What is Mascara Made Of? Surprising Ingredients to Watch Out For
Did you know that people have been wearing mascara for thousands of years?
Eye makeup, specifically around the lashes, was used to enhance and emphasize those strange little curlicues that keep dust and other bits from damaging our eyes, long before there were Instagram influencers.
Today, we pursue darker, thicker, longer lashes as we age and as our lashes eventually start thinning out, or as other features obscure them (hello, reading glasses).
One of our go-to's, of course, is mascara. It helps extend and darken lashes and makes them appear more youthful. But what is mascara made of? Is it safe? Are there risks to using it? Here’s everything you need to know.
A brief history of mascara
Evidence of mascara use dates back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. Eyes have long been viewed as being windows into the soul, and in ancient times, it was believed that darkening the eyes would offer protection from evil spirits. Men and women wore eye makeup, which was made using ash animal fats.
Makeup wasn’t just worn as protection, though; it was also used in celebration, in mourning, and in war.
Over the centuries, makeup and mascara have evolved. These days, we love it for the ways it can thicken, lengthen, and bring volume to our lashes. We are keen to bring focus to our eyes—still considered the windows into our souls—but nowadays, we’re using eye makeup to express ourselves and reveal our spirit, rather than warding off evil ones (although, still: don’t let those bad guys in).
From fun colors to extra curl to long-lasting looks, there are many reasons mascara can be a makeup bag must.
Is there bat poop in mascara?
Come again? Bat poop? How would that work exactly? You have questions, and we have answers.
The short answer: no, there’s no bat poop in your mascara. Well, unless you source your own bat poop and add it in, that is. You do you.
But the reason this is even a question is because of confusion about a common ingredient in mascara called guanine. That word is a few letters different than guano—a.k.a. bat poop.
Animal ingredients in mascara
Like a number of cosmetics, mascara can contain animal ingredients for a number of different reasons. Below are the most common ingredients.
While there’s no guano in your mascara, there’s a good chance that fish scales are. Often labeled as guanine, this ingredient comes from soaking fish scales in alcohol before crushing them. Guanine is used to make mascara diffuse light and create shinier lashes.
Shellac is found in a number of products from wood varnishes to coating pill capsules. It’s a resin produced by the female lac beetle commonly found in India and Thailand. The resin is dried and sold as flakes that can be dissolved and used in cosmetics, most often to make the product stick and help with curling.
A necessary component to beehive building, beeswax is produced by honeybees after collecting pollen. It’s what makes the hives’ signature hexagonal shape.
In mascara, beeswax enables mascara to coat and lengthen lashes and allows lashes to keep their shape without hardening.
Lanolin is an oil secreted by the skin of sheep that coats their wool, keeping their coats healthy and protecting the animals from cold weather.
Because lanolin is a rich, grease-like oil, it’s commonly used in a number of cosmetics, including mascara, to keep the products from drying out and adding moisturizing properties.
Collagen is derived from animal tissue and bones—typically slaughterhouse leftovers. As skin, bone, and connective tissues are boiled down, collagen is one among many compounds that can be extracted and used in various industries.
In mascara, collagen is used to help make lashes appear thicker.
Panthenol is a provitamin of B5 often found in meat or honey. It’s used in mascara to help the product bind, lubricate, and moisturize lashes. It also helps to enhance shine.
Looking for vegan mascaras that are free from animal ingredients? You’re in luck! The vegan cosmetics category is booming, and mascara options are now plentiful, coming from some respectable and clean brands. (Browse even more at the Kinder Marketplace.)
Don’t let the name fool you. Everything Milk Makeup does is vegan, and it makes an award-winning vegan mascara.
This mascara isn’t just free from animal products: the formula doesn’t use ingredients that can be bad for your skin and your health, including parabens, fragrances, silicone, alcohol, and coal tar.
Made with conditioning hemp oil, Milk’s mascara gives buildable volume and promotes softer, healthier lashes. Customers agree, with more than 90 percent saying the product lifts lashes, makes them thicker, longer, and provides more volume.
Tarte’s best-selling vegan mascara is a cult classic for a reason. Get length, curl, and volume without sulfates, SLS, SLES, parabens, phthalates, or mineral oil. Tarte delivers conditioning to your lashes from olive oil esters, rice bran wax that boosts length, and carnauba wax that makes for a smooth finish.
