I love a luxurious beauty buy as much as the next editor. Triple-digit price tag for highlights that make you look like you’ve spent 10 days under the Mediterranean sun? Well, you wear your hair every day. Hard-to-source, dermatologist-approved sunscreen? That’s insurance against future wrinkles and sun damage, thanks. Jo Malone body lotion, spread thick like frosting on a cupcake? Well, that one is just indulgent. But if there’s one thing I can’t bring myself to drop serious cash on, it’s mascara. Take it from me: I’ve spent about six years doing this beauty thing, from working on the shop floor to judging awards for glossy magazines. By my count, I’ve tried more mascaras than I have individual lashes. On both eyes. Put together. And I always come back to the cheap ones. Mascara is often the first notch on the beauty bedpost for lots of women. Before experimenting with lipstick or trying out blusher, coating our lashes with something furtively liberated from our mum’s dressing table is how many of us started our beauty journey. Perhaps that element of nostalgia is part of what keeps me coming back. Knowing what I do now about my skin and what it likes, I’d be reluctant to turn back to my adolescent foundation of choice, nor would I wear Britney Spears Fantasy out of the house. But mascara – the kind I could get with my pocket money – sings a particular siren song.
I’m not saying you can grab any old tube from Boots and be done with it (panda eyes are real, folks) but I’ve always found high street offerings to be as good as, and sometimes better than, their designer counterparts. I’m not alone here: When I met Mario Dedivanovic, who does the makeup for Kim Kardashian – a woman who loves £250 Guerlain face cream – he told me he pretty much only uses L’Oréal Paris Voluminous Original Mascara in Carbon Black. I’ve seen more bottles of Maybelline Lash Sensational backstage at fashion shows than I have anything extravagant and, personally, I can’t get enough of Max Factor mascaras: False Lash Effect, Masterpiece, the new 2000 Calorie Curl Addict... Sometimes in beauty you really are paying for better quality, be that in terms of ingredients or formulation; more often than not, though, you’re paying for prestige and rose gold packaging.
Quite often you’ll hear of mascaras launching with special ingredients – argan oil and vitamin E are common – that claim to add extra benefits. In reality, the concentration of those added extras is so minuscule that it’s very unlikely to be active at all. Mascara formulations haven’t changed an awful lot in the last 50 years: they’re basically all polymers, waxes and film formers. The last big shake-up was in 2004 when the Food and Drug Administration in America licensed a new carbon-black pigment which is super, super black and now, of course, used by pretty much every brand. In fact, lots of beauty brands share mascara formulations. The reason two brands can share a formula but produce different mascaras is that most innovation is in the wand and the wiper. It’s actually very expensive to get new ingredients tested and approved for cosmetic use and, in a way, you’d be reinventing the wheel. What brands can do is switch up their wands.
Preferring a ‘traditional’ mascara wand (nylon fibres twisted around wire) or a ‘new’ wand (specifically moulded plastic) is as personal as liking sugar in your tea. As a rule of thumb, I’d say plastic-fibre wands are better at lengthening and separating, and nylon-fibre wands are better at volumising. What is truly crucial is the ‘wiper’, which is a little ring inside the tube that controls how much product is deposited onto the brush. Too large, and you’ll have a goopy mess on your hands; too small, and you won’t get the lift and lengthening you want. To put this in context, a single millimetre can make a huge difference. Why do you think Dior launched a mascara with a special squeezy tube? So you can still get the right amount of product on your wand, even when it’s started to dry up and not go through the wiper properly.
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes I feel like mascara is almost an afterthought for new brands. In such a crowded market, you can think you’ve bought the mascara you always buy, then get home and realise it’s actually a similarly-named-but-slightly-different offering. It’s hard to make a mascara stand out. With a dearth of innovation when it comes to formulation, and wand preferences being so deeply personal, I can understand why new brands get caught up in the easy win of a pretty lipstick shade or a glow-giving highlighter. And perhaps because the new plastic brushes don’t evoke old Hollywood glamour and luxury in the way a lot of high-end brands like to do, I’ve yet to find anything with a price tag far north of £10 that I’d want to repurchase.
I would still recommend buying an eyelash curler and my favourite (Kevyn Aucoin The Eyelash Curler) is £17 but, to be fair, you replace a curler a lot less frequently than you do a tube of mascara. I still apply mascara as I did way back when – slowly, looking down into a hand mirror, mouth slightly agape, coating every last lash like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It still makes me almost late most days. Until there’s a mascara that truly curls, doesn’t crumble or transfer onto my brow bone and also, ideally, transforms me into Kate Bosworth, my hand’s not going any deeper into my pocket.