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If wearing mascara leaves you with watery eyes, swollen or irritated eyelids, or itching and burning skin, you might suspect you have a mascara allergy.
It’s possible to experience an allergic reaction after applying mascara, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to the mascara itself. Rather, you could have a sensitivity or allergy to one (or more) of the ingredients in your mascara.
Allergic contact dermatitis is a common reaction to certain cosmetics, and some ingredients are more likely to cause a reaction than others.
Read on to learn the signs and symptoms of an allergy to mascara ingredients, the ingredients most likely to trigger this reaction, and what to do next.
If you do have an allergy or sensitivity to ingredients in your mascara, you’ll mainly notice signs and symptoms in the area that makes contact with the allergen: your eyelid and lash line. If your mascara flakes off your lashes and into your eyes, you might have eye symptoms, too.
You’ll most likely begin to develop symptoms shortly after applying a new mascara for the first time. That said, it’s also possible to develop allergic contact dermatitis after repeated use of a product over a long period of time.
A mascara allergy or sensitivity can cause:
- a rash across your eyelid
- bumps and blisters around your lash line
- an itching and burning sensation
- dry, flaky skin
- eyelid swelling
- red, watery eyes
While these symptoms might feel super uncomfortable and annoying, they generally don’t become too severe — unless you’re extremely allergic to an ingredient in the mascara.
Keep in mind, though, that irritation doesn’t always indicate an allergy. Many skin care and beauty products can cause mild irritation or other adverse reactions, especially if you have sensitive skin.
While you may not, strictly speaking, have an allergy, it never hurts to avoid any products that cause irritation or discomfort.
A mascara allergy or sensitivity usually relates to a hypersensitivity to preservatives, dyes, and fragrances. If you have sensitive skin and have reacted to certain ingredients in the past, you’re more likely to have a reaction to those ingredients in mascara.
Preservatives are a common culprit because water-based makeup, like most mascara, often contains them in especially high amounts. It must be emphasized, though, that preservatives aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they play an essential role in preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms that could cause irritation and infection.
Some common preservatives in mascara that can lead to irritation include:
- sodium benzoate
- quaternium-15 (formaldehyde releaser)
Allergic to nickel or other metals? The black iron oxide sometimes used to color mascara might also cause an allergic reaction, due to nickel contamination.
Fragrance, another common component in mascara, can also cause irritation.
“Fragrance” serves as an umbrella term for the various ingredients that give cosmetics a pleasant scent — or help mask the less-than-pleasant scents of other ingredients. Fragrance can contain alcohol, essential oils, and other potential irritants and allergens.
Around 1 percent of adults have fragrance allergies. In fact, when it comes to triggers for allergic contact dermatitis, fragrance allergy takes second place, while nickel allergy holds the top spot.
Taking the allergen away should stop your symptoms.
To take the allergen away, you’ll want to completely remove all traces of the mascara from your lashes and surrounding skin. Applying a cool compress may help relieve the irritation.
It’s best to stop using the product you link to the reaction. Once the irritation goes away, you can try another brand instead.
If your symptoms don’t improve after a day or two, or they get worse, a good next step involves reaching out to a medical professional for more guidance and treatment.
Avoid picking or scratching at the irritated area. Excessive rubbing and scratching could introduce bacteria into your eyes or tiny openings in your skin.
Consequently, eyelid dermatitis can sometimes lead to complications like skin infections and eye infections.
You’ll want to get medical attention if you notice:
- worsening pain
- severe inflammation or swelling
Checking the ingredients in a mascara before you use it is generally the best way to prevent an adverse reaction.
If you think you might have an allergy or sensitivity to any common skin care ingredients, avoid mascara that contains those ingredients.
Another helpful step? Try patch testing the product before you apply it to your eyes.
To do a patch test:
- Apply a small amount of the product to a less-noticeable spot on your face, like just under your jaw or behind your ear.
- Leave the area alone for at least 24 hours.
- Check for any unwanted reactions, like stinging, swelling, or flakiness.
- If you’d like to be absolutely certain, repeat these steps for a few days. You won’t always notice a reaction the first time you use a product.
- No reaction? Go ahead and use the mascara.
Just keep in mind a patch test doesn’t offer a guarantee, especially when it comes to products you use around your eyes. Eyelid skin is very delicate, and it might react to a product that doesn’t affect skin elsewhere on your body.
If you have sensitive skin, opt for mascara labeled:
- for sensitive skin
- ophthalmologist tested
A few popular options for people concerned about a possible mascara allergy:
- Honest Beauty Extreme Length Mascara + Lash Primer
- Almay Thickening Mascara
- Clinique High Impact Mascara
Your peepers are important!
Keep these tips in mind to use mascara safely and minimize your risk of irritation and injury:
- Stop using mascara or any other eye product right away if it causes irritation.
- Throw out mascara after 3 months.
- Don’t try to bring dried-up mascara back to life by adding water, saliva, or anything else, since this can introduce bacteria into your mascara.
- Don’t share mascara or other eye makeup.
- Avoid using mascara if you have an eye infection.
- If the brush end of your mascara wand hits the floor, or any other unclean surface, wash it before using it or putting it back into the tube.
Having sensitive skin or an allergy to common mascara ingredients doesn’t automatically mean you’re destined for a life of puny lashes.
Just take care to always read your labels and pay attention to what’s in a mascara before you buy it.
If multiple mascara products trigger a similar reaction, it may be time to connect with a dermatologist. They can help you pinpoint the ingredient(s) causing your symptoms and offer more guidance on skin-safe makeup products.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.