushes has smaller, more sparsely distributed bristles, often arranged in a spiral so there are gaps between rows of bristles, like in Maybelline Great Lash and Lancome Definicils. They allow access to small lashes, are better at defining individual lashes than filling out the whole lash line, and tend to be preferred by people with short, straight lashes. Again, the exact effects of the brush shape depend on the formula that goes onto it; a mascara like Great Lash, with a very wet formula, tends not to clump (because the formula itself doesn’t have bulk), but the gaps between bristles force lashes to stick together and therefore appear thicker. A thicker formula on the same brush would create lash clusters and build up bulk from the formula, creating super-heavy and spidery-looking lashes.
The biggest enemy to mascara is clumping eyelashes, which is much more of a problem in nylon-brush mascaras than elastomer-brush ones. There are some good nylon brushes that get the right amount of product on the brush and transfer the right amount to lashes—we picked one of them—but elastomer brushes, in addition to their ability to work like a comb to separate your lashes and smooth clumps, tend to have less product on them when they come out of the tube, so it’s easier to pace the amount deposited on your lashes.
Essential for all of these types of brushes is the wiper, the plastic disc inside the mascara tube that determines how much formula ends up on the brush and then on your lashes. (Too bad you’ll never get the chance to see the wiper, unless you decide to pry apart your mascara once you’re done with it.) Elastomer-brush mascaras tend to have a combination of narrower wiper openings and more-rigid bristles, which means more product will be scraped off than with flexible nylon bristles.
If you get the chance to open a mascara before you buy it, a good way to guess whether you’ll like it is to compare the “pull” you feel compared with another mascara you’ve liked. When a mascara brush doesn’t put up much resistance as you pull it out of the tube, it will likely leave a lot on the brush and therefore on your lashes—leading to a voluminous but potentially clumpy look. One with more resistance will end up with less stuff on the brush, and the result will be a more natural look.
To decide what formulas to test, we read cosmetic chemistry and industry resources like Premium Beauty News, which gives a fascinating look at how companies are selling you makeup, and The Beauty Brains, a great chemistry-of-makeup blog, for info about mascara formulation and packaging. We learned about the main ingredients in mascara, which have remained mostly unchanged for a few decades.
We also looked at mascara recommendations from different publications, including beauty magazines, more generalized fashion magazines, and online recommendation and reviews sites such as Paula’s Choice Beautypedia (home to hundreds of expert reviews, rated broadly on a poor-average-good-best scale with individual pro/con write-ups) and Makeup Alley (home to thousands of user reviews, both written and scaled). We included products in our tests that appeared in many of these lists over and over again, but in general we didn’t put much stock in them because they weren’t the result of regularized, objective testing plans (mascara performance will vary from person to person depending on everything from daily routines to eye shapes, and it’s easy to be biased by packaging claims). We also pulled initial models from top-selling lists on Amazon and on beauty sites like Sephora and Ulta, and from our experts’ personal recommendations. We cross-referenced ratings on those sites, making sure to include specific products recommended by our sources and any with repeated appearances on other publications’ best-of lists, and honed down the list to those that received good or excellent ratings on both sites.
Based on those differentiators, we categorized more than 50 high-ranking mascaras by the basics: brush type and formula type, and a specific ingredient list when possible. Then we eliminated the mascaras that didn’t have broad-spectrum preservatives (see the section on ingredients below), along with ones that had other specious claims on their labeling that our experts said didn’t hold up to real chemical improvements to the formulas—with the exception of a few that got very high ratings.
We also conducted a survey of Sweethome followers on Twitter to figure out what the average mascara user is looking for. The vast majority (about 85 percent) wanted a black mascara that gave them a “better, longer, thicker” version of their own lashes, as opposed to a more natural or dramatic look. About half wanted a non-waterproof mascara, while about a quarter wanted either waterproof or water-resistant formulas.
That left us with a list of about 20 mascaras, a good mix of drugstore and luxury brands (we didn’t include anything over $30, because that’s just getting ridiculous—one luxury brand name was $52!). For our first test, we rated the initial application of each mascara on a scale of one to ten on volumizing, separation, lengthening, smearing, and clumping, narrowing down the field to the mascaras with the highest total scores.
