By Dr. Florence Fernet-Leclair

It’s quite amazing to what lengths some of us will go for long eyelashes. Mascara has been a universal beauty staple since ancient Egypt, although the product people would recognize as mascara today wasn’t developed until the 19th century.

I hadn’t given it much thought until I became an eye doctor and witnessed the effects of improper mascara use firsthand. 

Most of the time, complications related to improper mascara use are hidden in plain sight. A chronic eye infection called blepharitis is most often the culprit. It can be hard to see if blepharitis is present or not with the naked eye, but I see it all the time under the microscope during routine eye examinations. 

What I look for are the tell-tale signs of scaly or waxy debris clinging to the roots of the eyelashes. Blepharitis can comprise bacteria, demodex mites or both. A scaly debris indicates a bacterial cause, whereas a waxy, cylindrical dandruff indicates a demodex mite infestation. 

Sometimes, blepharitis can cause a more pronounced inflammation, becoming painful and quite unsightly — not exactly the goal we’re going for when we put on mascara. 

If you’re noticing any symptoms like this, schedule an appointment with your optometrist right away. Infections like this don’t typically go away on their own. Left untreated, blepharitis can evolve into periorbital cellulitis, an even deeper infection that can spread into the eye, sinuses, or even the brain if not treated properly. 

One quick horror story is about a woman in Australia who went to bed without removing her mascara properly for over 25 years. The mascara piled up over time and hardened under her eyelids in calcified lumps, leading to uncomfortable follicular conjunctivitis, and ultimately, emergency surgery. 

Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology 

While this is an extreme case, and most scratches to the eye can heal over time, any scratch does have the potential to lead to an infection of the cornea, which can lead to permanent damage and visual impairment. 

I don’t share this to frighten you, just to educate you. I am also not against using mascara, but I do want to emphasize how important it is to use mascara safely. 

Tips For Safe Mascara Use 

  1. Never go to bed without taking your mascara off. Ever. Use a proper eye makeup remover, ideally one that can also treat or prevent blepharitis. 
  2. Don’t share your mascara or other eye makeup with anyone.
  3. Replace your mascara every three months to prevent the growth of bacteria and viruses.
  4. Wash your makeup brushes regularly.
  5. Throw all your eye makeup out immediately if you have any kind of eye infection.
  6. If makeup gets into your eye, don’t rub it, as this can further irritate or scratch your eye.
  7. If a new mascara makes your eyes red or otherwise irritates them, throw it out immediately and choose another brand, as your eyes are likely sensitive to the ingredients. 
  8. Choose water-based mascaras with plant waxes and natural oils. Even top brands can contain unhealthy parabens, fragrances, aluminum powder, formaldehyde, coal tar dyes, or propylene glycol, so do your research and try to keep your mascara as natural as possible. 

Be pro-active

If you wear mascara, get regular eye exams to make sure you don’t have any hidden blepharitis. Your optometrist can also give you recommendations on the best way to remove eye makeup, as well as product recommendations. If we do see a significant amount of debris, we can offer a tongue-twister of a treatment called microblepharoexfoliation, which physically removes bacteria, demodex debris, allergens, and old eye makeup residue.

Call your optometrist immediately if you suspect any signs of infection 

Our optometrists are available for urgent care, so please call us or book an appointment online at the earliest sign of irritation or discomfort.