Saturday, November 10, 2007

Apple #280: Mascara

Today I woke up thinking about mascara. No idea why, but there it was, in my head. And in that fresh-from-sleep land, it occurred to me that mascara is really weird stuff. Brown goo in a little container that you brush onto your eyelashes? It just seemed very odd, all of a sudden. I do like wearing it sometimes, but it seemed like a completely foreign substance to me, the more I thought about it.

And just what is in that goo, anyway?

  • When the Egyptians -- men and women -- used mascara, it was made of kohl. People aren't entirely sure what kohl was, but they think it was a combination of charcoal or soot, lead sulfite, and malachite. Yeah. Lead, soot, and another mineral. Great stuff for the eyes.

Egyptian woman, their eyes painted with kohl.
(Photo from Cheikh Anta Diop)

  • People pretty much stopped wearing make-up for a long time, after Rome got sacked and the Western world essentially forgot everything it had ever learned for a long time. It wasn't until the Renaissance that people started wearing make-up again. When they did, they made mascara out of other ingredients.
  • By the early 20th century, mascara was made from Vaseline and coal dust, pressed into a hard cake. You had a special brush that you wetted and rubbed over the cake to moisten and pick up the mascara.
  • Some versions of mascara around that time used soap instead of Vaseline, and other pigments instead of coal dust. But the pressed cake plus brush that you had to wet yourself was the format for applying mascara for a long time. My mom used to have a tray of mascara like this that I played with sometimes when I was little.

This is kind of like the mascara tray my mom used to have. You can buy this actual kit today from Lola Loves Lashes, for only $25.00.

  • Maybe around the 1940s or 50s, mascara started to be packaged in a tube. You squeezed it out onto a brush, and it was a really goopy mess.
  • Then in the 1960s, somebody came up with a grooved applicator that you could stick into the tube, the applicator would collect the goop in its grooves, and you could brush it onto your lashes more easily. Soon the grooved applicator became a brush, and bob's your uncle, that's how we apply mascara today.

The brush gets inserted into the tube and applies the mascara as shown onto the eyelashes. Except for the fact that the brush gets all black and goopy. It doesn't stay yellow and clean like it is in this picture. Oh, and this mascara costs $22.95, by the way.
(Image from Max Factor)

  • But what the heck is in mascara now? Basically, there are two types of mascara, one that's made with wax (beeswax, paraffin, carnauba wax -- if it's a wax, it could get turned into mascara). The other basic variety is made with lotions or creams.
  • Either type may also include various oils, such as mineral oil, linseed oil, castor oil, lanolin (that's used in a lot of hand creams), oil of turpentine (!), eucalyptus oil, sesame oil, etc.
  • Whether the base is wax or lotions, they get all melted and mixed together with the oils. Sometimes the manufacturers add gums like methyl cellulose to make the product stiffen. Some manufacturers may also use some water or alcohol.
  • Then the pigments are added. Those are their own story in themselves.
Mascara manufacturers can use lots of different things for pigments. Coal or tar, however, are now strictly illegal, so they can't use that anymore. But among the things they can use to color the mascara are:

  • Carbon black = black This is actually a nice word for soot. It's carbon in a really powdery form. Often it is a byproduct of combustion -- meaning, it's one of the bad things that come out of the exhaust pipe of your car. It can also be made on purpose by chemical companies, and they make tons of it. Carbon black gets used for all kinds of things, mainly in the tires that go on cars and trucks. A slightly different version of it is used as a pigment, primarily in the toner of your laser printer to make the ink black, or in paints, or in mascara.

Carbon black is used to reinforce the sidewalls of rubber tires like these -- as well as to make mascara black.
(Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1941)

  • Iron oxides = brown These are naturally occurring materials that are used to make all sorts of pigments. You can find them in clays of various colors, manganese, or other earthy sorts of materials. Since some clays are brown, others are red, still others are gray means that you can get lots of different colors from lots of different types of iron oxides. The good news about iron oxides is that they are non-toxic.
  • Ultramarine = blue This is a really expensive pigment that's made from grinding up lapis lazuli, which a is a blue rock.
So, let's recap for a second. Mascara is essentially made of:
  • Wax or creams
  • Oils
  • Soot
  • Clay or dirt
  • Maybe some ground-up rocks
  • Maybe some water.
Not that much different from the Egyptians, as it turns out.