To test the final batch of mascaras, we used a panel of five diverse testers with different skin types, lash types, and typical makeup routines. We blinded the 13 finalists so the users wouldn’t likely be able to tell what kind or brand of mascara they were using. They filled out a survey rating the mascara right after they applied it, based on volume, lengthening, separation, ease of application, clumping, and smearing. They also answered questions after a full day of wear, based on flaking, weight, crunchiness, long-lasting wear, and difficulty of removal.
A mascara’s performance does depend on its formula, too. According to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski (and echoed by the chemists at Kolmar Laboratories), there are three main types: anhydrous, water-in-oil, and oil-in-water.
Anhydrous formulas—that’s without water—constitute the majority of waterproof mascaras (Buxom Lash Waterproof is an exception to that). They’re mostly made up of hydrophobic, or “water-hating,” ingredients, like petrolatum, beeswax, and carnauba wax, along with pigment, and, in most modern formulas, some other ingredients. “When you’re using an anhydrous formula, you’re just putting oils on your eyelash,” Romanowski said. “That’s why they’re waterproof—the water just beads up and falls off.” These waterproof formulas are excellent for holding a curl made with an eyelash curler, but oil alone never dries, so smudging can sometimes be a problem.
The other two types of formulas are emulsions of water and oil. The vast majority of mascaras that score highly among experts and users (including our top pick, Buxom Lash) are oil-in-water formulations, which will have water as the first ingredient. Using film-forming ingredients, oil-in-water formulas dry to a flake-proof and typically smudge-proof sheen, and can be removed simply with water and soap. Film formers are a class of polymers that typically have a hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic section. They create sort of a sheath around the lash—the water-friendly parts facing in toward your lashes, and the rest on the outside to form the film, which makes it stay put against tears and eye goo. But “the film only becomes smudge-proof when it dries,” Romanowski cautioned—imagine liquid latex drying into a shell around a mold. Those film formers can also be good at holding eyelash shape, including previously curled lashes. But they’re fickle: You need a film that is flexible while also holding its shape, so it doesn’t flake off, while still drying enough that it won’t smudge. But it’s impractical and nearly impossible for a normal person to tell how the many film formers and other polymers will work together in a formula just by reading the ingredient list.
Water-in-oil formulas, in which an oil such as mineral oil or lanolin will be the first ingredient, are rare—they smudge easily, like anhydrous, and come off with water (no good).
You can tell a couple of things from a mascara’s ingredient list: If alcohol is high up on the list, said Melanie Inglessis, you can expect it to dry quickly, which is good if you’re prone to smudging, but it can lead to a crunchy feel later in the day. If a formula has film-forming acrylic copolymers (they almost all do—look for words like acrylates copolymer, acrylic acid, methacrylate, and ethylene, some of the molecular building blocks of a copolymer), it’s more likely to hold a specific shape once it has dried.
When testing mascaras, we looked for the best mascara overall, whether it was waterproof or not. The best mascaras turned out to be a smattering of both categories, and we noted where makeup remover is necessary or not, even when the product is not marked as waterproof.
The only thing that differentiates luxury brands from drugstore brands in terms of ingredients, if anything, is the presence of natural-sounding oils and extracts, which don’t influence performance. Luxury brands are also more likely to have swapped out parabens for another antimicrobial.
Speaking of antimicrobials: A mascara must have parabens or some other preservative since it is applied so close the the eye—especially if it contains water and is more likely to breed bacteria and fungi. Though cosmetics manufacturers have been removing parabens, a popular class of preservative, from their formulations over concerns regarding research that suggests that parabens can make it into your body to disrupt hormones, affecting reproduction, or encourage cancer growth, there’s no reason to be afraid of parabens. The European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that the preservatives are safe in normal cosmetic use (normally less than 0.5 percent of a formula is parabens). Parabens, including methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, are some of the most effective antimicrobials used in mascaras. The US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have to approve cosmetic safety, but it is responsible for removing products that have harmful ingredients, and it does not consider parabens a health hazard. None of the industry reps we spoke with were concerned about the health effects of parabens—only their customers’ reaction to them. “Paraben-free is one of the top ‘free of’ claims we receive for customer-driven formula development,” said Kolmar’s Poston.
