Today's mascaras are available in four main formulas: lengthening, volumizing, curling and waterproof. Each has a different formula and applicator designed to achieve the desired effect. In addition, there's a wide price gap between mascaras available in department scores and those found in drugstores and discount chains. Although some department-store products definitely get better reviews overall, we also identified some less expensive picks from the drugstore.
Overall, Lancome Definicils High Definition Mascara (*Est. $25) mascara is repeatedly chosen by professional and consumer reviewers for its ability to add dramatic length and definition. It comes with a long, thin applicator brush coated with separated bristles to lengthen each eyelash. Both Paula Begoun, author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me", and testers at Splendora.com give Lancome Definicils High Definition Mascara their highest rating, saying it has "extraordinary lengthening" abilities and builds nice volume as well. Their one complaint: This mascara's formula can be a bit runny during application, increasing your chances of smearing before lashes are dry. Consumers at MakeupAlley.com, a database of user reviews for thousands of beauty products, say the Lancome mascara is overpriced, but praise its fragrance-free formula, saying it's gentle enough for contact-lens wearers and those with sensitive eyes. Lancome Definicils High Definition Mascara comes in five shades: black, brown, deep black, deep brown and navy.
The Dior DiorShow line of mascaras also receive praise from reviewers. The original Dior DiorShow Backstage Makeup Mascara (*Est. $24), receives repeated professional and consumer mentions for its ability to both lengthen and add volume to lashes. Though Paula Begoun says its fat brush is "a bit tricky to work with," she notes practice and patience can pay off, rewarding users with "extraordinarily long, thick lashes with minimal to no clumping." Its applicator has dense bristles that pile on a thick layer of mascara with each coat in order to add volume to lashes. Women with sensitive eyes may want to steer clear, since DiorShow Backstage Makeup Mascara contains potentially irritating fragrance. Editors at Splendora.com also agree that the DiorShow Backstage Makeup Mascara's brush can be hard to control, but say this mascara goes on thicker than other top-rated mascaras, resulting in more lush lashes. Price is a concern for some reviewers, but users insist that it's worth the cost and praise the mascara for its longwearing formula, saying it stays on without smudging or flaking, all day. Dior DiorShow Backstage Makeup Mascara is available in three shades: chestnut, azure black and black.
Many mascaras promise to curl lashes, but experts say DiorShow Iconic Mascara (*Est. $27), delivers on this claim. Curling mascaras use special polymers that shrink as they dry, causing eyelashes to slightly curve upward. Reviewers say this mascara, which comes with an oblique-shaped brush with long, skinny rubber bristles to better grab lashes, adds more dramatic length and definition than many brands. It's available in three colors: rich black, chestnut and a vibrant navy blue. Users at MakeupAlley.com say that it is easy to apply and results in long, curled lashes that don't clump together or smudge throughout the day. Paula Begoun says DiorShow Iconic Mascara doesn't add as much volume as the original DiorShow Backstage Makeup Mascara, but notes that it "does a fantastic job of extending and curling every last lash." Editors at Health magazine explain that the mascara contains silica, a mineral often used as a thickener in cosmetics, which adds volume to thin, sparser lashes and polymers, to create lasting curl.
If you want a lighter, more subtle curl, we found some recommendations for Yves Saint Laurent Luxurious Mascara Volume Effet Faux Cils (*Est. $29). Although this mascara failed to impress editors in one professional review, a number of other experts gave it top marks. Paula Begoun says it "builds beautifully and thickens well without clumps" giving lashes a "soft, fringed curl." She also notes that it's easy to remove with a facial cleanser. Users at MakeupAlley.com also rave that Yves Saint Laurent Luxurious Mascara Volume Effet Faux Cils does it all -- lengthening, thickening and curling lashes with one coat. However, editors at Splendora.com, which rank this product third in their department store category, say it dries out faster than other brands -- a frustrating disappointment, especially in this price range. Yves Saint Laurent claims that this mascara is safe for sensitive eyes and contact wearers, but the inclusion of fragrance, a known irritant, makes us question this claim. Indeed, some testers for one subscription-based publication found Luxurious Mascara Volume Effet Faux Cils to be a little irritating. This mascara, which comes with a medium-sized brush coated with dense bristles to apply extra volume, comes in a range of seven colors.
