The Best Eyeliner

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The best eyeliner stays on as long as possible while looking great, with deep pigmentation and perfect, uniform coverage, and comes off without a huge hassle. After more than 100 collective hours researching eyeliners; considering more than 100 gels, pencils, and liquids; and testing more than 50, we’ve found the three best eyeliners in pencil, liquid, and gel: Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner pencil, Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid Liner, and the Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner.

Last Updated: One year ago
We’ve added long-term test notes below.
Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner
This mechanical pencil eyeliner goes on the softest and smoothest of the pencil eyeliners we tested and doesn’t budge for hours.

The Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner is the best pencil-format liner: The retractable crayon comes out in a thin column, goes on the softest and smoothest, and sets to a finish that lasted the longest of the eyeliners we tested. The pigmentation was not the darkest or most even, but the application experience and staying power won our panel over.

Revlon ColorStay Skinny Liquid Liner
The super-thin felt tip brush makes it easy to draw a flawless graphic line. It also retained its sharp-edged look better than other liquid liners.

The best liquid eyeliner is the Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid Liner. Its extra-narrow, felt-tip brush smoothly and easily deposits an inky matte line that retains its sharp-edged look better than any other liquid liner we tried. However, in our full-day tests, all of the liquid eyeliners had trouble staying put the whole day.

Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner
This firm formula was the easiest to manage, stayed on the longest without budging, and was easy to remove.

And if you’re looking for serious staying power as well as a versatile product, the Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner was the best gel eyeliner we tested. Our testers found the Bobbi Brown formula made the smoothest, cleanest, and most even pitch-black line of the gels we tested. Testers said it set to a matte finish that held its shape throughout the day without being a pain to get off. Gel requires a separate brush and takes a little more finesse to apply than other formats, but it’s worth getting the hang of if you need your eyeliner to put in long hours or survive strenuous conditions like sweaty summers.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

For this piece, we surveyed a number of experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. We interviewed two cosmetic chemists: Perry Romanowski of Cosmetic Chemists Corner and Ginger King, a former product development manager for Avon in the Eye group who runs a cosmetics product development consulting business and came recommended as a source by the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

We also interviewed three makeup artists: Julio Sandino, the founder of top-rated NYC makeup studio Pucker who has worked with many high-profile fashion and celebrity clients; Rebecca Perkins, founder of top-rated NYC makeup studio Rouge New York and former head of the makeup department for Law and Order SVU; and Mai Quynh, a celebrity makeup artist with 16 years of experience who specializes in magazine covers.

In addition to getting input from experts, we trawled through dozens of websites, lists, and guides to give us the broadest possible perspective on how people use eyeliner and what they like their eyeliners to do. We consulted resources like Paula’s ChoiceCosDNA, and documentation from the FDA to shape our understanding of ingredients. We read thousands of user reviews across Ulta, MakeupAlley, Amazon, and Sephora, not to mention dozens of beauty blogs and both independent and established publications to figure out what was popular and why (or why not).

On a personal note, I’ve spent countless hours steeping myself in today’s burgeoning eyeliner culture, studying eyeliner looks, watching eyeliner tutorials, and trying various styles and methods of application on myself. After many, many hours of practice and refining my technique and tools, I can paint a mean cat-eye.

When should I buy new eyeliner?

Like most makeup, eyeliner is not meant to last forever and needs replacing, ideally every few months.
Like most makeup, eyeliner is not meant to last forever and needs replacing, ideally every few months. The longer you wait, the worse your product will behave, because ingredients will degrade or evaporate and bacteria may grow, even with preservatives in the formula. So if you’re running out, or your product is getting stiff, gunky, or dry, we have the best new ones to invest in. If you’re unhappy with your eyeliner, it’s worth it to switch.

On a special formulation note: If you like your pencil or liquid eyeliner okay but it doesn’t seem to stay on very well throughout the day without frequent adjustments, and you would like an eyeliner that does, you should specifically consider investing your time (and money) in getting and learning to use our gel pick. While gels require a little more practice, they dry faster, travel less, and stay on longer, according to our experts and panel testers. When smudged with a softer brush or Q-tip, they can even stand in for pencil liners, but stay on hours longer.

First, a story about shopping for eyeliner

I wouldn’t expect an eyeliner sold exclusively at Barney’s to cost any less than $42, plus tax. It was the most expensive product on my list. The eyeliner I was going to Barney’s to see was a felt-tip liquid pen that had received glowing reviews on a couple of beauty blogs and a recommendation by one of the makeup artists I interviewed. It was called Surratt Auto-Graphique.

I descended the staircase and passed makeup counters crammed with salespeople and products and brands. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to time travel, going to a place where people used to sit together and consult about your appearance and sell you things under the guise of helping you, despite the fact that they’re being paid by a very specific company to do so. A short distance from La Mer’s booth, famous for selling $190 half-ounce containers of eye cream, I found the Surratt counter.

“I’m looking for your—um—your liquid eyeliner I guess?” I told the saleswoman. The look on her face said she wasn’t sure why I seemed both sure and unsure what I was looking for. “I’ve heard good things,” I said.

“Sure, it’s right here.” She grabbed a pen and uncapped it, gently took my hand, turned it over, and marked the back of my hand with a swipe. She kept talking about why people love the product while I leaned over the counter, trying to catch the mark in all the angles of the harsh track lighting. For a black eyeliner, the mark was very gray. And then, as it sat, jackpot—the pigment seeped into the tiny creases on my skin. I asked if I could try the pen myself and drew a few more swipes on my hand, thick and then thin and then thick again, firm pressure, light pressure. Always grayish. Always feathering. The saleswoman watched me ritualistically mark my hand again and again, with an increasingly bemused expression. I realized I should have put more thought into my cover story.