Pure plant power shines in Inika’s Long Lash Vegan Mascara made with all-natural plant-based ingredients that boost, lift, curl, and lengthen without clumping. Vitamin E softens and protects while its pure mineral pigments promise intense, long-lasting color.
This budget-friendly vegan mascara is a great go-to for summer fun. Long-lasting, lengthening, and water-resistant, this mascara is free from carmine, phthalates, petroleum, and silicone. Pacifica is widely available online and at stores including Target.
Is mascara bad for your lashes?
A growing number of mascara products contain ingredients that have health-promoting properties. But that doesn’t mean wearing mascara all the time is necessarily a good thing.
It certainly depends on which brands and products you’re using. One recent study found toxic “forever chemicals,” called PFAS, in a wide range of samples from top-selling brands. These chemicals can linger in our bodies and waterways, creating problems including hormonal and metabolic disruption.
Less severe issues can also result from too much or too frequent mascara use. Some users can experience contact dermatitis issues around the eyes. And mascara can lead to infected eyelash follicles, causing styes and other infections.
Too much mascara may also lead to eyelash loss, especially if you’re using petroleum-based products.
When removing, make sure you use an effective makeup remover to fully cleanse mascara from the eyes. And give your eyes a break! Wearing it daily is generally regarded as safe, but when you can go without it, you should.
Toxic ingredients in mascara
We’ve seen how many terrific vegan and clean mascaras there are out there. But you should be aware of the not-so-good ingredients that lurk within many mascara formulations.
Avoid all of the below if you can—and remember that any mascara you find on Kinder Beauty will be clean, vegan, and cruelty-free!
Powdered aluminum is often used in mascara to add shimmer and shine, but it can be a risky ingredient, especially if mixed with mercury.
With a high concern rating from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, the compound is considered to be more dangerous than mercury because of its neurotoxicity. Plus, long-term exposure to aluminum powder can make it more difficult on your body to excrete mercury, which can lead to other serious health conditions.
A known carcinogen, formaldehyde is incredibly risky to our health once it makes its way into the body.
While most of the research into its risk potential has been linked to inhaling formaldehyde rather than topical application, wearing it on your eyelashes increases the chances it will enter your body and cause trouble.
Dyes made from coal tar can contain traces of heavy metals, making them toxic. They’ve been linked to severe allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches, nausea, fatigue, restlessness, and nervousness. There are more severe risks, too, including certain types of cancer.
Artificial colors and dyes have been controversial for some time because of their cancer risk. Many are still added to colored or shimmered mascaras. These are labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number (e.g. FD&C Red No. 6, D&C Green No. 6).
Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative—and potentially a very dangerous toxin. Because mercury-based compounds can be easily absorbed by the body, they’re important to avoid. They can accumulate in the body, leading to a number of neurological issues. Topically they can cause problems, too, including allergic reactions and irritations.
Used to prevent bacterial build-up, Imidazolidinyl urea is a common preservative in cosmetics, especially mascara.
But while it’s useful in preventing bacteria, it can release formaldehyde, which has been linked to a host of health issues and is a recognized carcinogen. It can also cause itching, burning, hives, and blistering, as well as severe respiratory reactions. There’s also research suggesting it may cause liver toxicity and gastrointestinal issues.
Widely used as preservatives in a number of products, from detergents to deodorants, parabens have been on the no-no list for years, with mainstream brands finally removing them from household and personal care items more recently. That’s because there’s a strong link to an increased risk of developing breast cancer associated with these compounds. They may also impair reproductivity, lower immunity, and irritate the skin.
A common emollient in skincare products, propylene glycol is used to reduce the thickness and helps mascara to better spread across lashes.
But there are risks from this petroleum-based ingredient, including topical issues such as irritation and itching. Propylene glycol has also been linked to seizures and severe neurological disorders at an exposure level of less than 2 percent concentration.
In some ways, mascara has come a long way from its early uses to ward off those evil spirits. But the industrialization of cosmetics has created many evil spirits of its own.
The good news is knowing what to avoid is half the battle; knowing which brands have your health and safety in mind is the other part of that equation.
Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.