One last product, Chanel's Exceptionnel de Chanel Intense Volume and Curl (*Est. $30) doesn't quite demonstrate the curling action of Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, but it does offer solid length and volume. Paula Begoun, who tests all of the mascaras she reviews, says its curling claims are exaggerated. She explains that a better curl can be obtained using a lash curler, but adds that it's an "exceptional mascara if you crave thick, dense lashes." Editors at Shape magazine are more excited about this mascara's six-sided brush. It has a mix of plastic, comb-like bristles and tight, nylon bristles, and is designed to be twirled in an upward motion, an application process that users at MakeupAlley.com and TotalBeauty.com say can be awkward at first. Reviewers say Exceptionnel de Chanel Intense Volume and Curl can be hard to remove, which may be due to the amount of polymers this mascara contains, and it's more expensive than other comparable brands. Exceptionnel de Chanel Intense Volume and Curl is available in smoky black, smoky brown, smoky marine and smoky violet colors.
The big question is whether drugstore mascara brands are as good as department store formulas which cost twice as much (or more). In the end, we didn't find a completely definitive answer. Many users seem fiercely devoted to mascara from Lancome and Dior without being able to articulate why.
ConsumerReports.org tests mainly drugstore brands, along with three more expensive products, and while a more expensive brand tops the overall ratings, another pricey mascara fell near the bottom in overall appeal. We certainly found more reviews, user feedback and beauty-magazine recommendations for the expensive brands, but without more reviewers testing drugstore products, it's hard to come down with a sweeping decision on whether drugstore formulas are as good. We did find strong support for some specific drugstore mascaras, however.
Maybelline Full 'n Soft mascara (*Est. $7) is a favorite among reviewers for its ability to add volume to lashes, while giving wearers a softer, natural look. Users repeatedly say they don't feel overly made up while wearing it. Editors at Splendora.com say, "It seems to multiply your lashes." Paula Begoun also echoes that opinion: "Full 'n Soft mascara ranks as Maybelline's best mascara for those desiring equal parts impressive length and thickness." Complaints from users at MakeupAlley.com, TotalBeauty.com and Drugstore.com are few and far between, the most common being that this mascara can be hard to remove (at the same time, others appreciate that it's long-wearing). Most, however, say that Maybelline's Full 'n Soft leaves lashes soft while lengthening, thickening and defining lashes. Users also praise the mascara for being easy to apply. The formula is fragrance-free and hypoallergenic, making it a good bet for those with sensitive eyes. The Full 'n Soft wand has a thick brush with dense bristles that adds a thick layer of mascara. It's available in soft black, very black and brownish black.
Maybelline's The Colossal Volum' Express (*Est. $6) is another volumizing favorite. Its large, fat brush possesses long, dense, rubber bristles that keep clumping to a minimum and work effectively to pile on a thick layer of the product. Paula Begoun agrees, saying, "It produces Texas-size lashes that keep getting bigger the more you apply." Shape magazine editors also concur, explaining that The Colossal Volum' Express is best "for those times you want over-the-top lashes in a hurry." Users at MakeupAlley.com, TotalBeauty.com and Drugstore.com give it high marks as well, raving that it builds volume and length with minimal clumping. Some remark, however, that it gives more length than volume, and many are put off by the faint rose scent of this mascara, an ingredient that could be irritating to sensitive eyes. The Colossal Volum' Express is available in glam black, glam brown, classic black and classic brown.
Cover Girl LashBlast Volume Blasting Mascara (*Est. $7) is similar to Maybelline's The Colossal Volum' Express in that it has an oversized, rubber-bristled brush that keeps clumping to a minimum. Its dense bristles pile on the mascara for extra volume. Paula Begoun says Maybelline's formula performs slightly better overall, but that Cover Girl's LashBlast Volume Blasting Mascara is less likely to clump or appear too heavy. "Either way, both are excellent mascaras to consider," she says. Editors at Allure magazine say LashBlast Volume Blasting Mascara "makes us appear genetically blessed in the eyelash department." They praise the mascara for its lengthening, thickening and defining properties. As with all mascaras that employ oversized brushes, some note that it takes some practice to get the hang of applying it. One user at TotalBeauty.com explains that the big brush is awkward at first, but it really sweeps through lashes after some practice. Cover Girl's LashBlast Volume Blasting Mascara is fragrance-free, but it does contain a small amount of alcohol, which could irritate sensitive eyes. It's available in four shades: very black, black, black brown and brown.