How to Apply Mascara Without Making the Most Common Mistakes

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How to Apply Mascara Without Making the Most Common Mistakes
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Think you know how to apply mascara without any kind of tutorial? Not so fast. There may be some mascara tips you haven’t yet stumbled upon—yes, even if you’re a seasoned makeup wearer who can throw on a few coats in your sleep (or at least in a 15-second frenzy, should an impromptu Zoom meeting pop up on your calendar). 

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For example, how many times have you seen someone in a public restroom aggressively pumping their mascara wand back into the tube before reapplying? According to professional makeup artists, that’s a no-no (you’ll see why below). Or, have you ever considered cleaning your lashes right before you apply mascara to make sure your wand stays more sanitary? Yep, that’s a thing.

So, yes, there’s much to learn about how to apply mascara, for beginners and budding MUAs alike—to avoid not just inky smudges on your eyelids and cheeks, but also eye irritation, it turns out. There are also tricks to make shorter, lighter, or thinner lashes appear fuller.

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We’ll even share the secret behind how to apply mascara to your bottom lashes to make your eyes pop even more. On top of that, we’ll fill you in on the right time to toss your mascara before it gets too clumpy and to ensure that it’s still clean enough to apply to your delicate eye area. And we turned to lush-lash experts—celebrity makeup artists Mélanie Inglessis and Brandy Allen—to get their go-to mascara tips, too.

Read on before you head to your bathroom mirror and start your makeup routine.

1. Mix and match mascaras to curl, lengthen, and volumize.

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Layering is crucial to get the best overall mascara look. “Not every mascara can do everything,” Inglessis tells SELF. “What’s your priority? I recommend buying a couple of mascaras that cater to what you need.” For example, you can apply a coat of volumizing mascara to both eyes, let it dry, then put a lengthening or waterproof formula on top. It may take some experimentation to find the perfect combination of formulas that work together without adding annoying clumps (but ideally, a quality mascara formula that isn’t past its prime will not clump on you if you carefully apply it vertically and horizontally—more on that below).

Some SELF-approved tubes for adding length: Ilia Limitless Lash Lengthening Mascara and Merit Clean Lash Lengthening Mascara. And for a voluminous look, we’re into Too Faced Better Than Sex Mascara and Stila Magnum XXX Mascara.

2. Curl your lashes before you go for the mascara wand.

Always curl before applying your mascara. Do it the other way around, and you risk lash loss. “Once your lashes are coated, curling them can easily break them,” says Inglessis. “Plus, the curl will look funky because the mascara causes a really sharp, unnatural bend.”

3. Sanitize your lashes to help avoid eye irritation.

Whether or not you use an eyelash curler first (which you should also sanitize regularly, by the way), your best bet is to prep your lashes before applying mascara by cleansing them with a face cleanser or makeup remover, Allen recommends.

The goal is to avoid ending up with an eye infection or any kind of irritation to your eyes from bacteria that naturally exist on your skin and lashes. “Microbes thrive in dark, damp conditions, like the inside of a mascara tube,” Diane Hilal-Campo, M.D., board-certified ophthalmologist and founder of twenty/twenty beauty, tells SELF. “Whenever you apply mascara and replace the wand in the tube, microbes from your lashes and skin will contaminate the brush and, in turn, contaminate your mascara. These bacteria can contribute to a host of infections, including styes and conjunctivitis.” Yeah, we’ll pass on those. To be super safe, you can use a disposable mascara wand each time you apply, according to Dr. Hilal-Campo (but keep in mind that if you’re an everyday mascara wearer, this is not exactly an eco-conscious move).

There’s a chance mascara, if contaminated, can cause irritation on the skin around your eyes, too, board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav, M.D., founder of Skin Science Dermatology, tells SELF. Don’t panic, though—you can just use a cool compress and switch to a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil to calm things down, says Dr. Yadav. But see a doctor if it gets severe. “If your skin is highly irritated, your ophthalmologist or dermatologist will be able to prescribe a treatment specifically formulated to treat the eyes, eyelids, or surrounding area,” she adds.

4. Learn some hacks for preventing and fixing smudges.

Possibly the most annoying thing about mascara: the smudges it can leave on your lids while it’s still wet. “When you apply mascara, keep your eyes looking down for a couple of seconds before opening them, especially if you have long lashes,” says Inglessis. If you get a smudge, use a pointed Q-tip dipped in makeup remover to get rid of the stain ASAP—before it dries.

