How eyeliner could cause eye problems – even as it makes you look great

Black eyeliner pencil

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Eyeliner is so common and popular, and we’ve been using it for so many years, it doesn’t occur to us that it might not be completely safe.

Specifically, if you apply eyeliner on your inner eyelid, you run the risk of contaminating your eye and causing vision trouble.

Eyeliner has been popular since Cleopatra’s day. In fact, her makeup had something ours lost along the way: antibacterial properties.

In fairness, the ancient Egyptian eyeliner used lead salts to resist microbes — not exactly healthy for the body either — but it was a cure for certain eye infections.

A researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ehgland recently ran a study that proved that particles from pencil eyeliner actually move into the eye… and that’s not a good thing, because it can lead to eye irritation, redness, and infections.

Whether you’ve always used it as part of your basic makeup routine, or started applying eyeliner to get a specific look — like during the 70s punk era, the 80s New Romantic days, or the 90s punk revival — eyeliner is one of the simplest and most effective cosmetics to apply.

But it’s not perfect.

Woman wearing eyeliner
Photo by Mint Images/Envato
Potential problems with eyeliner on the inner rim of the eye

Dr Alison Ng and her colleagues at the Centre for Contact Lens Research at Waterloo used video recordings to observe and compare the number of eyeliner particles that migrated into the tear film — the thin coating protecting the eye — after applying makeup in different styles.

“We noticed that the makeup migration happened quicker and was greater when eyeliner was put on the inner lid margin,” says Dr Ng, who is also a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Optometry and Vision Science in the Faculty of Science at Waterloo.

Each participant wore glitter eyeliner outside the lash line, and then on the inner lid area closer to the eye, also known as the waterline.

The makeup migrated beyond the waterline

The vision scientists found that within five minutes, between 15 and 30 percent more particles moved into the eye’s tear film when subjects applied eyeliner to the inside of the lash line (waterline), compared to outside it.

The makeup also moved more quickly into the eye when eyeliner was applied inside the lash line.

Applying eyeliner makeup to the lower lash line - waterline
Photo by Dragon Images/Envato

As time passes, the amount of makeup entering the tear film steadily drops and by two hours, there was a negligible amount of eyeliner left. However, Dr Ng and her colleagues say eyeliner can alter the tear film, adding to discomfort.

Eyeliner ingredients commonly include waxes, oils, silicones and natural gums to help eyeliner stick to eyelids and last for prolonged periods. It has to adhere through blinking, sweating and the secretion of natural oils.

Makeup that enters the tear film may cause discomfort for those with sensitive or dry eyes. But the eyeliner waxes and oils can also adhere to contact lenses and build up if used for more than one day.

Resulting complications include irritation and redness, the introduction of harmful bacteria from the eyeliner, and in some cases, eye infections or blurred vision.

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Contact lens wearers might have it worse

“People who wear contact lenses are most likely to notice some problems,” says Dr Ng. “If they have eyeliner stuck to their lenses, increasing deposits might cause vision disruption as the lens becomes cloudier.”

While this study didn’t examine the bacterial aspect of makeup contamination to the eye, Dr Ng notes that previous studies do show that old eye makeup can harbor bacteria.

“If you thoroughly sharpen your pencil eyeliner before each application and get rid of the stuff that’s stuck to the end, you’ll have a fresh tip, which can help prevent infection,” says Dr Ng. “With twist-up eyeliner, cut some off the end before each use.”

Finally: “Always make sure to fully remove eye makeup before bed.” Several products are available to help you safely wash off your makeup — and you get to wake up without looking like you were moonlighting in a Robert Smith/The Cure tribute band.

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

We're Nancy and Betsy, and we've been adventuring in the digital world since the mid-90s -- truly making us that type of entrepreneurial internet pioneer Gen X is known for! We started back in 1998 and later launched -- among various other online and print projects. Our partnership has spanned decades and crossed state lines (multiple times!). Nancy currently resides Arizona, and Betsy's newest home base is Minnesota. It's been an incredible journey of collaboration and innovation. You can read more about our story here!

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