Everything You Never Knew About Mascara

Photo: Henry Leutwyler

Mascara might just be the most polarizing beauty product of all time. If it doesn’t work for you, you’ll toss it, tell all your friends never to buy it, and pretty much rue the day it was ever created (yes, clumpy lashes can evoke some serious emotion). But, when you find a mascara you love, it’s a whole different story. You’ll buy it in multiples, talk it up to your pals, and become a loyal user for years—if not life.

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Clearly, there’s a whole lot going on in these tiny tubes. What makes one mascara stand out from the pack? Is the trick in the application? And, while we’re at it, what’s the best brush for mega-volume? To get these answers and more, we turned to Nicole Masson, vice president of global product development for M.A.C. Cosmetics, who let us in on some little-known facts about everyone’s favorite lash-enhancer. Read on to become a bona fide master of mascara.

It’s the spaces between bristles that make one brush work better than another. If you’ve been looking to the head of the wand to determine the efficacy of your mascara, you’re on the right track. But, be prepared to whip out your magnifying glass for a true indication. “It’s more about the spacing between the bristles,” says Masson. “If you have a wide space between every bristle, you have more opportunity for a lot of product to go on your lashes.” That in mind, the wider the space between bristles, the more volume and overall oomph you’ll achieve. Mason notes that the bristles also need to be paired “with a formula of the right thickness, otherwise you’ll end up with something too clumpy.”

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Americans love voluminous lashes. “The name of the game in the U.S. is volume,” says Masson, who develops products for MAC globally. “You have curl, separation, and length as secondary benefits, but what everybody wants is volume.” That’s why, according to Masson, it’s up to consumers to dig a little deeper when mascara shopping.  “What kind of volume is it? Is it butterfly volume, is it super-mega volume, is it feathery?” (Yes, these are the technical terms used in the trade.) Determining what the difference means for your lashes involves a little bit of experimentation. Which leads us to…

Even product developers go through trial and error. If you’ve yet to find your perfect mascara match, fear not—even for the pros, the process can be hit or miss.  Masson and her team essentially mix and match brushes and formulas in order to achieve a high-performing product. “What we do is we take ten brushes, ten formulas and try different combinations. Once you find something that works, then you start doing some tweaks. You make the formula thicker, you make the brush fibers shorter or longer,” she says. But don’t let the playful nature of product development fool you—it takes a whole lot of hard work to find the perfect combo of formula, brush, and bristles. “We spend around three years working on each mascara,” says Masson.

Comb-style mascaras exist, and they’re ideal for perfectionists. If you’re all about achievinga picture-perfect lash look—think symmetrical and separated—a comb-style mascara brush might just be your best bet. “Comb wands are made in molds, so they’re the same every single time. It allows for an extremely clean and symmetrical separation, but still provides volume,” says Masson. “With natural fiber brushes, the bristles are twisted and with that process, you’ll have a very slight variation from brush to brush.”

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You’re using your curling mascara wrong. Sure, some mascaras are already formulated to add a little flip to your lashes, but they’ll really work their magic if you add a little elbow grease. “Use the curved brush to push up the lashes,” says Masson. “If you go a little bit slower as you apply, while simultaneously pushing the curved brush against your lashes, you’ll get extra lift as the mascara starts to set.”

When in doubt, think Christmas. Take note, mascara newbies. Though Masson suggests shopping from a benefit perspective (if you want extra length, look for a product that touts elongation), if you’re just starting your search, a good place to begin is with a Christmas tree-shaped brush. “We call it a Christmas tree because it’s tapered at the top and wider at the bottom,” says Masson. “It’s an all-around great brush because, since the bristles are longer at the bottom, you can use those to really build in a lot of product. Then, you can use the thin end as a separator to get into your inner and outer corner lashes.” It’s no wonder that, according to Masson, the Christmas tree brush is the most popular in the world.

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There’s a reason why your favorite mascara is your favorite. “Your eyelashes are just like your hair,” says Masson. “There are so many different textures and like a hair regimen, everybody has something different that works best for them.” Yep, there’s science behind why the mascara your best friend raves about might fall flat for you. “It’s a very individualized process,” continues Masson. But hey, that’s half the fun, right?