I don't think she knows she's wearing wax and soot and dirt on her eyelashes, do you? But she sure looks hot . . . right?
(Image from Rose Joyce Cosmetics)

There seems to be a rumor circulating that mascara is made from bat droppings. The Apple Lady sighs at this rumor because the reason for it comes down to a simple error in spelling, or perhaps a misunderstanding of terminology.
  • Some mascaras used to contain Guanine. It gave the mascara a glossy, pearly sheen.
  • Guanine is a type of protein that is a building-block of DNA. Which means it exists in all plant and animal tissues.
  • One of 95,000 places where you can find guanine is in bat guano. Guano is the nice word for the excrement of flying creatures like seagulls or bats.

This is guanine. Click here if you really want to see what bat guano looks like.)
(Image from the University of Cambridge)

  • While it might be possible to isolate guanine from guano, as far as anyone can determine, no one has ever done so and sold a guano-derived guanine for use in cosmetics.
  • Not only does this mean that bat droppings have never been used in mascara, it also means that no flying animal's excrement has ever been used in any kind of cosmetic product.
  • Guanine that is sold to manufacturers is actually derived from the scrapings of scales of fish such as herrings and alewives.
  • Before you get grossed out anew by this information, however, guanine is really expensive to produce (have you seen the size of a fish scale? and who is going to sit there and scrape the goo off of fish scales?). Because of the high cost of guanine, most mascara manufacturers don't even use any guanine in their products at all anymore.

Oh, by the way. Lots of ads for mascara continue to use false lashes, glue, and other devices to enhance the models' lashes beyond what the mascara alone can do.

Angela Woodward, Mascara, How Products are Made,
Janice Wee, The Truth about Mascara, Ezine Articles
Wisconsin Department of Health & Family Services, Carbon Black
Encyclopedia Britannica, carbon black (cached)
Wikipedia, Carbon black
US Geological Service, Iron Oxide Pigments Statistics and Information
David Sherman, MadSci Network, Is mascara made from bat droppings?, May 5, 2005
Rick Toomey, "Bat Guano and Cosmetics an Apparently Apocryphal Tale," Canyons & Caves, Autumn 2002


  1. Isn't it funny that most of the stuff in mascara are things one would normally wash off one's face?

    Friday, I was at the mall with a friend. She was approached by a kiosk worker (I've never seen them so aggressive before, something in the water). It was a make up display, supposedly organic. She practically grabbed my friend, asked her what she used, and she said, "Bare Essentials (or minerals, I can't remember)." This stumped the kiosk lady because I guess that's pretty good stuff. You could see the wheels turning in her head as she tried to remember the counter defense for this particular brand of make up. "Well, it's only 20% mineral. It's got talc in it." As if talc wasn't a mineral. Big scary talc. As if you didn't put it on babies. The kiosk lady actually started to put make up on my friend before she pulled away. She was already wearing some, for one, and for b, the nerve!

    Needless to say, neither of us bought any.

  2. Actually, talc has been discovered to be scary. (see

    I don't know whether Bare Essentials has talc in it or not, but regardless, it is unpleasant, not to say rude, for a salesperson to chase down your friend and force make-up on her. That kind of behavior certainly isn't earth- or any other kind of friendly!

  3. you can't blame a salesperson for trying to sell you something- after all it is her job to do so - that is how she gets paid. But manners are always a major plus - you can't force someone to by something.

  4. wooowww great stuff for the eyes >>

  5. hi my name is not cory

  6. Mascara manufacturers can use lots of different things for pigments. Coal or tar, however, are now strictly illegal, so they can't use that anymore. But among the things they can use to color the mascara are cotton sheets on sale near me , cheap comforter sets under 20


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