Mascara is kind of magical, especially if you’re like me and are hashtag blessed with stubby, pale, stick-straight eyelashes. I don’t often wear makeup, but with just a couple of swoops of a mascara wand, I look and feel refreshed and more put together. I guess I’m not alone, because many readers and clients have asked me to recommend the best non-toxic mascara. We are finally done with our research for this new Safe Product Guide, and thank you all so much for your suggestions–you guys put a bunch of brands on my radar that turned out to be Good Stuff. 🙂
I finally am able to recommend several mascaras that I consider to be Good Stuff or Okay Stuff. Because we’re talking mascara—and not some product that you smear all over your skin or put in your mouth—I think that using Okay Stuff truly is okay in this case. You’ll even find one Good Stuff pick that you can buy at the drugstore!
And, as always, I have lists of Sneaky Stuff and Bad Stuff, including some of your beloved favorites (sorry!).
Note: Products like mascara are constantly being re-formulated. The information in this post is based on the most current ingredient lists we could find as of October 2016.
What is Mascara Made of?
Mascara ingredients range from familiar and harmless things, like water, to head-scratching ones like fragrance/parfum, which I was surprised to find in most mascara formulas.
Honestly, cosmetics are my least favorite things to research. They often have super long lists of ingredients, many of which are synthetic, impossible to pronounce, and problematic. Cosmetics can contain ingredients– including natural ones– that have little or no safety data to back them up. And some ingredients that are known to be toxic are permitted for use under certain “restrictions.”
I’m no cosmetic chemist, but my basic understanding of mascara formulas is that they usually include the following:
- Solvents or diluents are the unifying base for the formula (water, isododecane, alcohols, glycerin, propylene glycol, etc.).
- Pigments provide color (iron oxides, ultramarines, titanium dioxide, mica, etc.).
- Waxes, gums, polymers, fibers and starches stabilize and thicken the formula; some form a film on the lashes and provide “volumizing” benefits; fibers “lengthen” lashes.
- Fats like oils and butters provide moisturizing benefits; other ingredients with humectant/emollient/“skin-conditioning” properties include glycerin, silicone and some plant extracts.
- Some waxes, fatty acids, and surfactants act as emulsifiers to mix water and water-soluble ingredients with non-water soluble ingredients.
- Preservatives and pH adjusters prevent (or at least limit) the growth of microbes.
- Fragrance ingredients mask the unsavory smell that many mascara formulas would otherwise have, and in some cases, give mascara a signature scent.
Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out About Mascara
Relatively speaking, mascara is a lower-concern product– you use small amounts of it, it’s not applied directly to your skin, and it tends to stay in place. (And if you’re like me, you don’t even use it every day any more!).
Unless you eat your mascara, have a habit of rubbing it into your eyes, and/or sleep with it on, don’t worry if you’ve been using the Bad Stuff for more years than you wish to count.
If you want to upgrade to a safer mascara, there is plenty of Good Stuff and Okay Stuff you that will give your lashes a boost without exposing you to a bunch of toxic ingredients.
Mascara Ingredients to Avoid
Although mascara is of relatively low concern, I don’t consider it to be zero-concern. Some of us do use mascara daily, and it can flake off and migrate into your eyes and onto the skin under your eyes, where ingredients can potentially be absorbed into the body. And a lot of conventional mascara has concerning ingredients, such as:
- Retinyl acetate (aka vitamin A acetate) is a synthetic form of vitamin A that is used as a moisturizing ingredient (or “skin conditioner”) in some mascaras. EWG gives it a whopping 9 on their hazard scale. The FDA classifies retinyl acetate as a “known reproductive toxicant”; it’s also a possible carcinogen.
- Parabens are a family of preservatives that are found everywhere, although many companies are now making paraben-free products. Parabens mimic estrogen and are implicated in breast cancer. No causal relationship has been proven, but because we’re exposed to parabens from many products, I recommend avoiding them wherever you can—including in mascara.
- Diazolidinyl urea is a formaldehyde-releasing preservative with an EWG score of 6. In addition to the fact that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, exposure to formadehyde-releasers can cause people to develop allergies to those ingredients and formaldehyde in general. Another formaldehyde releaser to watch out for in mascara is imidazolidinyl urea.
- Propylene glycol is a skin conditioner known to be allergenic and potentially toxic to non-reproductive organs. As a penetration-enhancer, it can make the skin vulnerable to other harmful ingredients.