I had planned to buy a Surratt Auto-Graphique to test further if the product held up, but it wasn’t even worth the second look I gave it. I feigned some interest in a smoky-eye pencil, which turned out to come in a stunning iridescent taupe shade for a slightly lower price than the liquid pen. I nearly bought it for myself, but resisted, thanked the saleswoman, and took off for the door. I’d eliminated another one from the pack.

How we picked and tested

Amadou Diallo

The process of shopping for eyeliner is often this frustrating—you try some eyeliners that all seem more or less the same when you swipe them on your hand, buy the one that looks the best (ish), and then start using it every day. The eyeliner looks okay when you put it on, but then it develops some problems—it smears, or it flakes, or it fades.  You search for “best eyeliner” lists, but they are compromised by brand affiliations or enthusiastic but baseless endorsements.  You might drop money on department store name brands, you might impulse buy from the drugstore, but the dissatisfaction remains constant. Maybe you find a product and decide to love it, despite flaws you accept because you are tired of looking for the perfect eyeliner.

There are plenty of reviews out there for makeup, but virtually none of them are comparative, let alone comprehensive. Even the most rigorous beauty bloggers writing thoughtful review posts about products may toss out a couple comparisons to other high-profile products, but the goal is usually independent evaluation of individual products.

When we set out to pick one good eyeliner, eventually we realized we needed to pick three. Thanks to an uptick in certain trends like cat-eye liner and other graphic looks, “eyeliner” means so much more than a pencil. We tested products broken down into three categories: pencil eyeliners in a sharpenable or mechanical format, liquids in dip-brush or pen formats, and gel eyeliners in pot format.

Precise eyeliner looks do take skill, but it’s much easier to attain and maintain the look you want with the right product. A good makeup artist can always overcome a bad eyeliner at the point of contact, but the same eyeliner can fail on a simple, relaxed day of wear when challenged by sweat, tears, or weather.

First, a good eyeliner should be easy to apply: It should go on smoothly, it shouldn’t catch on your eye skin, and shouldn’t leave gaps in coverage or be low in pigmentation, requiring multiple strokes. It was incredible how many of the “black” eyeliners we tested look faded or patchy and gray. These were easy eliminations. Others were a fine texture and color, but feathered or cracked badly while they dried.

This eyeliner, Lancôme Artliner, costs $31. IT'S NOT EVEN BLACK. Honestly

This eyeliner, Lancôme Artliner, costs $31. IT’S NOT EVEN BLACK. Honestly. Casey Johnston

Second, it must stay on well. That means it should not migrate, smudge, flake, or fade—definitely not within the first few hours of wear and ideally not over the course of a day. As we discovered, this is a tall order for some formats. Even some of the more robust ones wouldn’t last a full 12-hour day without touchups.

Here’s a bad run of liquid eyeliners, which not only feathered terribly but were reduced to black smears by dry rubbing (left) and water (right). No, thanks!

Here’s a bad run of liquid eyeliners, which not only feathered terribly but were reduced to black smears by dry rubbing (left) and water (right). No, thanks! Casey Johnston

We are here to say that perfect eyeliner does not exist.
Third, the eyeliner should come off as easily as possible. Based on a survey we did with more than 800 respondents, there are a fair number of eyeliner users who would like to swipe on an eyeliner in a matter of seconds, have it remain perfect all day, and then be able to gently mist their faces with water and have the eyeliner particles just drift off into the breeze. We are here to say that perfect eyeliner does not exist. Overall, respondents prioritized an eyeliner that stays on over one that is easy to get off, so we gave endurance more weight than easy removal. You”ll still need makeup remover, but we gave points to eyeliners that would slide off and attach to the remover-soaked cotton pad, rather than simply leave a dark smear all over your skin.

Here is a run of eyeliners that were a bit better on the smudging/smearing count on the whole. Eyeliner three we would have rated as having poor pigment—it’s practically dove gray—but decent coverage, as it’s even. The eyeliner furthest on the right would have bad ratings on both counts, as it came out it in globs but was not even black in most places. Eyeliners five and seven would receive high marks for both, and also survived this battery of fluid tests VERY well—a definite selection for the next round. Casey Johnston

The only thing worse than having to draw a perfect cat-eye is having to draw it a second time, matching the first perfectly.
As a more minor corollary, we prioritized black eyeliners that were, well, black. If reviews reported that the pigmentation in an eyeliner was not dark or faded easily, we discarded it from consideration. (The only thing worse than having to draw a perfect cat-eye is having to draw it a second time, matching the first perfectly.) We did not consider the range of other colors a given eyeliner might come in and did not test any colors other than black. Us vouching for an eyeliner is not necessarily an endorsement for that eyeliner in other colors.

We also did not focus on “water-resistant,” “waterproof,” “smudge-proof,” or hours-long wear claims when selecting eyeliners.  We selected products based on our own research and testing and judged them from there.

Cosmetics as a whole are inexpensive to produce, with the average markup at 78 percent.
A note about eyeliner cost—a high price is not commensurate with a quality product. In fact, we found many high-end designer eyeliners, like the Surratt, severely lacking. “If you’re spending a lot of money on your eyeliner, you might be spending more than you need to,” said Romanowski. Cosmetics as a whole are inexpensive to produce, with the average markup at 78 percent. For perspective, the cost of makeup is about as overblown as popcorn at a movie theater or eyeglasses frames at the optometrist. Marketing and celebrity endorsements can drive costs up. “More expensive pencils tend to be hypoallergenic and allergy tested,” said Sandino, labels that we know to be meaningless (for more on this, see the Ingredients section). But the other thing that can drive an eyeliner’s price up is the cost of marketing to the 1 percent.

