Here’s an eye-opening fact about what’s really in your makeup bag: On average, women use 12 beauty products a day, exposing themselves to about 168 chemical ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group. And while clean beauty enthusiasts know to push beyond marketing hype and carefully examine the ingredients label when shopping, most focus their attention on body moisturizer, face cream or nail polish. Maybe blush. Hopefully lipstick. Regularly overlooked? The daily staple most women don’t leave home without: a pitch-black volumizing mascara. 

“People tend to worry less about mascara since it only goes on their lashes,” says the Environmental Working Group’s director of Healthy Living Science, Nneka Leiba. “But it will eventually get into eyes, too, [along with] potential chemicals such as PTFE, a non-stick ingredient also known as Teflon, and others.” 

Dig deeper and mascara, synonymous with femininity since its turn-of-the-century origins, has a surprisingly questionable history. “Beautiful Eyelashes and Eyebrows Make Beautiful Eyes,” reads Maybelline’s first ever ad, released in 1915, for a lash and brow product called Lash-Brow-Ine. Made from white petrolatum with oils to provide sheen, it was a harmless mascara precursor. But by the 1930s, the craze for more pronounced lashes had evolved to include unregulated darkeners such as Lash Lurewhich contained p-phenylenediamine—a toxic coal-tar dye that resulted in cases of blindness and one recorded death.  The latter incident is widely credited with prompting a 1938 bill that enabled the FDA to initiate action against outright dangerous cosmetics—but, note the distinction, not those that may be potentially hazardous. 

Fast forward nearly a century and remarkably little has changed. With no further legislation passed, many US cosmetic ingredients are essentially presumed safe until proven otherwise—unlike pharmaceutical drugs, no pre-market testing is required to establish that your favorite hyper pigmentation serum or lip stain is actually harmless. And widely disputed grey areas abound. Potential carcinogens like PEG-40 Stearate (which may contain impurities known as 1,4-dioxanes), endocrine disruptors such as BHT, Isobutylparaben, and Methylparaben that could effect a woman’s reproductive health, and more are still found in common beauty products, including some mascaras. Even small amounts of mercury may still be used as a preservative near the eyes. 

Dark, flush lashes may be the ultimate subtle enhancement, but take a step back and think about it, says Gay Timmons, the president of Oh, Oh Organic, Inc, an organization dedicated to the development and delivery of organic and sustainable ingredients in the cosmetics industry and an advisor to Westman Atelier’s clean formulas, as well as responsible beauty retail bastions like Credo. “Lashes are growing out of a mucus membrane that is highly absorbent," says Timmons. From redness to puffiness or worse, how one reacts to a mascara depends entirely on the product and how long and often she interacts with it. Consider the number of times you rub your eyes at the end of a long day, how thoroughly you remove every last stitch of mascara, or whether you’ve ever fallen asleep in your makeup, and the hours quickly add up.

The good news is that a new legion of clean-minded brands are making it their mission to pioneer better solutions with labs on both a human safety and environmental level, says Timmons, who doesn’t wear foundation or blush but admits to “loving eye makeup,” and had recently tried out a well-respected clean mascara at the time of this interview. That formula proves just how complex the conversation can be: Though it harnesses a solid host of thoughtful alternative plant ingredients, it also contains natural fragrances and essential oils, like Gerananiol, landing it in the moderate to high range for potential allergies and immunotoxicity on the EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database, an online resource where ingredients in popular cosmetics and personal care products are researched and ranked on a scale of one to 10 by scientists (10 being the most hazardous). Still other formulas feature the preservative Propylparaben, which is an endocrine disruptor with a proven link to cancer

Pan back on the big picture and there’s good reason mascara has been a tough category to crack for green chemists. First, there’s the aforementioned issue of preservatives—crucial in a formula that goes near the eyes but not insurmountable thanks to innovations in the field like caprylhydroxamic acid, a gentle anti-microbial preservative booster made from coconut oil, as well as a number of responsible synthetics with solid clinical research behind them and a long safety record. 

Then there’s the tricky subject of performance. In addition to a very high amount of pigment, mascara calls for what’s known as wetting agents: the two most common of these are silicones and petrochemical derivatives—which, to complicate matters, are on the no list of many clean brands. Pioneering alternatives that could replace them—i.e., the kind that can turn a clean formula into an instant can't-live-without-it staple—have been relatively slim. 

“It’s challenging to get the performance, the wearability, and the clean ingredients in one package,” says Gucci Westman, who knew she wanted to develop a mascara that pushed the boundaries of what’s possible to her Westman Atelier line since day 1. Getting there, she admits, took far more work than she’d anticipated. After months of ‘no no no’ from the labs and nearly 20 tweaks to her base formula, she finally passed approval on Eye Love You,  a serious plumping and volumizing formula that launches this week and stands up to any of the cultish luxury formulas she stocks in her professional kit. The brief? “I wanted ‘boom!’ lashes, and in one coat only,” she says.

Featuring a noticeably short ingredients list to keep the formula as pure as possible, it contains plant-powered conditioners to improve the quality of the lashes. Sunflower, carnauba, and beeswaxes volumize lashes and give structure, while natural polysaccharides from larch trees provide hydration; chicory root extract acts as a thickener. “We’re always updating our ‘no list’ and looking for alternative ingredients,” explains Westman. “As you can tell, I don’t like to hear the word ‘No.’”

According to Timmons, "if we had a beauty bell curve, the industry as a whole would still be at the bottom of it, but we’re climbing thanks to [the efforts of boundary-pushing clean brands].” Proof may officially arrive this year in the form of the FDA’s proposed California bill AB-495, or the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, which aims to strengthen the government agency’s control over the industry and ban the sale of cosmetics linked to cancer or reproductive harm—ingredients like mercury and propylparaben, most of which are already prohibited in many countries yet still found in many mascaras in the U.S. Almost 81 years since any legal update was made in the industry, the bill is still under consideration. Why does it matter? Because we deserve to know the absolute truth about what we’re putting in and on our bodies. Fact.

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