Is your mascara contraband?

applying mascara With all the distracting things that mascara can do—like lengthening your lashes with a vibrating brush—it’s easy to overlook what’s lurking inside the tube. Particularly in New York State.

Ignorance is long-lash bliss, since most mascaras contain a mother lode of ingredients like pigments, waxes, oils of all kinds, conditioning proteins, and film-formers that bond to lashes—and a slew of questionable chemicals. Some ingredients make the product smooth and easy to apply. Others keep the tube free of eye-infection-causing bacteria—a crucial issue in mascara, which, just to be clear, you apply to your dust-catching lashes then dip back into the product. (A design flaw, no?)

Some of these chemical preservatives are wanted by the law. Well, the law of Minnesota, which was the first state to make a stink in 2008 about a mercury-based mascara emulsifier and preservative called Thimerosal. Mascaras with the toxin are as illegal as pot brownies and speeding in a school zone in that state. So what gave Minnesota the idea to criminalize some mascaras? The FDA forbids mercury compounds in all other cosmetics but allows it “in trace amounts” in products for the eyes (of all places) “only if no other effective and safe preservative is available for use.”

Mercury not rising: Afterglow Pure Soul Mascara uses rosemary as a preservative and anti-bacterial

California followed Minnesota’s zero-tolerance law on mercury-laced mascara. But New York is still oblivious. You can currently find the contraband in your local Duane Reade and on the beauty counters at Bergdorf.

Paraben preservatives have a bad reputation as a member of the cosmetic dirty dozen, but many mascaras—even the ones that use “natural” in their name—use them to control bacteria. Presumably they are a lesser evil? Just a few brands like Afterglow and Dr. Haushka eschew both. Afterglow uses rosemary extract, a potent antioxidant, as a preservative. Haushka uses black tea and various anti-fungal oils like citronellol.

Of course, product purists could also buy a bag of single-use mascara wands, like the kind used at beauty counters, and replace their tube of mascara more often than the standard three months. Another option: order your mascara from Minnesota.

Is your mascara wanted by the authorities? Will you keep using it anyway? Tell us, here!

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