The FDA makes it illegal to sell cosmetics “adulterated” with bacteria and fungi, which means any legit company will include some preservative to make sure they don’t grow. If a company gives in to consumer pressure about parabens, it will usually replace them with an effective alternative like quaternium 15, phenoxyethanol, or sodium borate. (A strictly bone-dry mascara can get away without a preservative, Romanowski said, but water can always be introduced after you open a container, so it’s still important to have.) Sometimes, the replacement preservatives in mascaras labeled “synthetic preservative-free” can be less effective preservatives because they aren’t broad-spectrum; they don’t protect against all kinds of yeast, bacteria, and fungi. So watch out for ingredients like Leuconostoc/radish root ferment filtrate and honeysuckle extract, which shouldn’t be used without supplementary preservatives.
Phthalates are another common concern for consumers. Diethyl phthalate is the only one still commonly used in cosmetics, but it wasn’t found in the majority of the mascaras we looked at (it doesn’t appear in any of the top five). Even if it were, it’s unclear whether exposure to phthalates has any impact on human health, according to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review—even animal studies of phthalates haven’t suggested any conclusive health effects. If they did, it’s unlikely that the levels used in mascara would carry any risk given how little of it is absorbed through the skin, as reported by the World Health Organization.
Lately, a number of mascaras have been advertising “fiber-filled” formulas, saying that they’ll increase volume. Romanowski cautions against those claims: “When they’re talking about fibers they’re talking about long polymers, and there’s no rule for what’s a fiber and what’s not a fiber.” Long polymers may help a mascara stick to your lashes better, Romanowski said, but since there’s no formal definition, be wary of claims about volume from fibers, which could just be marketing hype. (One of our final picks, L’Oreal Voluminous, visually appears to have the short, stubby flecks that you’d call fibers, but the packaging doesn’t include that language.)
There are some features that don’t make a difference or are oversold in mascara formulas: “natural oils,” any ingredient purported to improve the health of your eyelashes, and any ingredient that will allegedly grow your eyelashes. Robertson refers to those as things that can help Kolmar tell a “treatment marketing story.” Mascaras that made those specious claims got knocked off our list for the most part, unless their user reviews were super high.
Also, there’s no evidence that any mascara can actively curl your lashes. Waterproof formulas and formulas with an acrylic copolymer can help hold the shape of a curled lash better, but no mascara will do what an eyelash curler does.
Our top pick is the waterproof formulation of Buxom Lash Mascara ($19). Buxom Lash has the best-designed brush we tried—a spiky, hourglass shape comprised of thin bristles of different lengths to encourage lengthening and separating for even short corner lashes. The wiper disc’s “pull” helps the brush hold the right amount of formula for adding volume with minimal clumping. Buxom’s waterproof, oil-in-water formula resisted smudging and smearing better than the non-waterproof mascaras in our tests. Our panelists, whose lashes ranged from short to long and thin to thick, rated it highest for ease of application and all put it among their top picks.
Buxom Lash has a spiky elastomer brush, shaped so it’s slightly wider and more dense at the tip and base of the bristles; the effect is like if you took a curved brush shape and revolved it 360 degrees around a parallel axis. This way, no matter how you’re holding it, you get a sort of curved-brush experience. (If you remember any calculus, think of a hyperboloid.) That applicator is the main reason Buxom Lash is our top pick. “I love the shape of the applicator,” one of the testers (with short, straight lashes) wrote. “It’s super-great for getting at the lashes at the corners of my eyes and reallllly combing through my lashes.”
Elastomer brushes in general, as we’ve discussed, are better than nylon brushes at controlling the amount and distribution of product on lashes. And among the many elastomer brushes in our final 13 mascaras (there were seven, including the one dual-sided mascara), this one was designed the best. The brush wasn’t so big that it was difficult to handle, its hourglass shape reached the whole lash line, the amount of product held on the brush didn’t dump too much formula on lashes, and if any clumps appeared, the thin, rigid bristles helped comb through them.
The brush design and the way it held its formula also got Buxom Lash its top ratings for separation and lengthening. Like many elastomer brushes, this one comes out of the tube with a satisfying Velcro-like resistance or “pull”; you won’t get too much product on the brush, so you won’t over-apply and cause clumping like you can with some nylon brushes. (You can get a sense for how much product gets pulled off the brush by looking at the very tip of the brush after it comes out. A little glob sits right at the end where the wiper can’t reach—you might want to wipe that off on the mouth of the tube to avoid smears if you’ve got a shaky hand.) If you look carefully, you can see that there are two main lengths of bristles on the Buxom Lash brush, one longer and one shorter, which help to coat and separate lashes of different lengths and thicknesses.