We narrowed the candidates for testing by combing through several product review sites (Ulta, MakeupAlley, Amazon, and Sephora) as well as some reviews by bloggers. We also consulted cosmetic chemists’ general recommendations for formulation, as well as professional makeup artists’ favorite standbys. There are hundreds of eyeliners out there, ranging from a couple dollars up into the $40 range, differing in texture, color (even within the category of “black”), and format.

Expensive eyeliners are far more likely to have fanbases than cheapies.
We surveyed eyeliners regardless of price. We found that bad eyeliners aren’t necessarily cheap, nor are great eyeliners necessarily expensive. This is particularly true of liquid eyeliner—our two top picks cost less than $10. Based on our research, expensive eyeliners are far more likely to have fanbases than cheapies, which meant we had a lot of expensive eyeliner to acquire and then reject.

We drastically narrowed down the field to a meager 50 separate pencils, liquids, and gels.
After all that reading, we drastically narrowed down the field to a meager 50 separate pencils, liquids, and gels. Each one had a cult following on some websites, some reviewer or beauty blogger or magazine swearing a solemn oath in that eyeliner’s name that it was the Excalibur to their King Arthur. Bless their loyalty, but they could not all be right.

Once we had decided on eyeliners, we put them through a slate of tests to winnow them down for further panel testing. The first phase involved simply using the eyeliner and evaluating its output and packaging—twist-up or sharpenable pencil? Felt tip or brush? Soft or firm gel?

We then put the eyeliners through a battery of substance tests to see how they withstood contact, including hard smudging from a Q-tip, water, saline solution, coconut oil, facial soap, and makeup remover. The test was designed to see which eyeliners were easily unseated by simulated skin sweat and oil and which were not. We could also see which ones responded well to makeup remover or face wash and which did not, either by smearing or resisting removal. We then evaluated and rated the eyeliners’ integrity to determine five eyeliners in each category to send to panelists.

As King told us, “Everybody claims [to be] long-wearing, but not all eyeliners are long-wearing or smudge-proof.” We gave points to formulas that lasted a long time. We also docked points for eyeliners that were too difficult to remove.

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Lesley Stockton

Intrepid tester and Sweethome writer Lesley Stockton shows how one of the panel’s least-favorite pencils smeared and faded over the course of 12 hours.

Intrepid tester and Sweethome writer Lesley Stockton shows how one of the panel’s least-favorite pencils smeared and faded over the course of 12 hours. Lesley Stockton

Once the eyeliners were narrowed down, we gave each set of five eyeliners to three different panels, with labels and packaging obscured.
Once the eyeliners were narrowed down, we gave each set of five eyeliners to three different panels, with labels and packaging obscured. Testers wore each eyeliner for two one-day trials and logged their experiences, rating each eyeliner and giving qualitative observations, including how well the eyeliner stayed on and how easily it came off. Testers were not allowed to reapply or fix their eyeliner during the day to get a full picture of how the eyeliners would wear off, if at all, during the day, and not at all because I am sadistic or evil.

Ingredients

Within their product categories, eyeliners tend to be composed of mostly the same ingredients. Liquid eyeliners’ first three ingredients are generally water followed by either butylene glycol (a preservative) and a co- or cross-polymer, which King compared to materials used in hairspray, to help the eyeliner stick. Romanowski said these products evaporate to create a thin shell, which helps keep the color in. Pencil eyeliners tend to mostly be a type of silicone (dimethicone or cyclopentasiloxane) and a solvent (isodecane). If they don’t have a silicone, they may be wax-based and have carnauba wax, beeswax, or similar in the list. Often, they have all three, but eyeliners that have wax in the first ingredient or two are generally associated with smudging, according to King. Gel eyeliners have similar ingredients to pencils, but without the wax; they are mostly silicone ingredients.

Eyeliners that have wax in the first ingredient or two are generally associated with smudging.

In a couple cases, we even found some ingredients that would suggest certain pairs are clones; however, ingredient lists don’t tell you what proportions are used. In the case of a set of “clones” we actually tested—The L’Oreal Paris Extra Intense eye pencil and the Too Faced pencil—testers responded to the two pencils differently (and their results do actually look a bit different). The ingredients are only part of the story.

There are a few marketing labels that we think should be disregarded. “Hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist-tested,” and “ophthalmologist-tested” are meaningless marketing terms, according to Romanowski. The FDA states it very plainly: “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.” Likewise, “ophthalmologist-tested” or “dermatologist-tested” mean literally any qualified person rubber-stamped the product in exchange for money from the company in question.

If you’re worried about eye irritation, ignore claims that an eyeliner is good for “sensitive skin.” As we wrote in our sunscreen guide, there is no such thing as “sensitive skin,” something that more than 50 percent of women identify themselves as having; rather, there are a very, very small number of people who may be irritated at the skin-surface level by certain ingredients in cosmetics. Actual allergies are extremely rare. According to Romanowski, there’s no standard eyeliner ingredient that should cause irritation, beyond certain dyes and fragrances. Sandino said he noticed that blue or violet dyes seem to be a pretty common irritant, though those are almost never included in black eyeliner.

Often when people are irritated by eye products, it has more to do with the product going where it shouldn’t (i.e. into your eyes). Most eyeliners—indeed, most products—are not designed to go into your eyes. A good eyeliner will stay in place and not migrate into your eyes, so we paid attention to this aspect during testing.

“Natural” is another unregulated term that should be disregarded as it certainly doesn’t mean better or safer. The term “organic” is similarly unregulated. For that reason, we didn’t pay attention to any of these labels.