- Triethanolamine is used in some mascaras as a pH adjuster and emulsifier. It’s considered a skin toxicant or allergen, may be harmful to non-reproductive organs, and can be contaminated with nitrosamines.
- Be suspicious when you see fragrance or “parfum” listed on a any label, including mascara. Many nasty chemicals can hide under that umbrella, including phthalates, which are hormone disrupters and possible carcinogens.
- Geraniol, limonene, linalool, citrol and citronellol are potentially irritating and allergenic components that have synthetic as well as natural versions (the latter being a naturally-occurring component of some essential oils). Honest companies disclose them on their ingredient labels. In mascara, they are scent ingredients, and some, like d-limonene, also have preservative qualities. If you’re particularly sensitive, try to avoid mascaras that contain them, and note that carcinogenic properties seem to happen only when these compounds go rancid, so adhere to the expiration dates on your mascara.
- Pigments (colorants) can be contaminated with toxic substances, including heavy metals. Look for companies that disclose the specific “color index number” (CI number) of the colorants they use (such as “CI 77499,” an iron oxide), and skip aluminum powder, a neurotoxin.
Preservatives in Mascara
You’ll notice that many of the ingredients I’m concerned about in mascara are preservatives. Preservatives are necessary to keep mascara from becoming a host for bacteria and other microbes, but they’re also problematic.
Both natural and synthetic preservatives can be irritating to various degrees. Given that we use mascara around our eyes, which are sensitive organs, I worry about preservatives in mascaras. Even natural preservative ingredients that are considered to be safe can be contaminated with toxic parabens.
Mascara Ingredients That Are Safe
There are a lot of companies using safe (or safer) ingredients to make mascaras, including many that get high marks for performance, like their more toxic counterparts.
Mascaras didn’t have to be “natural” in order to make our list of Good Stuff or Okay Stuff. In fact, many of those products contain lots of synthetic ingredients. You may have heard that not all natural ingredients are safe. It’s also true that synthetic ingredients aren’t necessarily unsafe (although in general, I am biased against too many synthetics, especially in products for babies and kids).
Here are some of the ingredients you’ll find in the Good Stuff:
- When it comes to mascara, I think that “food-grade preservatives” like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate are an okay choice. They’re definitely lesser evils than parabens and might be better than some naturally derived preservatives that are newer and haven’t been extensively studied for safety. Note: You’ll also see phenoxyethanol in some of the Good and Okay Stuff. I’m not nuts about it—it’s potentially irritating preservative, with an EWG score of 4—but it’s better than spoiled or contaminated mascara. Skip phenoxyethanol-containing mascaras if you’re sensitive.
- Good mascaras include natural and organic waxes, such as beeswax, candelilla wax, and carnauba wax.
- Good mascaras also contain natural and organic oils and butters, such as jojoba oil, sunflower oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter.
- I like to see starch, oil, wax and gum derived from organic rice, which doesn’t carry the same pesticide-contamination concerns as conventionally farmed rice.
What About Eyelash Extensions?
I’m working on a separate post about eyelash extensions, since I looooove them. (I mean, look at these stunners on the left!) Anyway, I always assumed that skipping mascara was one of the benefits of wearing eyelash extensions, but I’ve since learned that some people with extensions use mascara, too.
Based on my research, if you’re wearing extensions, you should choose mascara that washes off easily–not a waterproof formula—so you can remove it without damaging your extensions or natural lashes. There are lots of non-waterproof mascaras on the Good Stuff and Okay Stuff lists.
You should also protect your extensions and natural lashes by only applying mascara to the outer part of your lashes.
Be Kind to Your lashes
One of the best things you can do to enhance your lashes is to be gentle with them.
- Choose water-based mascaras for everyday use; they are gentler on your lashes because they’re easier to wash off than waterproof formulas.
- Don’t sleep in your mascara! Remove mascara gently at the end of the day—minimize rubbing, and don’t tug. My favorite way to do this is with this incredible makeup remover that doubles as a treatment oil.
- Condition your lashes overnight with a tiny bit of oil (like olive or coconut) brushed gently onto the outer part of your lashes. Wash off in the morning to avoid build-up and irritation. (I’m too tired at the end of the day to implement this, but it’s a goal for the future!).
The Good Stuff
100% Pure Maracuja Mascara (Black Tea) has mostly plant-based ingredients. The only ingredients of potential concern are the rice bran wax and rice germ powder, because they aren’t organic, and ingredients derived from conventionally farmed rice can be contaminated with pesticides. Note: As of this writing, the EWG listing for 100% Pure’s mascara, with a score of 2, does not match their current formulation.