And it’s not that the oil-in-water formula doesn’t add volume to lashes: It just applies the maximum amount of product it can to thicken lashes before they start to clump. While the bristles are evenly spaced in the middle of the brush, they’re placed closer together at the ends. That means if you don’t like your lashes to stick together in clusters—not clumping, quite, but creating the illusion of volume by making one mega-lash out of three or four lashes—you can use the ends of the brush to comb through and separate them even more.
All of those attributes contributed to Buxom Lash getting the highest average rating by our testers for ease of application. The visual results are important, too, and we’ll get to those next, but we can’t overstate the importance of ease of use when it comes to a product you use every day. Mascara is often the last part of an eye-makeup routine, and screwing up by applying too much or smudging can mean starting over again. The testers thought it would be a great everyday mascara, although the one tester who doesn’t frequently wear makeup still thought it would be great for going out.
On the point of waterproofness, we’d stress that while you do need a makeup remover product to get Buxom Lash Waterproof off, it is definitely not one of the unyielding, aggressive waterproof formulas. Once in contact with a remover, it pretty much slides right off.
At $19, Buxom Lash isn’t cheap, and it’s sold exclusively at Sephora—the only mascara we tested that falls into that category. Buxom Lash has also apparently decided not to use parabens, but it does have a preservative, sodium dehydroacetate, which does the trick.
Some testers complained that Buxom Lash could feel brittle. “Made my lashes feel pretty crunchy,” wrote one tester, “but the final result was worth it.” That’s because the formula, while waterproof, actually has water as the first ingredient, followed by a film-forming polymer. A film-forming-dominated formula like Buxom’s works by “wrapping” the lash in a film that hardens slightly as it dries, Romanowski explained, preventing flaking and smudging. Lashes end up looking and feeling more lacquered (“glossy” would be the more positive-sounding term) than with a mascara that doesn’t dry to set. Some nylon-brush mascaras did add more volume than Buxom Lash, but those came with the downside of clumping and no helpful comblike bristles.
Finally, our top pick is waterproof. If the extra trouble of removing a waterproof mascara is a dealbreaker for you, go for our runner-up, Benefit They’re Real, which smudges and clumps less than the non-waterproof version of Buxom Lash.
Not everyone will love Buxom Lash—or any mascara that we recommend. The success of a mascara depends a lot on exactly what look you’re going for, the look of your natural eyelashes, and even the shape of your eye socket. However, this mascara impressed us with the sheer range of its appeal across testers with different needs.
One of the biggest limitations of our testing was the ability to test mascaras over long periods of time. The way a mascara works can change significantly as it gets used up and dries out over a period of weeks (our experts recommended throwing out a tube after about three months to avoid microbial growth in the tube). Some of the makeup artists we talked to make a point to use mascara on their clients that’s been sitting around for a while so it doesn’t come out as goopy or liquidy as it does on first use. “I prefer mascara that’s a couple of weeks old,” Inglessis said, “because every time you pump mascara back in, it brings air in.” We operated under the assumption that average users would want their mascara to work great on first use, though, so all of our results are based on daylong tests on tubes of mascara fresh from the package.
If you can’t get Buxom Lash, or if you prefer a non-waterproof formula, we recommend Benefit They’re Real ($24). This mascara looks very similar to Buxom Lash on the surface: It’s another pricier model defined by its spiky elastomer bristles. It scored second-highest overall for separation and lengthening, just after Buxom Lash, thanks to the comblike attributes of elastomer brushes that we described above. Benefit’s oil-in-water formula for They’re Real is slightly wetter than that of Buxom Lash, and a little more of it ends up on the brush. That made it better at volumizing than Buxom Lash, but true to our volume equals clumping explanation, also slightly more prone to clumping. The appearance of volume is also a result of the spacing of the bristles; a slightly wider gap between bristles leads to some lashes sticking together, creating that mega-lash volume illusion.
