A Guide To Mascara Ingredients

Jun 16, 2021
A Guide To Mascara Ingredients

Gone are the days when we swipe any old mascara over our lashes and head out the door. Now, we know better. We know, either from personal experience or because our well-meaning friend told us so, that not all beauty products are safe to use. What we put on our eyes and eyelashes can irritate the heck out of them. Beyond surface-level irritation, though, these not-so-safe products can penetrate the skin and affect how our bodily systems function. Seriously. 

Once staple mascara ingredients are a big no-no today. Which ones? Glad you asked! Consider this your guide to mascara ingredients: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Don’t worry, you won’t have to ditch this product from your beauty bag altogether. There are safe-to-use, better-for-you formulas out there that deliver the look you want without the harmful side effects. 

What is Mascara Made Of?

All mascara formula is made up of a combination of oils, waxes, and sometimes preservatives, that are natural or synthetic. Some of these oils, waxes, and other ingredients are totally safe, while others are, well, not so safe. 

Let’s start with the mascara ingredients you should steer clear from. Go ahead, grab the tubes you’ve got on hand and cross-check them against this list. Then, we’ll get into the good stuff (there’s hope, after all!). 

*Note: If a mascara is over a few months old, you may want to toss it to begin with; all mascara will accumulate bacteria over time from constant use, or simply dry out. We know, we know, nothing feels as good as using up a product to its very last drop, but you don’t want to risk an eye infection for the sake of scraping the barrel clean. 

The Bads

The FDA doesn’t review or approve the vast majority of beauty products, mascara included, or ingredients before they hit the market, and even when they do, their standards for safety aren’t quite as high as we’d like them to be. So, it’s up to you to know what to look for and what to look out for. Picture the following in bright red letters, meaning “STAY AWAY”. 


So, what are parabens? Parabens are often used in mascara as preservatives to keep bacteria at bay and make mascara last longer. The problem with parabens is that they’re a known endocrine disrupter—they mess with your body’s hormones and have been linked to cancer. Since you won’t be using your mascara for more than 3 months anyway, you really don’t need these harmful puppies in your product.   

Other Preservatives

Other harmful preservatives often found in mascara include Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, Imidazolidinyl Urea, a releaser of formaldehyde, and Thimerosal, a mercury-based element. Mercury is readily absorbed through the skin and considered particularly toxic to the developing brain during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. 


Everyone’s skin reacts differently to different ingredients but there are a few that have widespread negative effects. Common ingredients in mascara including Diazolidinyl Urea and Formalin can cause allergic reactions such as inflamed and irritated eyelids, dry and itchy eyes, and skin rashes. Considering the whole point of mascara is to make your eyes look brighter and more awake, reddened skin and puffy eyelids shouldn’t be part of the results package.  

Synthetic Colorants

Mascara wouldn’t be mascara without the dark tint it gives our lashes, but how the formula gets that desirable pigment is important. Many formulas use synthetic dyes or even tar from coal to give mascara its color and darken lashes. The compounds can be downright dangerous, though. Coal tar contains heavy metals that are harmful to health (they’ve been linked to diseases such as Hodgkin’s and cancer, as well as severe allergic reactions) and synthetic colored dyes can be toxic and cause irritation. Aluminum powder is also used to give mascara its color but is a known neurotoxin and severe allergen. With the rising trend of colored mascara, it’s even more important to be on the lookout for these ugly compounds used to create color. 

Shady Conditioners 

Also called Vitamin A Acetate, Retinyl Acetate is a known reproductive toxicant as classified by the FDA. So, why is it in mascara? It’s known to be an effective moisturizing ingredient, but there are better ways to go about conditioning your lashes than that, so stay away. Another popular conditioning ingredient used in mascaras is Propylene glycol. This ingredient is also toxic and a known allergen to boot. 

Synthetic Fragrances

You probably already know that “fragrance” on an ingredient label is a red flag. And, yes, fragrances are used in mascara, often to give it a signature scent or to cover up the scent of other ingredients. Synthetic fragrances can hide any number of harmful chemicals, so it’s just safer to say “no”.  

The Goods

Thankfully, mascara has come a long way. Not only are consumers more educated to choose a clean mascara, but brands are more eager to provide it and starting to produce more better-for-you mascaras free from the bad ingredients above. Here are the good ingredients you can feel comfortable coating your eyelashes with.  

Natural Oils

Natural oils such as eucalyptus oil, sesame seed oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter are all popular and safe ingredients in natural mascara that are included to moisturize lashes. Our Honest serum-infused Lash Tint is also made with conditioning Castor Oil and Red Clover + Mung Bean that help to strengthen for healthy-looking lashes. 

Natural Waxes

There are plenty of great natural waxes as well that work just as well as, if not better than, the synthetic compounds used in traditional formulas. Look for beeswax, carnauba wax, and/or jojoba esters in your mascara to achieve the perfect waxy texture.

Natural Preservatives

Yes, you won’t use your mascara for more than three months, but it still requires preservatives to keep it fresh and help it perform its best. Look for natural preserving ingredients such as Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate, which are food-grade preservatives that are safe to use in mascara. 

Iron Oxides

Didn’t think we would forget about color, did you? Look for iron oxides in natural mascaras, which are derived from natural minerals and add pigment so you get that dark color you’re looking for.

What To Look For in a Mascara

As you can tell, what mascara is made of is tricky business, but if you pay close attention to the ingredient label, you can separate the good from the bad. Mascara is more than what it is formulated with and without though… it should also be tested for safety by both dermatologists and toxicologists and provide remarkable results. As you shop for your new favorite mascara, check off these important boxes:  

Clean Ingredients

When it comes to makeup, clean ingredients are incredibly important, especially when it comes to products you are putting on your eyes. Your skin is an incredibly powerful, yet sensitive, environment that can react poorly to poor or harsh ingredients. Keep an eye out for the “good” ingredients we listed above and always do your research around any mascara formulation you don’t quite understand to determine if it’s right for you and safe to use. 

A Formula You Feel Comfortable Using 

We all have our unique preferences, so it’s important to ensure your favorite mascara meets all your standards. Prioritize what you care about whether that’s cruelty-free makeup, plant-derived or natural ingredients, or both. Trust us, you can find a mascara that you feel comfortable and confident using. 

At Honest®, all of our makeup is cruelty-free, toxicologist audited, dermatologist-tested, and made with plant-derived ingredients. That includes our mascara (which is ophthalmologist-tested too)! Our formula is clean of hazardous ingredients like parabens, paraffins, silicones, mineral oil + synthetic fragrances, making it perfect for the most sensitive eyes and the most cautious consumers. See, we told you you’d be able to find a formula you’re confident in. 


While clean ingredients are crucial for our health, there’s no point in wearing mascara if it doesn’t give your lashes that oomph you’re looking for. Lush, long, dark lashes are possible with a natural mascara, so don’t settle for less.

Our Extreme Length Mascara + Lash Primer is best selling for a reason. It’s a 2-in-1 product that provides extreme length, definition, curl, and color. Even the beauty experts, who test thousands of products, put their stamp of approval on our mascara. The formula was awarded People Magazine’s Beauty Award in 2020 and The Zoe Report’s Expert Select. You can clap, it’s OK. 

Yep, results are important to us too. So, what are you waiting for? Experience the soft bristles that glide evenly across your lashes for a natural yet sultry look that’s all length and no cakey-ness or clumpiness—and clean too. 




Gimme the Good Stuff

The Clean Beauty Box

We aim to provide you with the most honest and credible information possible. This article was reviewed for accuracy by The Honest Team and was written based on trusted sources that are linked at the bottom of the article.