Some people are concerned about parabens, a common type of preservative found in small amounts in makeup, and cosmetics companies have started marketing certain products as “paraben-free” to target this demographic. However, parabens are safe for the general population, according to both Romanowski and King. Parabens also serve the very important purpose of keeping the thing you stick near your eyes free from infectious bacteria.  An eyeliner that does not contain parabens or other preservatives, especially one that is a liquid or gel formula, would be a very volatile home for microscopic bacteria and not something you would ever want to put on your face (for the record, germy old makeup products CAN actually be irritating to your skin).

We chose not to select for paraben-free eyeliners, not only because cosmetics that use parabens are unjustly vilified, but also because those paraben-free eyeliners often still contain alternative preservatives, some of which have been shown to actually be irritants to a significant and growing population. As we explained in our guide to sunscreen:

“Parabens are a common kind of preservative, present in some sunscreens and many other things that you buy and slather on your body. Parabens have lately been vilified with repeated rumors saying they can penetrate your skin and encourage cancer growth, or disrupt hormones. A lengthy report from the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concludes that parabens are safe in normal cosmetic use. A 2002 study suggested that they might be harmful to the reproductive systems of rats and is the source of some paraben fears. But follow-up studies could not confirm the results. According to the American Cancer Society, carefully designed studies on breast cancer and parabens have found no connection.

Paraben fears are causing cosmetic companies to turn to other preservatives, like methylisothiazolinone, as an alternative. ‘It’s a shame because paraben is a great preservative,’ said dermatologist Warshaw. ‘Very rarely, people can have an allergic reaction to methylisothiazolinone. There’s no need to avoid it, but if you do break out in a rash, this might be the culprit.’”

Should I get pencil, liquid, or gel?

The five pencils that our panel tested, with our main pick, Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof, at the far left, and our runner-up, Too Faced, second from the left.

The five pencils that our panel tested, with our main pick, Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof, at the far left, and our runner-up, Too Faced, second from the left. Amadou Diallo

PENCIL

Pencil is the traditional eyeliner format, and it’s what most people think of when they think of eyeliner. Applying pencil eyeliner requires the least technique and can give you the most control.
Pencil is the traditional eyeliner format, and it’s what most people think of when they think of eyeliner. Applying pencil eyeliner requires the least technique and can give you the most control. You just uncap and draw it on. They’re easy to smudge for a diffuse, smoky look. If you want to keep an eyeliner around for throwing on in a pinch or drawing on using a compact mirror in a bumpy passenger seat or on the subway, it’s going to be a pencil eyeliner. These pencils were traditionally made of wax and pigment, but chemical advances have led to skin-safe silicones and more complex formulas that can last a lot longer.

When testing, we did not discriminate between mechanical and sharpenable pencil formulas, even though there’s some difference in the experience. All wood-cased pencil format liners must be sharpened regularly. While some mechanical eyeliners have thin-enough columns of pigment that they do not need to be sharpened ever, some come with sharpeners. We prioritized the experience with the formulas over format, but we do have both a mechanical and a wood-cased pencil pick.

On a marketing level, some brands have started selling pencil format liners with the word “gel” in the name, suggesting they have the benefits of gel-pot eyeliners with less application hassle. The basic formulas of pencil eyeliners and gel are fairly similar. The main ingredients are usually silicone emollients that soften the skin and keep it moist and flexible (cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone, methyl trimethicone) or solvents that help keep the formula uniform and occasionally help de-grease skin (isododecane, a solvent, is common across all types of eyeliner).

The main difference is that pencils, including ones with “gel” in the name, have some type of wax in the formula used as a binder or thickener to help the pencil keep its shape, while pot gels don’t have to be concerned with holding a certain shape. Because of this, we treated pencil-format eyeliners as pencils even when they had “gel” in the name, because they still have more in common with pencils than actual gels.

LIQUID

The four liquid liners we panel-tested (originally there were five, but we were informed that a pick that made it to this round was to be discontinued this fall, and there were no good replacements). Our top pick, Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid, is at the far left, and our runner-up, NYX Liquid, is the second from the left.

The four liquid liners we panel-tested (originally there were five, but we were informed that a pick that made it to this round was to be discontinued this fall, and there were no good replacements). Our top pick, Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid, is at the far left, and our runner-up, NYX Liquid, is the second from the left. Amadou Diallo

Liquid liners can come designed to give a variety of line sizes, from thick to thin. We chose to stick with formats that made it easy to create a thin line, because brushes that can create a thin line can also make a thick one fairly easily. As far as staying power, liquid eyeliners are more likely than any other type to include a cross-polymer or co-polymer in the first few ingredients to help them stick. They need these because the formula is otherwise thin, so may not set quickly and may remain more prone to smudging through the day. “The big difference between formulas is not in the colors, but in the brush that you get, or the shape that you get,” said Romanowski.

Pen-format liquid liner tends to have a thinner consistency so it can flow through the tip, so the lines are lighter than dipped liners and more prone to fading.
In this product category, we tested pen-format liners and those with a reservoir and brush. Our testers liked putting on the pen-format liners slightly more (this makes sense, because a pen can be held closer to the tip and is a bit easier to control). However, the dip-brush format liners they tested universally looked better, stayed on longer, and required less effort to apply overall. Pen-format liquid liner tends to have a thinner consistency so it can flow through the tip, so the lines are lighter than dipped liners and more prone to fading. Because of this, we came out of testing strongly in favor of dip-brush formats. We think practicing with a dip-brush to overcome the slightly-less-user-friendly experience is a worthwhile investment, but if you don’t agree, or tend to use eyeliner for shorter periods of time and don’t need it to last as long, we’ve highlighted our preferred pen format in the Competition section.

The other matter specific to liquid eyeliners is finishes. Some products amp up the graphic look of liquid with a shiny finish, while others are more satiny (like most pen-format liners), and some are matte. We did not select for a particular finish, and the five products that went into panel testing have a range of finishes. Our pick has a completely matte finish, but the runner-up pick (which is almost worth picking up as well, as it’s a whopping $6), has a fully glossy finish.

