By Dr. Mercola
Eyelashes are one of the most subtle yet powerful facial features. They draw attention to your eyes, helping you to communicate without saying a word. And long, thick lashes have long been associated with beauty and youth.
In 2010, women spent $537 million on mascara, and this figure doesn’t include mascara sales from Wal-Mart or club stores.1 False eyelash sales bring in another $44 million annually,2 while lash extensions cost even more (about $200 and up per application).
But the pursuit of flirt-worthy lashes ignores one important point – your eyelashes have a very important purpose, and tweaking them artificially might actually interfere with it…
How Your Eyelashes Keep Your Eyes Safe
Your eyes are vulnerable to viral, bacterial, fungal and even parasitic infections. Your tear duct system offers some protection against invaders by coating your eye in a thin layer of mucus, oil, and water. This keeps your eyelid and cornea lubricated and helps remove foreign particles.3
Your eyelashes are the next line of defense. They help to keep dust and other debris from falling in your eyes, and they also act as sensors, causing your eyes to blink if an object gets too close. According to a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface:4
“A number of intriguing medical studies suggest that eyelashes can prevent the transfer of infection and allergens to the eye, although a clear mechanism does not exist. According to the American Optometric Association, the medical ailments alopecia and madarosis, or the lack of eyelashes, have been correlated with higher rates of infection of the eye.
One study found that growth of eyelashes occurs in response to exposure to allergens. Children with allergies have 10% longer and denser lashes than those without allergies.
This response arises from allergens triggering mast cells within the inside of the eyelid to release prostaglandins that promote hair growth, which presumably protects the eye.”
Your Lashes Are the Perfect Length to Protect Your Eyes
Eyelashes are not unique to humans, of course. All mammals have wet eyes and need eyelashes to not only protect from debris but also control airflow and rate of evaporation on the surface of the cornea.
In a study of 22 mammals, including humans, researchers found that most eyelashes are one-third the length of the eye, which turns out to be just the right length to minimize airflow over the eyeball. According one study author, Dr. David Hu from the Georgia Institute of Technology:5
“As short lashes grew longer, they reduced air flow, creating a layer of slow-moving air above the cornea. This kept the eye moist for a longer time and kept particles away. The majority of air essentially hit the eyelashes and rolled away from the eye.”
However, the benefit only remained to a point. As lashes grew too long, they helped to channel airflow toward the eye, which lead to faster evaporation. Researcher Guillermo Amador, a doctoral student in fluid mechanics at Georgia Tech, said:
“This is why long, elegant, fake eyelashes aren’t ideal. They may look good, but they’re not the best thing for the health of your eyes6 …If women use false eyelashes they could actually dry out their eyes a little faster and have to blink more frequently.”7
In the case of people who have lost their eyelashes due to health problems, false eyelashes of the appropriate length could benefit eye health. The findings may even be useful in the development of eyelash-like filaments to protect robots, sensors, and solar panels from dust.8
Risks of Eyelash Extensions and False Eyelashes
Aside from extending your lashes too much, such that they may dry out your eyes and attract debris, there are other risks of false eyelashes. The glue used to adhere the lashes to your eyes, and the solvents used to remove them, may contain toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, which may cause irritation and allergic reactions.
Further, the irritation and infection caused by the artificial lashes may cause your real lashes to thin out or become damaged… creating a vicious cycle of ongoing use. In England, the College of Optometrists even warned:9
“…repeated use of eyelash extensions can cause traction alopecia, a condition where the hair falls out due to excessive tension placed on the hair shaft. As a result, this can damage the hair follicle, which can slow down and even cease production of hair.”
In 2013, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) also warned consumers about the dangers of eyelash extensions, including:10
- Infection of the cornea
- Infection of the eyelid
- Swelling of the eyelid
- Permanent or temporary loss of eyelashes
AAO cited a 2013 report from Consumer Reports, which noted:11
“Eyelash extensions—single synthetic fibers glued one by one to natural eyelashes—are usually fixed in place by formaldehyde-based adhesives or other biologic glues. The adhesives can cause allergic reactions, as can the solvents used to remove them. In addition, cosmetic eyelash enhancers carry a risk of bacterial and fungal infection.
Eyelash extensions have also been reported to cause irritation to the conjunctiva (conjunctivitis) or cornea (keratitis). The irritation can be caused by direct contact from the lashes themselves or hypersensitivity to the substances used to attach them.
Among beauty treatments, eyelash extensions account for the greatest number of eye-clinic consultations in Japan, where they have been very widely used.”
Is Your Mascara Toxic?