That difference doesn’t mean too much, though, when both brushes can comb out clumps. In terms of performance, the main difference between this mascara and our top pick is ease of use, which was impacted by the brush design. The diameter of They’re Real’s brush is constant the entire length, which isn’t quite as good as Buxom’s hourglass shape at reaching the lashes on the inner and outer corners of eyes. And unlike Buxom Lash, They’re Real spaces its bristles evenly along the whole brush, so you can’t make lashes any more separated than the bristle spacing dictates.
Like Buxom Lash, the main complaint about this mascara is that it has a formula that goes on wet and dries to a slightly brittle, shiny finish. One tester described it as like having “eyelashes carved from steel,” saying that it was “overall a little uncomfortable, but very effective.” That discomfort was balanced out by its long-lasting wear: “This is one of the few mascaras that didn’t smudge my bottom lid after a full day of wear, which I really liked,” said one tester.
Buxom Lash performs ever-so-slightly better than Benefit in most categories, so the real reason we’re including Benefit in our picks is that it’s easier to take off. They’re Real isn’t classified as waterproof, but you could call it water resistant. It’s not at all likely to smudge, unlike the non-waterproof version of Buxom Lash, but it’s also not as difficult to remove as the waterproof Buxom Lash. You can get it off with water and soap, though a makeup remover will make it faster (Benefit sells a They’re Real-branded one, but it isn’t necessary).
Our favorite budget mascara overall is the non-waterproof L’Oreal Voluminous ($6). We’ve been pretty down on nylon-brush mascaras, but they do have their place. While an elastomer brush is good for separating lashes, the best nylon brush can apply lots and lots of product, which is the only way to add serious volume. The trick is keeping it from clumping while all that formula goes on your lashes. L’Oreal Voluminous pulled that balancing act off better than any other nylon-brush mascara we tested—in its class, it produced the most volume in one application with the least amount of clumping.
L’Oreal Voluminous has a classic, straightforward nylon-bristle brush with no fancy shaping. It’s the biggest factor in the mascara’s ability to add volume. The brush has a gentle taper and a reasonable diameter, so it’s easy to control as you apply, and just one coat gave testers a lot of volume and length. A lot of goopy formula ends up on the nylon bristles; compared with our other picks with their elastomer brushes, this brush offers almost no resistance, or pull, as it comes out of the tube, and you can scrape a huge dollop of product off the brush onto the edge of the tube. But the smooth formula went on lashes evenly, creating very few clumps. Clumping will likely decrease over time as the formula dries out a bit and more of it gets used up, depositing less and less on the brush. If you look carefully at the brush, you can see the spidery polymers that some mascaras call “fibers,” which may also be contributing (minimally) to that volume.
That nylon brush, though, means that this is a one-shot deal; if you don’t apply the mascara correctly the first time, adding more product with extra swipes will likely bring on the clumps. And once clumps form, this brush doesn’t have the bristle definition like an elastomer brush to help break them apart. One tester wrote: “One coat and it looked great with separated, long lashes. Two coats and it started to clump.” If you’re looking for a waterproof version of this mascara, you can try Clinique’s High Impact Waterproof, which has almost exactly the same brush but a cakier consistency that won’t be as goopy—but it will be more difficult to remove, obviously.
The CoverGirl Clump Crusher by LashBlast ($7) elastomer brush and formula seem identical to the one found on the step-one end of the Bombshell Curvaceous mascara. If you want to try an elastomer brush without shelling out $20 on our two top picks, this is a good one to try. It has a curved brush with slightly shorter bristles than the other two elastomer brushes of our picks, and like those other elastomer brushes, it’s better at separating and lengthening lashes than volumizing them. “I love the teeny baby spikes!” wrote one tester. “I have thick lashes, so this grabbed onto them well.” While our testers preferred the overall effect of the L’Oreal, if you don’t need or don’t want a volumizing effect, this is the one to get.
The main difference between this elastomer brush and the others we tested—other than the curved brush, which did seem to help certain testers reach all their lashes at once—is how tight the wiper is around the brush. There’s much more resistance when you’re pulling this brush out of the tube than with the other elastomers, leaving less formula on the brush. That means this mascara definitely won’t clump (its name, for once, is completely accurate), even when you put multiple layers on.
