This has happened to me more than once: I’m getting touched up for a photo, and the makeup artist assesses my face and says, “We just need to put some mascara on, and then you’re all set.”
To which I reply, “But I’m already wearing mascara.”
I have always been eyelash challenged. Not in a way that’s medical-condition serious but enough so that I’ve become somewhat fixated on my, well, shortcomings. When I am introduced to someone new, I often make a mental note of her assets: Is she a Bambi type? Or are her lashes, like mine, barely visible to the naked eye? A true sign that I’m obsessed? More than once I’ve caught myself staring at my 15-year-old stepson’s impossibly long lashes thinking not, I’m so happy for him that he’s such a handsome kid, but, No fair!
For many years I accepted the sparse fringe on my lids as the inevitable consequence of my naturally (okay, naturally when I was 10) blond hair. But recently I got tired of making do with less and decided to embark upon a lash-lengthening quest. First, I asked New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler to provide me with a few eyelash basics. “Eyelash length is purely genetic,” she told me, dashing my hopes that if I would just remember to take my vitamins, my lashes would magically grow. Even more discouraging is that, as Wechsler explained, lashes thin with age. So, like supple skin, long, full eyelashes have long been equated with youthful beauty. No wonder we’ve been playing them up for eons. Ancient Egyptian women rubbed their lashes with kohl, a mixture of charred plants and oils. That practice went unimproved until 1913, when chemist T.L. Williams mixed coal dust with Vaseline, creating Maybelline, the first mascara. Three years later film director D.W. Griffith invented the first pair of false eyelashes.
Over the years I have benefited from both Williams’s and Griffith’s ingenuity. Among the top-performing mascaras in my arsenal: Lancôme’s Definicils, Max Factor’s 2000 Calorie Mascara, Blinc’s Kiss Me and Diorshow. Still, none of these products was exactly turning me into Twiggy. So, three years ago, I moved on to the 21st-century version of Griffith’s falsies: eyelash extensions. Instead of attaching a strip of fringe, aestheticians glue synthetic hairs, one by one, onto a client’s own lashes. The process is fairly quick and painless, and it yields immediate, transformative results, but said results last only a few weeks. At around $300 a visit, maintenance can quickly drain one’s pocketbook.
For those who seek a more long-term commitment, there is eyelash transplant surgery, in which follicles are harvested from the back of the head and replanted in the lash line. Florida-based cosmetic surgeon Alan Bauman has been performing the procedure, which runs about $6,000, since 2000. “When I started, most patients were reconstructive cases,” he says. “Now, nine out of 10 are having it done for cosmetic purposes.”
The ideal client for this procedure has wavy hair. “What you have on your head is what you’re going to get on your lid,” Bauman explains. “Patients with straight hair had better be proficient with a lash curler.” Not to mention a pair of scissors: Scalp hairs continue to grow in their new home. Bauman’s office now offers a full lash-care menu, including perming, trimming—even lash shampooing.
Because the idea of going under the knife sounded extreme, I began to explore a less invasive frontier: lash conditioners. The first of these products appeared in 2005, when Jan Marini launched Age Intervention Eyelash, a serum boasting an ingredient called eyelash growth factor. Soon the beauty blogs were lighting up with rave reviews.
In the wake of Marini’s success, a wave of copycats flooded the market, including Revitalash and Massive Lash. But the party didn’t last. Under FDA rules, any product that claims to induce growth is a drug, not a cosmetic, and thus needs to go through the agency’s approval process, which lash conditioners hadn’t done. So in November 2007, Marini’s product was seized. Complicating matters, the active ingredients in lash conditioners, compounds known as prostaglandin analogs, are patented by Allergan, the company that makes Botox. (Allergan uses a prostaglandin analog in its glaucoma drug, Lumigan, and its cosmetic potential was discovered when patients experienced lash growth as a side effect.) Allergan sued Marini and several of her competitors and has since submitted an application to the FDA for its own prescription drug specifically targeting lashes. It’s now awaiting approval.
Meanwhile, Marini and most of her competitors have reformulated their products, replacing prostaglandin analogs with peptides, chains of amino acids that are used in antiaging creams to boost collagen production. In this case, the peptides are meant to stimulate follicles. Among the peptide pushers are Marini Lash, RapidLash Eyelash Renewal Serum, Actifirm Actilash Eyelash Conditioner, B. Kamins Chemist Eyelash Fortifier, Dr. Denese Eyelash and Brow Enhancer, and DermaLash Colors.
If all of this sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Nashville, Tennessee, ophthalmic plastic surgeon Brian Biesman says that even experts like him don’t have enough information yet to determine what’s safe and effective. Patients taking prostaglandin analogs to treat glaucoma—using it in their eyes rather than on their lash lines—have reported side effects, including darkening of the iris and the skin around the eye. Given these safety concerns, Biesman’s advice is to “stay away for now” from conditioners containing prostaglandin analogs. “They need to be studied in a formal way,” he says. As for the lash conditioners containing peptides, exercise caution. “Run any product by your ophthalmologist before using it around the eye,” he says.
I’ve sampled several conditioners, giving each its fair four weeks or so. (What can I say? I’m a risk taker.) I haven’t noticed much growth, but, believe it or not, I’m not overly bummed about it. The reason, in two words: vibrating mascara.
Yes, my lash quest has, as many journeys do, ended where it started, bringing me back to T.L. Williams’s basic tube and wand—only that wand is no longer so basic. Estée Lauder’s TurboLash, which came out in July, and Lancôme’s Oscillation, which debuts in November, employ a vibrating brush to coat lashes much more thoroughly than previously possible. I put both to the test, and once I mastered the application technique—which involves moving the brush in slo-mo—I inspected my work in the mirror. I could have cried, but tears would have undone my handiwork. There, without the help of extensions, were full, long, fluttery eyelashes. And while the effect evaporates when I remove my makeup before bed, that doesn’t really bother me. It’s dark then anyway.
Hair by Kevin Mancuso for Nexxus Salon hair care; makeup by Polly Osmond for Christian Dior at Art Department; Model: Gantz at ONE Management; Photo assistants: Peter Domorak and Ryan Carville