GEL

The five gels we panel-tested. Our pick, Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel, is at the far left, and our runner up, Clinique Brush-on Cream, is second from the left.

The five gels we panel-tested. Our pick, Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel, is at the far left, and our runner-up, Clinique Brush-On Cream, is second from the left. Amadou Diallo

If I need eyeliner to last all day, I go with gel.
If I need eyeliner to last all day, I go with gel. As Quynh said, “to make a nice perfect wing liner I do a gel. It’s denser, thicker, dries fast, wears longer, and you can use whichever brush—skinny brush for a really fine line, fatter brush for a thick line.” The downside of gel is that it’s a little bit more process-intensive to use. It requires using a special eyeliner brush (an element we did not test for, though we have a couple recommendations in the Our picks section), and that brush needs to be loaded up with product, and then wiped down or washed after your eyeliner is applied. Likewise, applying gel liner takes a little bit more skill, since you need to reload the brush with product periodically, and the product flows a little less well than with, say, a liquid eyeliner. Making sure you really load up before applying makes a huge difference in the amount of pigment and coverage you get.

Gel eyeliners proved the most difficult when it came to differentiating between products. The major difference in user experience is the texture—some are soft, some are firm, some are a bit chalkier—which differentiates how you manage the quantity of product that builds up on the brush you use. In my testing, the softer gel liners were a little prone to distributing unevenly or depositing clumps, but I included a couple in testing just in case. Generally, testers found softer gels harder to manage, as I did, and liked the firmer formulas.

 Our pick: pencil

Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner
This mechanical pencil eyeliner goes on the softest and smoothest of the pencil eyeliners we tested and doesn’t budge for hours.
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Amadou Diallo

A smoky look, right, and neater lined look, left, with the Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof.

A smoky look, right, and neater lined look, left, with the Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof. Amadou Diallo

For a softer look, we found that Stila’s twist-up Smudge Stick provides the best pencil eyeliner experience, from the flexibility of its application, as it goes on the softest but sets the firmest, to its remarkable staying power.

[The Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof liner] was easiest to use of all the eyeliners tested. Once applied and given a few seconds, it sets firmly and was among the hardest to budge for our testers.
The Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner is an extra-soft, twist-up, thin mechanical pencil that deposits a neat matte line onto the skin. It was easiest to use of all the eyeliners tested. Once applied and given a few seconds, it sets firmly and was among the hardest to budge for our testers. The pigment was also among the darkest with the best coverage, making it the strongest-performing pencil eyeliner all around.

During the first round of tests, the Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof scored well, but not full marks, on pigmentation, coverage, and staying power ratings, but it was dark and even enough to make it into the panel testing round. What made it stand out in practical experience testing, both for me and the panel, was the application and wear experience—it’s so soft that it glides on, stays on just the right amount of time, and comes off without making a mess.

“This was great eyeliner to wear, and I’m especially noticing it the second time around. It was easy to apply, really precise, and the color is dark,” said one tester. “It held up really well. Clean easy line to put on and then it stayed on,” said another. A third tester with hooded eyes said, “I thought it was strong and bent to my will when I was putting it on. I liked the coverage. It felt like it was THERE (some of the other ones weren’t enough) but not overpowering.”

At $20, this eyeliner is priced at the higher end for pencils—you can walk into a drugstore, throw a rock and hit at least a dozen pencil eyeliners that cost less than $10. But it’s a standout performer in its price bracket, and definitely worth the upgrade from less expensive pencils, which aren’t as easy to put on and lack the Stila’s staying power.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Another hooded tester said the pencil transferred to her upper lid, but that she “loved the fine point on this eyeliner. It made it easier for me to apply because errors didn’t leave huge lines.” One tester reported the liner didn’t go on quite as dark as a couple others, but said she would “definitely buy it.” Another panelist reported that the pencil was broken inside the tube and that the product seemed to tug, but she stood alone in reporting this, suggesting her sample may have been old.

The Stila Smudge Stick is designed to be advanced slowly and carefully, and is not retractable. It’s like a tube of toothpaste—once it’s out there, it’s out there. And it’s soft enough that you don’t want a lot of product hanging out of the tube; a couple of millimeters at a time is the best way to use it. One of our testers noted that the liner felt chalky, but the Stila is prone to drying out a bit if not used regularly. If you haven’t used it in a while, resist the temptation to drag it on your skin roughly, as this can result in breakage. Instead, warm up the tip by drawing gently with it on your wrist or the back of your hand, and that will help it flow more easily onto your eyelid.

Runner-up pencil

If you can’t get the Stila Smudge Stick, we recommend Too Faced Perfect Eyes waterproof pencil ($18). While this pencil is a wood-cased format, rather than mechanical, its formula is nearly identical to that of the Stila pencil until you get down to antioxidants and pigments (Stila has an extra antioxidant and lists a few extra types of pigment). Like in the Stila, wax is not one of the top ingredients, but it follows right after two solvents and another emulsifier. Hence it’s similarly soft with great staying power. But the format makes a difference.

Our testers liked the staying power of this pencil, and some liked its super-dark pigment. The tip is a little thick, and because the product is soft, some testers found it hard to control at first. “I feel like I had gotten the hang of this specific pencil for day two. I liked it, but still noticed that if I was at ALL shaky during application then it was really unforgiving,” said one tester.

The shape and size of the pencil makes it a visual clone of the L’Oreal Paris Extra Intense pencil; however, testers did not have the same reactions to both products and liked the Too Faced more. “This was super inky, but it’s my favorite eyeliner in the whole testing sample. I got such enthusiastic compliments from women when I wore this one. I will continue to use it,” said another tester. Another said it was “dark enough, smooth enough, but you have to be really careful in applying it because it’s a little too smooth.” Because the product is dark, you don’t need a lot of effort or product to get an impactful look, but because it is soft, it needs to be sharpened somewhat often.

