Eye Facts

Safe Use of Cosmetics

Since ancient history, women have worn cosmetics to enhance the appearance of their eyes. Most people who wear eye makeup never have a problem related to makeup use. Some women can, however, develop an allergic reaction, infection or injury of the eye or eyelids. These problems can range from minor annoyance, such as tearing of the eyes, to visual loss or even blindness.


cosmetics illustration

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Who has problems with eye makeup?

Contact lens wearers and people with allergies or sensitive skin are more likely to confront problems while using eye cosmetics. However, anyone who wears eye makeup should be aware of basic safety tips to help prevent injury or infection. (See safety tips below.)

What problems can occur?

The most serious problem related to eye make-up involves injury to the cornea (the clear front surface of the eye), often during application of the cosmetic. A mascara or eyeliner wand or a fingernail can scratch the cornea (corneal abrasion). Occasionally a corneal abrasion can become infected leading to a potentially blinding corneal ulcer. Corneal injuries are usually painful and always require prompt medical attention.

All eye cosmetics contain preservatives that retard the growth of bacteria in the makeup. However, if certain precautions are not taken, bacteria from the skin can still grow in the cosmetic after use. (See safety tips below.) Some women develop frequent conjunctivitis (infection of the outer part of the eyeball) due to contamination of their eye cosmetic or makeup applicator.

Although preservatives partly protect against infection, they can irritate the eye and skin in some sensitive persons. Additionally, some people may be allergic to fragrances or other ingredients in some cosmetics, such as Rosin (also called colophony), nickel and lanolin. They may develop tearing, itching and redness of the eyes, or swelling and flaking of the eyelids. Allergic persons may need to try different hypoallergenic products until they find one that is safe for them. For instance, pencil eyeliner and powder eye shadow may cause less irritation than liquid liner and liquid shadow.

Also, if some women are sensitive to water-proof mascara, they may have less difficulty with a water-based product (one that washes off with water). However, if they continue to have problems after switching products, the cause may not be an allergy. The problems could be caused by blepharitis, a chronic inflammation of the eyelids, which the eye doctor can diagnose.

What are some safety tips to using eye cosmetics?

  • Apply eyeliner outside the lash line (away from the eye) to avoid direct contact of the cosmetic with the eye. There also will be less chance that the liner will flake off into the eye.
  • Keep eyeliner pencils sharpened so that the rough wood casing won’t scratch the eye or eyelid. As the pencil becomes old, the liner tip becomes stiff, requiring more pressure to apply. When this happens, replace the pencil with a new one.
  • Replace cosmetics every six months (more often if you wear contact lenses) to avoid excess contamination with skin bacteria.
  • Never use an old applicator in a fresh cosmetic product. The applicator will transfer bacteria to the new cosmetic.
  • After any eye infection, such as conjunctivitis, buy fresh eye makeup.
  • Even though eye makeup removers are designed for use around the eye, they can irritate the eye. Apply them carefully to the eyelid and avoid getting them in your eye.
  • Never apply eye makeup while in a moving vehicle. You may accidentally poke the applicator into the eye during a sudden bump or stop.
  • Never use saliva to thin old or clumped makeup or to wet a mascara wand. Your saliva contains bacteria from your mouth.
  • Do not use a safety pin or other sharp instrument to tease apart clumped eyelashes.
  • If you use an eyelash curler, make sure the rubber is soft, not stiff and cracking. Always use the curler before applying mascara. Persons allergic to nickel should not use an eyelash curler, as the metal frame contains nickel.
  • Do not share your eye cosmetics with others. Each person has different skin bacteria. If you contaminate your cosmetics with another person’s bacteria, you may get an infection.
  • When at a store cosmetics counter, be sure the cosmetics demonstrator uses fresh applicators and does not let a used sample product come into direct contact with you.
  • Check with your eye doctor if you think you have a cosmetic-related eye problem.

Are there special concerns for contact lens wearers?

People who wear contact lenses are prone to corneal abrasions or corneal ulcers if they have poorly fitting lenses or get dust specks under the lens. In addition, they may contaminate their lenses with the oils, residues and possible bacteria found in cosmetics. Some simple precautions can minimize the chance of contamination:

  • Insert contact lenses before applying makeup and take them out prior to removing makeup. Always wash your hands before touching your contact lenses.
  • Apply makeup less heavily close to the eye. For example, mascara should be applied only to the tip of the eyelashes.
  • Buy fresh eye makeup products every three to four months.
  • Avoid using cosmetics such as lash-building or thickening mascara and metallic-sheen eye shadows, which contain particles that can flake off into the eye. If these particles get between the contact lens and corneal surface, they can scratch the cornea and may lead to infection.
  • Do not wear eye cosmetics during a contact lens fitting examination. (A/l contact lens wearers should have yearly eye exams to assure the health of the cornea and proper fit of the lenses.)
    What should I do if I injure my eye?
  • If you hurt your eye while applying cosmetics, it is important that an eye doctor examine you. Sometimes a minor injury can become serious without proper medical attention. If possible, take the applicator and cosmetic with you to the doctor so that the products may undergo tests for bacteria. Follow your doctor’s advice on when to resume wearing eye makeup.

When can I wear makeup after eye surgery?

Your surgeon will give you instructions about the use of cosmetics before and after eye surgery. In order to avoid bacterial contamination, you should stop wearing makeup a few days before surgery. Depending on the type of surgery, you may be able to resume makeup use after only a few days. Ask your physician. Water-based products will require less rubbing to remove and are gentler on an eye healing from surgery.

Used properly, cosmetics can safely enhance the beauty of your eyes. Consult your eye doctor if you have further questions about the safe use of eye cosmetics.


 “Eye Facts” is an informational series and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice. For eye appointments, call (312) 996-6591. All Eye Facts illustrations and images are copyright protected and are the property of the UIC Board of Trustees. Unauthorized use of the images is prohibited. For usage of any Eye Facts content or illustrations please contact the Office of Medical Illustration at eyeweb@uic.edu or 312-996-5309 for licensing.
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