However, our panelist reported that Clump Crusher tends to flake more than the more expensive elastomer-brush mascaras did. It could be the tight wiper or the slightly dry formulation, but every tester noticed some flaking by the end of the day with this mascara, which intensified with the number of layers of mascara used. The upside is that the formula used in this mascara has a softer feel on lashes than other more lacquerlike, but less flaky formulas. I would use this as an everyday mascara, applying just a coat or two to avoid the worst flaking.
CoverGirl Bombshell Curvaceous by LashBlast ($6) was a surprise hit. It was the only double-sided two-step mascara that the panel tested, and it looks weird: I definitely wouldn’t buy it at first look in the drugstore, with its chunky tube. But used in either one step or two, its results are pretty great. “This is kind of perfect for major lengthening, volume, and separation. I adore it,” said one of our testers. The first side is an elastomer spiky brush that’s identical to the one that you get from CoverGirl’s Clump Crusher. Like other elastomer brushes, it applies just enough of its slightly dry formula to separate and lengthen lashes without clumping, but it doesn’t provide a ton of volume. (Though Bombshell and Clump Crusher share the CoverGirl LashBlast brand name, the formulas are different.)
That’s where the second brush comes in: a basic nylon with a quickly tapering tip. While this is a nylon brush, the formula it’s carrying is relatively wet, not thick and goopy, so instead of clumping, it just layers on top of the base created by the first brush. That adds volume and extra length without negatively impacting the separation created by the first layer, though it’s possible to get bad clumping if you use too much pressure on the second brush or can’t get your lashes in place before the second layer dries. “I ended up a little clumpy—probably could’ve let it dry more in between coats,” one tester wrote. I can imagine someone using the first brush for everyday wear and then using both for a more dramatic nighttime look. Building volume with the second half of that tube, actually, is kind of like applying the glossy finish of the more expensive elastomer-brush mascaras after the fact, instead of in the same formula.
The downsides: its price, which is slightly higher for a drugstore mascara (we’ve seen it go for as much as $11, and keep in mind that the reservoirs of formula aren’t full-sized for each side), and a weird-feeling stickiness that can develop after you apply the second, wetter coat before it dries. Finally, though this isn’t marked as a waterproof or water-resistant mascara, it certainly acts that way and definitely needs a makeup remover to take off. I’d classify this is as a mascara for people who are into makeup who don’t mind using makeup remover and want the option of a much more aggressively lengthening and volumizing step that will do more than simply applying a second coat of the same mascara (like two layers of Clump Crusher). The payoff is worth it if you’re really looking for a made-up look.
There’s no consistent “best” way to apply makeup. The makeup industry people I talked to suggested that you always read the packaging—different mascaras will sometimes include directions, and they vary from brush to brush. Typically, you’ll get better results if you apply as few coats as possible to get your final result, and don’t pump the wand back and forth in the tube (you’ll end up with too much product and introduce extra air into the formula). Depending on whether you want more or less product on your lash, you can wiggle the brush as you pull upward, or twist the barrel like a paint roller as you draw the brush up.
What’s most clear from looking at 50-plus mascaras is that individual preference counts for a lot when it comes to makeup. Among the 13 mascaras that our final testing panel used, a number of them got polar opposite reviews from different testers. Samples from two reviews of the same mascara:
“Brush is WAY too big, very difficult to get the inner corner of lashes without smudging the alcove of my nose and eye. Very smudgy on brow because the brush was so unwieldy. Also not as good at separating lashes. Hate it.”
“The brush did a lot of the work of separating the lashes. I was amazed by the lack of clumps. It doesn’t feel heavy on my eyes at all. I think it’s wonderful because it adds a moderate amount of length and volume, which is perfect for a natural daytime look.”
Some of our testers had deep-set eyes, so any large-bristled brushes that other testers loved were way too difficult to apply without smudging on their skin. Others rarely used makeup, so a mascara that regular makeup wearers thought was perfect was over-the-top for others. We’ll point out where those conflicts occurred in the nine also-ran mascaras, as well as the few mascaras that we definitely wouldn’t buy.
If you’re disappointed by the lack of traditional nylon bristle brushes in our top picks, this is our top suggestion in the waterproof set. It excelled at adding length more than volume, though it smeared readily.