Both Consumer Reports and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend mascara as a safe alternative to false eyelashes or extensions, but mascara isn’t without risk either. For starters, in a study of 49 different face makeup items, including seven mascaras, their testing revealed serious heavy metal contamination in virtually all of the products:12
- 96 percent contained lead
- 90 percent contained beryllium
- 61 percent contained thallium
- 51 percent contained cadmium
- 20 percent contained arsenic
Further, each product contained an average of two of the four metals of highest concern (arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury), which are designated as toxic in Canada because of proven health concerns. Most of the products also contained an average of four of the eight metals tested (arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, beryllium, thallium, and selenium). Other common chemicals in mascara include:13
- Parabens: Synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release. Studies have shown that parabens can affect your body much like the estrogens, which can lead to diminished muscle mass, extra fat storage, and male gynecomastia (breast growth). Other studies have also linked parabens to breast cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked methyl parabens in particular to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.
- Phthalates: Another synthetic preservative that’s carcinogenic and linked to reproductive effects (decreased sperm counts, early breast development, birth defects) and liver and kidney damage.
- Petroleum products: Petroleum products coat your skin like plastic – clogging pores and creating a build-up of toxins. They can also disrupt hormonal activity.
- Dioxane: This toxic byproduct is "probably carcinogenic to humans," and is toxic to your brain, central nervous system, kidneys, and liver.
Another consideration is bacterial contamination. A study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science revealed the presence of Staphylococcus aureus in 79 percent of mascara samples tested.14 Dr. Jody Krukowski of the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Department of Integrative Medicine told Bustle:15
“The moist, dark environment inside of the mascara tube combined with normal daily eye secretions that get transferred from the mascara wand to the tube creates the perfect place for bacteria to grow… [And because there are] many pores where eyelashes come out of the eyelids as well as glands and tear ducts, our eyes become very vulnerable to infection.”
Beware of Prescription Lash Thickeners
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Latisse, an eyelash-thickening drug, in 2008 as a treatment for hypotrichosis, a condition in which no hair grows on your eyelid. The drug, which contains the same active ingredient as the glaucoma drug Lumigan, was also touted as a solution for those who have lost their eyelashes due to chemotherapy and other medical treatments. However, it’s also used by women who feel their eyelashes have thinned due to age -- but not without a very steep price.
For starters, the results are not permanent. So if you stop using Latisse, your eyelashes will return to their previous appearance over several weeks or months. You’d have to continue using this drug virtually forever if you wanted to maintain the effects. In addition, the side effects are worrisome, especially if you’re using it for strictly cosmetic purposes:
Increased brown pigmentation of the colored part of your eye, which is likely to be permanent ||Darkening of your eyelid skin
|Hair growth in other areas of your skin that Latisse frequently touches ||Itching sensation in your eyes and eye redness
|Difference in eyelash length, thickness, fullness, pigmentation, number of eyelash hairs, and/or direction of eyelash growth ||Dryness of your eyes
|Bacterial eye infections ||Allergic reactions
How to Get Naturally Longer, Thicker Lashes
If you want your lashes to be thick and long, a healthy diet is essential. Browse through my nutrition plan to get an idea of what types of healthy foods to eat for optimal health and hair growth, including full lashes. Homemade bone broth is one food to eat regularly, as it promotes healthy hair growth, thanks to the gelatin in the broth. Biotin, a B vitamin essential for hair growth, is plentiful in egg yolks (choose organic and pastured eggs), while vegetables are rich in vitamin C, which is involved in collagen formation (crucial for healthy hair follicles).
Another tip you can try is to apply a few drops of olive oil or coconut oil to your eyelashes before bed, which may help to give them added strength and thickness. Also be careful when applying mascara and using eye makeup removers, as vigorous rubbing may cause your lashes to fall out. Synthetic chemicals in your eye products can also lead to dry and brittle lashes, so look for natural alternatives. In the case of mascara, you can search the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to find non-toxic mascara.16 And be sure to replace it every three months to avoid bacterial overgrowth.
When buying products, look for the USDA Organic seal, and if those aren't available, select products whose ingredients you recognize and can pronounce. What you’ll notice if you browse through the ingredients in any of my personal line of natural skin care products is just that – ingredients you’ll know and recognize, like organic coconut oil, orange oil, or rosemary extract.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself… "Would I eat this?" (I don't recommend you actually eat it, of course.) There’s no reason to be exposing yourself to questionable chemicals every day in the name of beauty. And remember, your eyelashes are perfectly suited to best protect your eyes at their current length, so avoid extending them for cosmetic reasons as it will likely compromise your health.