The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Eyeliner

Ever wonder what's in the eyeliner you bought? Here's what you need to know, plus how to apply it correctly.

Medically Reviewed by Emmy M. Graber, MD on November 26, 2012
2 min read

Women first wore eyeliner in the Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years ago. Stylish ladies used kohl, a lead-based mixture, to make their mark. The toxic metal may have helped kill bacteria and fend off diseases in the short term. But if the ancients had longer life spans, they would have likely developed cataracts from the lead-based liner.

What about the eyeliner you use today? Here are answers to some of the questions you may have pondered about the makeup you put around your eyes.

Whether you use a pencil, liquid, or cream, cosmetic chemist Nick Morante, president of Nick Morante Cosmetic Consulting in Holbrook, N.Y., says eyeliners contain the same basic kinds of ingredients: film formers, thickeners, and pigments.

Film formers deposit a thin layer on your skin. Thickeners -- such as waxes, natural gums, and clays -- help stabilize the formula so it will stick to your lids. Pigments include iron oxides to create blacks and browns, ultramarine for blue, chromium oxide for green, and titanium dioxide for white.

Contrary to popular belief, liquid liners can be the easiest to handle and can create a clean line. Creams and gels require a brush and are also fairly goof-proof because they can be smudged for a smoky look or applied in a heavy, dramatic line. Pencils tend to be waxier than other liners and more likely to smear. But they can also be easier to work into the lash line for a natural effect.

To prevent unintentional smearing, apply a layer of concealer or an eye shadow base before applying the liner. After you line your lids, wait about 30 seconds before opening your eyes; this will help limit any transfer of pigment into them. Then dust a light layer of translucent powder over the line.

Take a liner lesson from James Boehmer, international lead makeup stylist for NARS Cosmetics: Apply liner after eye shadow but before mascara. And apply it as close to the lashes as possible in small dashes. You don't need to draw a complete long line all at once.