Clinique High Impact Waterproof, $16.50
This is another good bet for a waterproof nylon brush. It had slightly lower overall scores than DiorShow, but added length. Some testers complained that it clumped on application.
This is another nylon brush option that did well. It matches L’Oreal Voluminous in a lot of respects, but its thick formula was more prone to clumping and it didn’t hold up as well to all-day wear.
Buxom Lash Mascara, $19
The non-waterproof version of our top pick performed similarly, except for the fact that it had a smudging problem. It also clumped more than the waterproof version and more than our runner-up, Benefit’s They’re Real, despite its elastomer brush. But if you don’t tend to get watery-eyed and you want your nighttime routine to be as simple as possible, it’s a good compromise.
Benefit Bad Gal Lash, $19
If you consider yourself skilled with mascara, this huge, dense nylon brush might be a good dramatic choice for you. Our novice tester thought the brush was unwieldy, but others (especially those with shorter lashes) loved the feathery, long results it gave them. The difference between this and the other nylon brushes is that its formula is dry, not goopy, so layers could build in volume without clumping too much.
Clinique Naturally Glossy, $16.50
This basic nylon bristle brush didn’t put enough mascara on lashes to make a difference. “I’m a ‘natural look’ kind of person,” said one tester, “but this was too natural.”
This straight elastomer brush would probably be good if it got more product on the brush; most testers said they could barely tell if they were wearing mascara. “It does, however, work nicely as an eyebrow comb,” said one tester.
Testers didn’t like this waterproof mascara for its clumpy application, and it didn’t stand up to all-day wear.
This elastomer brush is a cross between the Buxom Lash brush and They’re Real brush, with a slightly hourglass-like shape and evenly spaced bristles. The formula isn’t as good at volumizing, and a slightly more flexible brush head makes application harder to control, but this is another reasonable drugstore elastomer brush to try.
This mascara goes on smoothly, but the thin, delicate nylon brush doesn’t apply enough product to build much volume or length.
This almost-great mascara has a formula similar to L’Oreal Voluminous in feel, but its nylon brush doesn’t do enough to prevent clumping.
Another elastomer brush, but this one has a wiper that isn’t tight enough. So much formula comes off the brush during application that even combing through with the brush can’t get rid of the clumping.
While many drugstore brands with nylon brushes have goopy formulas that can smear on application, this one is a bit cakier and less likely to smudge on application. It didn’t add enough volume or length to be notable, though.
This mascara packs a lot of product onto its nylon brush; try it only if you want a really heavily made-up look. It comes with a tiny nylon brush on the other side for bottom lashes, which often leads to smearing.
This is another one of CoverGirl’s elastomer brushes; it applies similarly to Clump Crusher, but it’s more difficult to apply because of its bulky brush head.
This elastomer brush has a very wet formula without much body. It goes on clean and separates lashes well, but adds very little volume and length—basically just slightly darkens your normal lashes. Other elastomer brushes perform better on all counts.
Lancome Definicils, $27.50
This thin nylon brush comes out loaded with product. That might be okay if the brush were curved so only one coat was necessary, but the long, straight brush means multiple swipes are necessary to coat every lash, leading to clumping.
This mascara has a strangely shaped brush that fans out at the end so a single stroke coats your outer lashes. It does tend to extend those outer lashes further than other mascaras, but overall the brush shape makes it too difficult to get anything but one specific, dramatic look.
To our continued mystification, this mascara is always included in editorial mascara lists and often at the very top. It has fairly large spaces between its spiraling bristles, and those gaps plus its wet formula create clumps of lashes. These clumps give the illusion of volume, but the formula is so wet that it often smears before drying completely.
This nylon brush is one of the rare drugstore versions that uses a wetter, not-so-gloopy formula. But in this case, there isn’t enough formula on the brush to provide the volume you’d want from a nylon brush.
The rapidly tapering nylon brush on this mascara is too big to use carefully for everyday, and you’ll end up with clumps if you attempt to build layers.
This hourglass-shaped nylon brush carries a nice, smooth formula, but so much of it ends up on the brush that clumping is inevitable.
This “tubing” mascara has a very different formula that creates an elastic sheath that slides off of lashes with water. It adds color but no volume or length.
This mascara smudged easily and clumped on its first layer with no chance of combing through the clumps.
Originally published: September 20, 2015