Our pick: liquid

Revlon ColorStay Skinny Liquid Liner
The super-thin felt tip brush makes it easy to draw a flawless graphic line. It also retained its sharp-edged look better than other liquid liners.
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Amadou Diallo

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Amadou Diallo

Graphic winged looks with the Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid.

Graphic winged looks with the Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid. Amadou Diallo

If you want a graphic look but have time for touch-ups or only need your eyeliner to hold on for a night or gentle workday, the Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid Liner ($6) looks the best right from the first brushstroke and stays on better than any other liquid eyeliner we tried.

Surprisingly, our two strongest-performing liquid eyeliners were inexpensive ones. The Revlon liner edged out all the others with its combination of good overall application experience and staying power. It distributes evenly from the long, extra-fine felt tip, has excellent coverage, and dries to a matte finish.  “It looks really good—looks just about the same as the start of my day (I took it off at about the 15+ hour mark). I am really happy with it. It felt really comfortable on as well, not dry or crunchy or heavy,” said a tester. “I think this liquid formula was well pigmented,” said another. It breaks down easily into particles when removed, though because it stays on so well, takes a bit more effort to remove than our runner-up.

Runner-up: liquid

NYX Cosmetics Liquid Liner ($6) was the least expensive liquid eyeliner we tested, which makes the overall glowing endorsements it got even more shocking. Despite the price, testers found it had the second-best staying power of the pack.

Like the Revlon liner, the NYX liner is a smooth, opaque black, but it uses a shorter bristled brush that is just as fine at the tip and dries to a firm, glossy finish. “My eyeliner looked great at the end of the day. I was shocked at how well it stood up to my activities,” said one panelist. “Applicator brush is superfine, which is great for very precise control and the thinnest tapering of cat eyes, but may be less forgiving of wobbles. Very easy liquid-y application experience,” said another. Another great attribute of the NYX liner: We found that, when in contact with eye makeup remover, it is the best at breaking down easily into discrete particles that slide easily off your face rather than smearing.

Flaws but not dealbreakers (for all liquids)

All testers, most of whom seemed to be going for a cat-eye look, reported that none of the liquid eyeliners held up over the course of a day without retouching (for most of them, testing was also occurring in early-onset summer heat). Liquid eyeliner, when met with strenuous conditions, literally goes to pieces. For instance, as one tester said of the NYX liquid liner, “It didn’t make it through the full day. By the time I got home from work, I lost the outer half of my liner—it was a cat eye without a tail.” For that reason, if you like a graphic look but need it to last all day without touching up, particularly in tougher conditions like outdoors or during sweaty weather, we recommend taking the step up to a gel eyeliner. While they are a bit more difficult to put on, gel formulas have much better staying power and are worth learning to handle if they fit your needs. On a personal note, I tend to opt for liquid liners if I only need them to last a few hours—say, if I’m going out to dinner or on a date.

 

Our pick: gel

Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner
This firm formula was the easiest to manage, stayed on the longest without budging, and was easy to remove.
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Amadou Diallo

A smoky look and a graphic look with Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel.

A smoky look and a graphic look with Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel. Amadou Diallo

Our testers rated it as having the best pigmentation and application experience, going on the smoothest without gaps in coverage.
For real staying power, the Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner ($25) is the easiest to apply and flexible enough to use whether you want a soft or graphic look. It also holds onto your skin the best, letting even your most precise cat-eyes last as long as possible. This is a victory lap for Bobbi Brown, one of the longest standbys on the market and a frequent recommendation on product lists and from makeup artists. Our testers rated it as having the best pigmentation and application experience, going on the smoothest without gaps in coverage. Most importantly, it lived up to its “long-wear” name, with testers reporting unanimously that it would hold up the entire day. Last but not least, it came off cleanly.

“This is a nice one. I like how smoothly it went on and how it wasn’t at all goopy. The texture is smooth and firm, was easy to get a nice, clean flick. I found it the most like liquid,” said a tester. “Stayed on very well!” said another. Of the removal process, a third tester said, “This came off quite easily with just makeup remover. The other eyeliners really required more cleanser. I really, really liked this one.”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

One tester reported slightly more difficulty than others in removing the liner: “I thought this all came off easily and was about to rate it higher, then I washed my face with my usual soap and looked like a sleep-deprived panda,” she said. Bobbi Brown is also among the most expensive gel eyeliners available, but our testers found that the extra cost does net you a better experience. As we mentioned elsewhere, the process of putting gel eyeliner on is more intensive than for pencil or liquid eyeliners, but the payoff is that it’s far more reliable at staying on and holding its shape.

Runner-up: gel

Aside from Bobbi Brown, the other eyeliners provided more mixed experiences, but Clinique Brush-On Cream Liner ($17) seemed to serve panelists second-best. Most testers reported that the eyeliner stayed on surprisingly well despite its thinner consistency. “I thought maybe this one wouldn’t last but it really did,” said one tester. Another tester echoed her: “It was basically glued to my face for the first 8ish hours.”

A third said that “it didn’t smear or move, surprisingly the line I had made that morning was in the exact shape I had drawn it at the end of the day.” However, in that one tester’s case, “the color had faded pretty dramatically” by the end of the day. Another tester said it was a little difficult to put the Clinique liner on: “The pigment is fine, but the product in the pot is so slippery that I get a ton of it on my brush and it gets everywhere.”

Long-term test notes

The Stila Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner works as well as ever, and I haven’t used up all the pencil yet. Lately I’ve been using it to line my upper waterline for a more natural look, which works to great effect. The pencil hasn’t hardened or broken at all.

The Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid Liner is all gone now; it’s inexpensive, but the bottle is quite tiny, so if you’re a frequent liquid-eyeliner user, it may make sense for you to pick up multiple bottles at once. Both of our top liquid-liner picks start to get crusty and chunky around the edges at about the three-month mark, which is typical (and the right time to replace them anyway).

I haven’t had any issues with the Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner yet, though I’ve used it the least frequently of the three. The gel is still very pliable and capable of giving me an even line; it looks like it will last a very long time.

Care and maintenance/setup

You may have noticed gel eyeliners require a brush to apply. Some come with a brush, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good (the companies are in the business of selling eyeliner, not brushes). While eyeliner brushes come in several shapes, including angled bristles, angled handles, fine points, and so forth, we find the best format for gel is a small, stiff-bristled tapered brush, because it can stand up to the firm formulas like Bobbi Brown but also taper to a point along the length of the bristles so you can still get a very fine line. If you want a cheap brush, the one that comes with one of the eyeliners we tested, Maybelline Eye Studio Lasting Drama ($10), actually comes with a very decent tapered brush. The handle of the brush is comfortably long, and the narrow row of bristles will enable you to cut pretty close to your lash line, if you desire. If you don’t mind spending extra, Bobbi Brown makes a brush specifically to go with its gel liner, the Bobbi Brown Ultra Fine Eye Liner Brush ($28).

If you are the type to want to sharpen even your mechanical eyeliners every time before using them, we have a few suggestions. We have not tested wood-cased pencil sharpeners, but this NARS model ($6) is the best-rated on Sephora’s site, with an average of 4.5 stars and 397 reviews. If you don’t want to spend quite so much, Ulta makes a dual sharpener ($2.50) with a 4.5-star average on its site and 473 reviews, or there is a NYX sharpener ($4) on Amazon with an average of 4.5 stars across 254 reviews. While the pencil didn’t pass muster with us, the Rimmel Exaggerate Waterproof retractable eyeliner includes a built-in sharpener and costs $6.

What to look forward to

New eyeliner products are coming out all the time, and the renewed interest in graphic eyeliner-oriented looks like cat-eye and winged eyeliners has spurred companies to look into new application formats—for instance, Benefit’s They’re Real! Push-Up Liner, which has an angled silicone tip that guides a twist-up column of soft pencil out of its center. Likewise, Too Faced makes a “Lash Lining Tool” that consists of three small, rubbery tips meant to help with tightlining, getting right in between the lashes. While we found the actual eyeliner product in these items lacking, we will be keeping an eye out for application innovations that make getting graphic looks easier.

The competition

Pencil

L’Oreal Paris Extra Intense Liquid Pencil, $9. Physically, this is the same as the Too Faced model above and is actually nearly identical in ingredients, save that Too Faced lists “mica,” which gives the eyeliner its pigment, as its very last listed ingredient. L’Oreal lists only that it “may contain” mica, which means its pigment concentration is slightly lower. The two eyeliners may also have different proportions of ingredients, since all that the list signifies is the order of concentration.1

Pixi Endless Silky Eye Pen, $12. We found this looked and performed exactly like the L’Oreal Extra Intense Liquid Pencil, with the exact same ingredient list (and as we mentioned above, the Too Faced Pencil that became our runner-up pick also had this same ingredient list, though performed better in testing). However, this Pixi behaved more like the L’Oreal than the Too Faced, so we skipped it in favor of letting the L’Oreal and Too Faced face off in panel testing, since this one is about $4 more than the L’Oreal.

Sephora Contour Eye Pencil, $10. Testers reported that they liked the look of this one, as the pencil was dark and smooth, but they did not like the thick tip. After wearing it for a while, several testers reported that the eyeliner migrated or smudged, and yet all who commented on removal said it was a little difficult to get off.

Rimmel Exaggerate Waterproof, $5. This was among the cheapest of our picks and was decently pigmented for the price, and the twist-up format was convenient. But testers found it not soft enough to apply to their eyes, so it sometimes came out gray. It also tended to migrate.

Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil, $20. This product is often found on best-of lists, due in part to its wide range of pigmented colors and despite a pretty hefty price tag for a pencil. But we found the black model severely lacking in pigment and performance; many other pencils were softer and darker.

Benefit They’re Real! Push Up Liner, $24. Mentioned above, we did not formally test this liner because its application style seemed too niche and unusual, but it’s an interesting concept.

Covergirl Perfect Point Plus, $6. The pigment here wasn’t bad, but the pencil seemed too crumbly. Reviews likewise complained the point broke off too easily.

Sephora Retractable Waterproof pencil, $13. This was slightly less dark and less even than the regular Sephora wood-cased pencil, which made it to our panel tests.

Prestige Waterproof pencil, $4. This was more like gray than black.

Face Stockholm Art Eye Pencil, $26. We actually found this slightly brownish in tone, rather than a pigmented black. It’s designed to smudge rather than stay.

NARS Larger Than Life Long-Wear, $24. All my notes say is, “this is gray!!”

Mally Beauty Evercolor, $15. The coverage on this one was even but the pigmentation was gray.

Hourglass Mechanical Gel, $16 ($45 for a three-pack). We found this one skipped a bit in application, and colorwise it was too gray to be a contender. Its mechanical-advance casing is also super creaky and cheap-feeling.

Ulta Automatic Eye Liner, $8. This one was not black enough, and the coverage was not even.

Revlon Colorstay Eyeliner Pencil, $8. This pencil was too gray and uneven in its coverage.