Afterglow Organic Infused Pure Soul Mascara is made with many organic ingredients. They do use ethylhexylglycerin, which is potentially irritating, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because they created this formula with sensitive eyes in mind, and the rest of their ingredients are of little or no concern.
Beautycounter Lengthening Mascara is my pick when it comes to performance, and the only mascara I use. Beautycounter includes organic plant oils in its mascara formula, and the only ingredient I’m not a fan of here is sodium benzoate, a preservative, but because mascara isn’t ingested or applied directly to the skin, I’m not worried about it. EWG gives this mascara a score of 2. I like that Beautycounter took three years to develop this mascara and tests it for purity AFTER production to ensure zero contamination. It’s also non-clumpy, which is hard to find among natural mascara brands and super important to me. Note: This isn’t officially a waterproof mascara, but it comes off easiest with an oil-based cream or cleanser.
At just six ingredients, this mascara has the simplest formula of those we reviewed. (Real Purity is a close second). EWG gives it a 1; while I’m not nuts about their choice of preservative—phenoxyethanol– I get that preservatives are tricky and mascara needs them.
Honeybee Gardens Truly Natural Mascara is made with a lot of organic ingredients, all of which are of little or no concern. EWG gives it a 1, but there are several discrepancies between the EWG listing and Honeybee Garden’s current formula.
Jane Iredale mascaras are made from ingredients of little or no concern. Skin Deep gives the PureLash Lengthening formula a 2 (lowest concern). The regular PureLash formula does contain bisabolol, a terpene used for scent and anti-microbial properties. Bisabolol can cause enhanced skin penetration of other ingredients, but given the nature of mascara (you’re not smearing it all over your body), and the relative safety of the other ingredients in the formula, I’m not too worried about it. Bisabolol appears to be less problematic than the other terpenes, like limonene.
Not all ingredients in Juice Beauty PHYTO-PIGMENTS Ultra-Natural Mascara are natural, but many of them are organic, and they are of little or no concern. I like that Juice Beauty is transparent about the source of their ingredients (plant-based versus synthetic).
Pacifica’s Dream Big and Stellar Gaze Mascaras are Good Stuff. The only mildly concerning ingredient is non-organic rice protein, which can be contaminated with pesticides. Note: Pacifica’s Aquarian Gaze Mascaras (water resistant) are Okay Stuff (see below).
Physicians Formula Organic wear 100% Natural Origin Mascara and Jumbo Lash Mascara have the same basic formula, with an EWG score of 1. This is the best (and only!) Good Stuff you can get at the drug store. Physicians Formula uses 70% organic ingredients in these products, and all ingredients are of little or no concern. Other mascaras in their “Organic Wear” line are Good or Okay, but beware that the rest of their mascaras have bad ingredients like propylene glycol, triethanolamine, parabens, and diazolidinyl urea.
Poofy Organics Mascara is made with mostly organic ingredients. If anyone has tried this one and can speak to its performance, comment below!
Real Purity Mascara (Black) has just 9 ingredients and an EWG score of 1. They use extracts of ivy and sage in place of potentially problematic preservatives.
Rejuva Minerals Pur Lash Volumizing Mascara is an EWG Verified product. Their Rejuva Minerals Resistant Mega Lash Mascara gets an EWG score of 1, but the EWG listing (and therefore their calculation) leaves out a few ingredients. The way the ingredient lists are written on the Rejuva Minerals website doesn’t instill a lot of confidence—some ingredient names are not complete—but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. I like that their formulas are relatively short and simple and include ingredients of little or no concern.
Zuzu Luxe Mascara is made from a relatively short list of straightforward ingredients. The only semi-concerning ingredients are the preservatives– tocopherylacetate and potassium sorbate (both have an EWG score of 3)—but they’re less worrisome than many other preservatives.
Pure Haven Essentials, formerly Ava Anderson Non-Toxic, makes a mascara with just 11 ingredients, all of little or no concern. Earlier this year, Ava Anderson shut down because of a scandal involving the non-disclosure of ingredients, including concerning ingredients that they claimed to not use. Assuming the original company learned from these errors and had made the necessary changes to their supply chain and manufacturing practices, I call this Good Stuff.
Alima Pure Natural Definition Mascara has an EWG score of 2 and only a couple of moderately concerning ingredients (propanediol and sodium hydroxide, both potentially irritating).
