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What are Common Mascara Ingredients?

By Gina Ritter
Updated May 21, 2024
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Mascara ingredients can vary from brand to brand, but in most cases all products contain three main things: oils or waxes, some form of pigmentation, and some sort of preservative. There tends to be a lot of variety when it comes to what sorts of ingredients are used in each of these categories. Many of the least expensive products are made with a lot of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, while those marketed as “organic” or “all natural” are usually primarily plant derived. Plant products and extracts are often more expensive, and these cosmetics are often much pricier as a consequence. Proportions can also be really different depending on the product’s goals. A treatment that’s intended to be waterproof will probably contain a lot of wax to shield against moisture, for instance, whereas a “gentle” product will probably be much thinner and easy to wash away. Most mascaras are made with water, as well, but not always. Again, a lot depends on the manufacture’s goals and the look the product is intended to create.

Oils and Waxes

The primary ingredient in most modern, liquid tube mascaras is some form of oil or soft wax. These ingredients help give the product a viscous quality that allows it to both adhere to the brush wand and stick to the eyelashes, ideally without clumping up. These ingredients can also keep the product moist, striking the perfect balance between make-up that is sticky and drippy and that which is dry and tacky.

Some of the most popular choices are mineral, sesame, and eucalyptus oil. Castor oil, linseed oil, and lanolin can also be used, though usually in more limited quantities since these tend to be more concentrated. Castor oil is often one of the most effective options where silky texture and bonding ability is concerned, but fragrances may also be needed to counteract the smell, which can be quite pungent.

Waxes also play a similar role, particularly in products that are designed specifically to be waterproof. People’s eyelashes commonly come into contact with moisture from the eyes, so manufacturers of even non-waterproof products may rely on heavy base ingredients such as paraffin, carnauba wax, palm wax, or beeswax to keep the cosmetic in place throughout the day. Wax usually also helps keep the lashes separated, lengthened, and thickened, things oil can’t usually do.

Pigmentation

Some sort of coloring agent is almost always included, too. Traditional black mascaras are most commonly dyed with iron oxides, tar, coal, or ash residues, though in nearly all cases these ingredients have been treated and purified in labs to extract their color while stripping away most other components. Brown mascaras are often colored with tree bark; chemical resins and artificial colors are also used in many cases. Artificial dyes are very common in products with vibrant, bright colors; green mascaras, for instance, or blue or red options. It is often difficult to naturally isolate really bright, bold colors.

Chemical Preservatives

Preservatives, which are ingredients that serve as stabilizers, are almost always included on mascara ingredient lists, too, though they can be hard to identify right away since so many different things can play this role. Preservation is important primarily to keep a uniform consistency. Most mixtures of waxes, oils, and colors will separate over time, which can lead to a really problematic cosmetic. People who wear mascara usually want it to have the same texture and look day after day, without having to shake or stir it before use.

Most preservatives are chemicals that are mixed with water to form a lotion base that’s emulsified with other mascara ingredients. A range of natural products can perform a similar role, though these tend to be more expensive. Similar to shaking a bottle of oil and vinegar, an emulsion is a suspension of one droplet inside another that wouldn’t normally mix together. Other ingredients, such as waxes, are heated separately from the lotion then brought together later in the process. Pigments are usually added when the ingredients are placed with the lotion base in a machine called a homogenizer. This high-speed mixer breaks the ingredients into small droplets that will not mix completely together, but the waxes and oils remain suspended inside the lotion for the life of the mascara and help to bind the ingredients.

Water

Water is often an essential component, but not always. In most cases, water acts as a base and is one of the first listed ingredients. It provides a canvas or backdrop against which to help the other ingredients bind and mix. An anhydrous manufacturing process, however, uses no water whatsoever. In these cases, the ingredients are bound simply through heat. Everything is usually then agitated in a vat by a propeller until it forms the right semi-solid consistency. Once cooled, the mascara may be ready to be bottled and inspected for impurities and chemical composition.

Allergic Reactions and Other Risks

Some ingredients can be allergenic, or even considered carcinogenic or toxic. A number of governmental agencies around the world require approval and testing procedures for cosmetics to reduce the chance of harm or negative reaction, but this isn’t universal. Some of the potentially concerning ingredients include ethyl acrylate, lacquer, and polypropylene. Even lanolin and paraffin can cause allergic reactions in some people, even if they aren’t harmful on their own. Anyone with really sensitive skin or eyes is usually advised to look for specially marked “hypoallergenic” products, and to try just a small bit at first and discontinue at the first sign or irritation.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Jan 26, 2013

@ZipLine-- They add different types of pigment to make colored mascaras. I know that red or pink colored mascaras contain a pigment called carmine (also labeled as C.I. 75470) which is made from insects. This is a very common ingredient in makeup and is found in everything from lipsticks to mascara.

By ZipLine — On Jan 26, 2013

What about colored mascara? Where does the color come from?

By fify — On Nov 09, 2012

@ankara-- That's a good question. I don't think we know for sure because makeup companies don't want to reveal secret recipes. I think that they must put a lot of oils or waxes in them though because these keep water out.

Just think of when you put baby oil on your skin, it forms a barrier and doesn't let anything escape or enter. I think it must be the same with waterproof mascaras.

By bluedolphin — On Nov 08, 2012

Can someone tell me waterproof mascara ingredients? What is it that makes it resist water?

By bear78 — On Nov 07, 2012

I never knew that ingredients for mascara vary. This must be why some brands work better than others. It never occurred to me to compare ingredients and see which ones actually work best.

I'm assuming that the mascaras with waxes are the ones that make all the lashes stick together because wax is a sticky ingredient in general. I hate it when a mascara gives me the spider legs look.

Isn't there also a completely dry kind of mascara that they used to use in the old days. What type of ingredients are used in that?

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