Liquid

Eyeko Visual Eyes, $19. Eyeko has been making a big splash lately in the liquid eyeliner scene, and we often found it sold out at Sephoras we checked. Its primary draw is a super-sleek bristle brush akin to another cult favorite, Kat Von D Tattoo Liner (more on that below). However, we found in our initial round of testing that this product is darker and less watery-looking than the Kat Von D, so we had to include it in panel testing. While the applicator style feels nice, our testers found that it just was not pigmented enough to make for an easy application process, and it did not last. The lack of pigmentation was common to the pen-style liquid liners, so if you choose that type of format you are signing up for doing many layers every time and correcting throughout the day. But if you absolutely cannot make the case for the superior formula experience of our dip-brush pick, this is the best pen-format liner we tried.

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner, $20. This is a marker-type pen format (one tester remarked that they liked that the formula seemed to sink into their skin, like ink, rather than sit on top), and while testers liked the fine tip, they found it smudged and transferred over the course of the day.

Kat Von D Tattoo Liner, $19. This is a cult favorite among many eyeliner enthusiasts and actually made by Sephora. However, it simply didn’t stand up in comparative testing—the output was watery and pale compared to other liquid liners.

Urban Decay 24/7 Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner, $19. This was actually an early front-runner out of the first round of testing—dark, nice brush, dried quickly, and it broke down extremely neatly under makeup remover. But when we started investigating the possibility of acquiring more samples, we found out it’s set to be discontinued in the fall. Having thoroughly tested the others, though, we would not rank it above either the Revlon or NYX.

Geisha Ink Liquid, $30 (CAD). This one was not dark enough and the coverage was not even; similar to Kat Von D but a bit chalkier.

Wet N Wild Liquid, $3. This was clumpy and terrible, coverage was not even at all, and what were not clumps of product were gray smears.

Maybelline Eye Studio Master Precise, $8. This had a felt tip, so the product result was marker-like, but it feathered a bit.

Sephora Long-Lasting 12Hr Wear Liquid, $12. Coverage was uneven for this dip-brush product, as the liquid tended to pool rather than lay on the skin evenly.

Mirabella Magic Marker, $25. Nice dark black line, but the tip is a bit thick (and felt, so prone to feathering) and cleanup was not easy.

Maybelline Line Stiletto, $9. This has a strange felt-ish tip that doesn’t quite come to a point, and the product pools a little bit on skin so the coverage is not even. Comes off very neatly, though.

Lancome Artliner 24H Bold Color Precision, $30. This goes on very wet and then feathers and pools a little as it dries.

Make Up For Ever Aqua Liner, $23. The tip on this is so firm that it’s hard to draw a straight line (well, a line that follows your eyelashes, anyway).

Estee Lauder Double Wear Zero-Smudge, $24. We found the product was a little watery-looking after the first stroke.

NARS Eyeliner Stylo, $27. The line feathers a bit with a heavier application of product, and the marker-like tip gives splotchy coverage.

Physicians Formula Felt-Tip Eye Marker, $7. The coverage from this was nice, but the felt tip on this marker was very fat, and we could see it fraying easily.

Revlon ColorStay Liquid Eye Pen, $9. The tip of this pen is pretty fat and stiff but the coverage was nice and removal was easy.

L’Oreal Super Slim Liquid, $9. This was very pigmented but feathered very badly on skin.

Milani Eye Tech Extreme Liquid, $8. Identical packaging to the L’Oreal eyeliner above, with similar issues. We also found the tip would dry out halfway through application and was tough to re-saturate.

Revlon Liquid Liner, $8. We found this one cracks when it dries.

Too Faced 3-Way Lash Lining Tool, $22. Mentioned above, this one has a strange three-pronged format meant to help you tightline your lashes, but we found it entirely too messy to remove.

Gel

NARS Eye Paint, $25. Testers found this stayed on well, but the formula was too dry as they were painting it on, resulting in gaps in coverage or the need for many more strokes than usual.

L’Oreal Paris Infallible Lacquer, $6. This was a favorite of Perkins, who said she goes through many pots at her business and likes the brush that it comes with. However, our testers reported flaking and smudging with the eyeliner, and a couple said it was difficult to get off.

Maybelline Lasting Drama, $8. This was a soft formula, which did not go over well with some of the testers. A few reported some fading and smudging after a day’s wear.

Mac Fluidline, $16. This is another very common recommendation from makeup people, lists, anywhere you look, but we did not like how this eyeliner behaved in our testing. It was not a total disaster, but it was not quite as pigmented and the coverage wasn’t quite as good as our picks, and the removal was a bit messier. For that reason, we eliminated it at the first testing stage

Smashbox Jet Set Waterproof, $22. The coverage and pigment were nice here, but removal was very messy.

Estee Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Gel, $25. This was soft but did not go on as evenly as we would have liked.

Revlon Colorstay Creme Gel, $11. This set has a built-in brush, but it wasn’t dark enough and the coverage was uneven.

Laura Mercier Creme, $24. This is a fairly popular one, but we found that that product doesn’t go on evenly at all and was also messy to take off.

Footnotes:

1. Panelists tried both models, and despite the near-identical ingredient lists, panelists all liked the Too Faced pencil better in blind testing. Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Fiorella Valdesolo, Are you allergic to your beauty products?, Marie Claire, March 2010
  2. Robert L Rietschel, Fisher’s Contact Dermatitis, 2008
  3. Food and Drug Administration, Talc, March 2014
  4. Steff Yotka, The secret to Mila Kunis’ eyeliner, Nylon, March 2014
  5. Sue Smith, Hooded eyelids? Me too. Here’s everything I’ve learned about applying eyeliner to them, xoJane, December 2014
  6. Jane Marie, Three easy ways to apply perfect eyeliner, The Hairpin, March 2011
  7. Jane Marie, The cat-eye tutorial, The Hairpin, November 2011

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