Arbonne It’s a Long Story Mascara gets an EWG score of 2, but due to the combination of several ingredients I’m wary of (butylene glycol, PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil, ethylhexylglycerin, tocopheryl acetate, and aminomethyl propanol), I think this mascara is just Okay Stuff, and am not a huge fan of Arbonne in general.
Dr. Hauschka’s mascaras contain “fragrance” (EWG give it an 8, but Hauschka specifies that it’s 100% natural, so I’m fine with it). Like all Hauschka products, this mascara contains naturally-occurring citronellol, geraniol, and linalool. Other ingredients that make this Okay rather than Good Stuff are castor seed oil and the fact that alcohol, which is known to be irritating, is high on their ingredient lists.
bareMinerals Flawless Definition Waterproof Mascara has a handful of ingredients that aren’t great, including phenoxyethanol and aminomethyl propanediol, but there are no major offenders. Note: other bareMinerals mascaras are Sneaky or Bad, as are most of their other products.
Josie Maran Argan Black Oil Mascara is made with a some good ingredients, but it’s borderline sneaky thanks to the combination of several moderately concerning ingredients—phenoxyethanol, propanediol, ethylhexylglycerin, conventional rice bran wax, and laureth-21. Note: As of this writing, the EWG entry for Josie Maran mascara is not for this formula.
Kjaer Weis Mascara contains a lot of organic ingredients and has an EWG score of 2. I’d call it Good Stuff, except that it contains citronellol and geraniol from the essential oils used in the formula.
Pacifica’s Aquarian Gaze Mascaras (water resistant) are Okay Stuff, due to a handful of mildly concerning ingredients (butylene glycol, ethylhexylglycerin, phenoxyethanol, and hexylene glycol). I did consider classifying these mascaras as Sneaky Stuff because of steareth-21, a PEG-related surfactant that can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, so this is the worst of the Okay Stuff in my opinion. Note: Pacifica’s Dream Big and Stellar Gaze mascaras are Good Stuff (see above).
Lily Lolo New Black Vegan Mascara is made with ingredients that are of little or no concern, at least based on current safety data. I’m calling this Okay Stuff rather than Good Stuff because they use several surfactants with limited safety data, and some of the company’s claims make me a bit wary. For instance, on their website, Lily Lolo says they use no preservatives, but they list potassium sorbate—a preservative– among their mascara ingredients. They also claim to use organic ingredients, but, unlike other companies, they don’t specify any organic ingredients on their ingredients list.
Origins Fringe Benefits Mascara qualifies as Okay Stuff thanks to many good ingredients and a few of moderate concern (aminomethyl propanediol, laureth-20—a PEG-derived surfactant, phenoxyethanol, and chloroxylenol—another potentially problematic preservative). Note: Origins GinZing Brightening Mascara is Sneaky Stuff!
The Bad Stuff
Almay One Coat Mascaras get EWG scores of 7-9, thanks to ingredients like parabens and retinyl palmitate.
Cover Girl uses yucky stuff like parabens, aluminum powder, and triethanolamine.
Dior doesn’t disclose Diorshow ingredients on their website, but from what I can tell, they re-formulated to eliminate some of the worst ingredients, like parabens, diazolidinyl urea, and triethanolamine. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Diorshow mascaras still include a lot of concerning ingredients, such as parfum/fragrance, surfactants like sodium laureth 12-sulfate and glyceryl hydrogenated rosinate, and geraniol, citronellol, linalool, cinnamyl alcohol, ammonium hydroxide, and BHT!
Elizabeth Arden doesn’t disclose its mascara ingredients on their website, and there are no current listings on EWG/Skin Deep. Elsewhere I found ingredient lists that include bad stuff like triethanolamine and parabens.
I haven’t reviewed all of L’Oreal’s mascaras, but one of their most popular–L’Oreal Voluminous Original Mascara, has triethanolamine, imidazolidinyl urea (a formaldehyde releaser), parabens, BHT, and several concerning colorants, including D&C Black No. 2/CI 77266.
Max Factor mascaras include a lot of common bad ingredients, such as propylene glycol, triethanolamine, polyethylene, benzyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, parabens, SLS, and phenoxyethanol.
Maybelline Great Lash mascara, the beloved classic in the green and pink tube, contains yucky stuff like triethanolamine, propylene glycol, and parabens.