But even if you’re diligent during application, you can still end up with black smudges on your lids by 5 p.m. “If you have oily eyelids, mascara can move,” Inglessis says. “Using an eyeshadow primer or concealer on your lids before applying mascara can help prevent transfer.”

5. Use a lash primer to give shorter lashes a boost.

Going for a more dramatic mascara before-and-after look? You can make it happen, even if you have short, thin lashes. First, apply a lash primer (like Urban Decay Subversion Eyelash Primer) to fill in the lashes that are less full, Allen suggests. You might also add an extra coat of mascara in the darkest black you can find on top of the primer to add more volume, she adds.

And your eyeliner can give you an assist, too. “Try adding a smudge of black liner on your top lids, close to the lash line, to make your lashes appear thicker,” says Allen. 

6. Use the mascara wand both vertically and horizontally.

We know, we know: Wiggling the wand at the base of your lashes is the classic technique for applying mascara. But in addition to that, you should also turn your mascara wand vertically to coat lashes. “That way, you can really get to the roots of your top lashes,” says Inglessis. She suggests using a windshield wiper motion along the root of the lashes with the wand held vertically. Then, use the same method to coat those tiny bottom lashes.

7. Coat both sides of your lashes.

Light-lashed people, this tip is especially for you! Typically when you apply a coat of mascara, you’re only coating the bottom part of your lashes. For a darker, more voluminous effect, use the wand to brush down on the top side of your upper lashes. Then, brush them back up from the underside. “Do the top first so you don’t weigh the lashes down,” says Inglessis. This way, all 360-degrees of your lashes will be covered in product.

8. Use a tissue so you don’t smudge your bottom lashes.

Applying mascara to your bottom lashes is truly an art form (anyone who’s ended up looking like a doll in the not-good way knows what we’re talking about). Allen recommends using the tip of the brush to delicately apply the product to each individual bottom lash (yes, it’s tedious, but it’ll minimize smudging). It might also help to apply mascara to your bottom lashes with a tissue between your undereye and bottom lash line, Allen suggests. “That way, any excess mascara will transfer to the tissue.”

Feeling bold? Skip the tissue. “If you don’t mind the clean-up, grab your favorite makeup remover and apply your mascara without a tissue, then use a Q-tip dipped in remover to clean off any unwanted product,” Allen says.

9. Don’t pump your mascara wand back into the bottle to get more product.

This is a classic mascara mistake. Pumping can bring unwanted air into the bottle, drying out your product and causing a spidery lash look. Use a twisting motion to get all the product from the bottom of the tube instead. 

10. Make sure excess mascara doesn’t end up on the tip of the wand.

Does mascara from your wand always end up smudging in the inner corners of your eyes? That’s likely because you didn’t wipe off that clump of mascara that tends to accumulate at the tip. Use a paper towel or the edge of the tube to get rid of that excess product before combing through your lashes. “A quality mascara with a well-designed wand should not allow for a big clump of product,” says Inglessis.

11. Look in all directions when applying. 

You’ve probably heard the classic mascara application tip: Look down into a mirror, or tilt your chin up and open your mouth. In actuality, you should be looking in all directions to get the product even. It’s like an exercise routine for your eyeballs! Inglessis looks up to apply mascara to the lower lashes, down to apply product to the top lashes, and side to side to get the inner and outer hairs.

12. Know that with the right mascara, you won’t need to reapply.

Mascara isn’t like blush or lipstick, which are easy to reapply throughout the day. Piling more mascara over mascara that’s already dried will likely leave you with a clumpy look. “Unless you have time to redo your entire face, I wouldn’t reapply,” says Inglessis. “If you need it to last, do a waterproof mascara that stays on longer.” If you’re truly in need of a midday mascara boost, use a completely different formula—something with a small, defining brush, that’s less likely to clump, she adds.

13. Toss your mascara after three months.

You should bid your mascara farewell as soon as it starts to clump or separate, Allen says, or after three months, whichever comes first. Though we know this is easier said than done–one small 2013 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that almost 98% of participants admitted to using makeup, especially mascara, long past the expiration date.1

That same study reported that 79% of expired mascara samples tested contained potentially infection-causing bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, which, Dr. Hilal-Campo points out, can cause ocular MRSA infections in some cases, along with other eye conditions. “One of the most common manifestations of a Staphylococcus aureus infection is blepharitis, which can make the eye itchy, red, swollen, and crusty. Keratitis (corneal inflammation), styes, and pink eye are also common,” Dr. Hilal-Campo adds. To avoid those uncomfortable eye infections from microbial growth on eye-makeup products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirms that you should replace your mascara after three months—all the more reason to stock your online cart with a new tube.

All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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