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Is Eyeliner Bad for Your Eyes? Keep Makeup From Harming Your Health

How to reduce risk of infection and eye injury

woman applying eyeliner

As you’re applying mascara and eyeliner, you probably don’t think of the harmful effects some of your favorite beauty products can bring. Yet, harmful bacteria and fungus can hide within your pencils and wands. Ophthalmologist Shalini Sood-Mendiratta, MD, unpacks the 411 on seven eye makeup safety tips to keep the dirt out of your eyes.

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1. Throw away eye makeup after 3 months.

It can be easy to lose track of how long you’ve had that favorite eye shadow color, but cosmetics do have a shelf life — some longer than others. Dr. Sood-Mendiratta advises against keeping eye products for longer than about three months.

“If the mascara or eyeliner is old, this increases the chances that bacteria or fungus have contaminated it. If any of this gets introduced directly into your eye, you could end up with a serious eye infection,” she says.

One super simple way to remind yourself to get rid of older makeup products? Use a permanent marker or sticker label with the date you purchased them or should throw them out.

2. Read labels and avoid harmful ingredients.

It’s important to pay attention to the ingredient label on your makeup. For example, kohl, a product used to enhance eye makeup in other countries, is linked to lead poisoning in children. Other ingredients to avoid include talc, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), urea, sulfates and phthalates, Dr. Sood-Mendiratta says. Some of these ingredients act as preservatives, stabilizers or anti-caking agents, but they can also irritate skin or are associated with cancer risk in large amounts.

3. Don’t apply makeup inside the lash line.

Love to apply eyeliner along the inside of your eyelids? If you’re a fan of this technique (sometimes referred to as “waterlining”), you should know that this blocks the oil glands that secrete oils that protect your cornea. It also can introduce bacteria directly into the eye.

A small, pilot study found that particles from eyeliner applied inside the eyelids can contaminate the eye. Although when this happened, the particles were cleared away by the eye within a couple hours, researchers concluded that this could cause problems for contact lens wearers and people with dry eye syndrome or sensitive eyes.

4. Just say no to glitter.

Yes, glitter in your makeup can add sparkle to your eyes, but it can also flake off and add sparkles in your eyes — causing redness and irritation.

“Not only can glittery eye makeup exacerbate chronically dry eyes, glitter is another common cause of corneal irritation and infection,” Dr. Sood-Mendiratta says.

5. Sensitive eyes need hypoallergenic cosmetics.

If you have a history of allergies or have extra sensitive eyes, Dr. Sood-Mendiratta says it’s a good idea to use hypoallergenic eye makeup. Look closely at labels to find products designed for sensitive eyes, as they are less likely to be irritating. You can find all-natural, allergen-free cosmetics at larger drug and department stores.

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6. Curl your lashes before applying mascara.

If you use an eyelash curler, do so on clean, dry lashes before you use mascara. Also, make certain the curler’s rubber is soft and not stiff and cracking.

“If you have a nickel allergy, spend a little more on a nickel-free eyelash curler,” Dr. Sood-Mendiratta advises.

7. Don’t apply mascara while driving or riding in a car.

You might feel tempted to save time while rushing to work or heading out to meet friends by applying mascara between stoplights. However, a sudden tap on the brakes or bump in the road could cost you.

“A mascara wand or applicator can scratch your eye and cause a corneal abrasion, which would need evaluation and treatment by an ophthalmologist,” Dr. Sood-Mendiratta says.

Rather than risk poking or scraping your eye — or worse — it’s best to get up just a few minutes earlier in the morning (hard, we know!) to allow ample time for applying makeup.

Take these steps if makeup gets in your eyes

  • Rinse eyes thoroughly with clean tap water or eye-wash solution until you flush out all mascara, eyeliner or makeup flakes. (If you wear contact lenses, remove them before flushing out your eyes).
  • Apply moisturizing eye drops to the affected eye after rinsing out makeup.
  • If you wear contacts, carefully clean the lens using your cleaning solution.
  • Don’t re-insert your contacts as long as your eye is still irritated.

What if problems persist?

Make an appointment to see your ophthalmologist if you continue to experience:

  • Eye pain.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Persistently blurred vision.
  • Swelling.
  • Discharge.

You may have a corneal abrasion or infection that requires medical treatment, Dr. Sood-Mendiratta says.

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