Physicians Formula’s non-organic mascaras have yucky ingredients like propylene glycol, triethanolamine, phenoxyethanol, parabens, and diazolidinyl urea. However, I give the company props for making the only drug-store formulas that I recommend (see Good Stuff).
Rimmel makes a million different mascaras; just looking at one of them—Lash Accelerator in Extreme Black—I see worrisome ingredients like propylene glycol, butylene glycol, triethanolamine, phenoxyethanol, retinyl palmitate, parabens, PEG- 40 hydrogenated castor oil, BHA (a toxic preservative), and D&C Black No. 2/CI 77266 (a toxic colorant).
Wet-n- Wild mascaras appear to be paraben free, but contain other worrisome preservatives that I don’t want near my eyes, like methylisothiazolinone. They also contain yucky ingredients like triethanolamine, polyethylene, butylene glycol, and PEG-26- PPG-30 phosphate, which can be contaminated with toxic ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.
The Sneaky Stuff
bareMinerals uses a lot of concerning ingredients in their mascaras, including triethanolamine, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, tocopheryl acetate (can be contaminated with hydroquinone), ethylhexylglycerin, phenoxyethanol, SLS, and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate. Their Flawless Definition Waterproof formula isn’t bad—I might even call it Okay Stuff. Note: The Skin Deep entry for the Lash Domination formula gives it a 2, but the listing is not current, leaving out several ingredients.
Beauty Without Cruelty formulates their products in favor of the wellbeing of animals, but their mascaras have a number of ingredients that are concerning for humans and their eyes: triethanolamine, benzyl alcohol, non-organic rice bran wax and rice bran oil, dimethicone, phenoxyethanol, denatured alcohol, polyethylene, talc, and ethylhexylglycerin.
Benecos Natural mascaras are made with some organic plant oils and waxes, but this German company loses points for citral, limonene, and linalool, which come with the essential oils they use; having a relatively high concentration of potentially irritating alcohol; using sodium hydroxide (also potentially irritating); and “fragrance” (though they claim it’s not synthetic). Their Vegan Natural Volume Mascara is borderline okay except for glyceryl rosinate (EWG score of 6, and a potential irritant/allergen) and silver (a likely problematic colorant, especially around the eyes).
Neutrogena “Healthy” Mascaras have and EWG score of 6 and are anything but healthy, containing bad ingredients such as parabens and sketchy “fragrance.”
PUR’s mascaras are not so “pure.” In addition to using concerning ingredients like triethanolamine, ethyhexyglyerin, phenoxyethanol, polybutene, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, and hexylene glycol, they rely on several ingredients with contamination concerns—steareth-20 and steareth-2 (derived from polyethylene glycol, aka PEG); styrene/acrylates copolymer; polyvinyl acetate; and PEG-8 dimethicone. They proudly state that several of their mascaras are paraben-free, but they do use methylparaben in their Impact+ formula. This is the sneakiest of the Sneaky Stuff!
RMS Beauty mascaras are really popular among my readers, so I hate to say that they are Sneaky. Unfortunately, these mascaras contain many ingredients of concern, including benzyl alcohol, sodium hydroxide, and potassium hydroxide (plus geraniol and linalool.)
Tarte’s motto, “High-performance naturals,” is a stretch. Their formulas include propylene glycol, triethanolamine, and ingredients that are potentially irritating to the eyes (aminomethyl propanol, butylene glycol, castor seed oil, and polybutene). If you’re a huge Tarte fan, the product with the least concerning ingredients is their “Lights, Camera, Splashes” waterproof mascara.
W3ll People mascaras are another favorite among you guys, but after looking closely at their ingredients, I have to call them Sneaky. Their Expressionist Mascara is EWG certified, but the formula listed on Skin Deep misses a few key ingredients. Both the Expressionist and Expressionist Pro formulas include benzyl alcohol as the second ingredient. They also contain geraniol, limonene, and sodium hydroxide. And yes, this calls into question the EWG certification!
Origins GinZing Brightening Mascara is Sneaky Stuff thanks to a few ingredients of moderate concern (aminomethyl propanediol, ethylhexylglycerin, laureth-20, urea, and phenoxyethanol) and a whopping 16 pigments. None of the many other mascaras I reviewed had anywhere near this number of colorants. No single pigment in this formula is a huge red flag, but many of them are potentially problematic, so the sum of them gives me pause.
Don’t see your favorite brand in any of the Good, Bad, or Sneaky tabs? Comment below with your favorite brands!
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