Beauty School: The History of Mascara

Beauty School: The History of Mascara featured image
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This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

It’s one of the best-selling beauty categories of all time and truly transformative in its lash-enhancing prowess. Here’s how the mascaras we know and love today got their start.


As the story goes, a girl named Mabel Williams was making icing on her stovetop when flames shot up and singed her eyelashes, which, as one could imagine, made her very upset. “Later that evening, Thomas Lyle Williams saw his sister Mabel burning a cork to mix the ashes with Vaseline, which she would then apply to her lashes and brows to bring back their color and enhance them. He was surprised her ‘hack’ really worked,” says Amy Whang, senior vice president of U.S. marketing for Maybelline. “From there, Thomas decided to commercialize the idea and worked with chemists to create the first mascara that was efficacious and safe for the eyes. When he had the right formula, he needed to come up with a name for it, so he combined Mabel and Vaseline, which created Maybelline.”

An early version of the original Maybelline cake mascara formula.


The mascara was called cake mascara because the product came in two parts: a little cake of mascara goop and a little brush. “At this time, mascara was a multifunctional product for both eyelashes and brows,” explains Doreen Bloch, president of New York’s Makeup Museum. “It is said that the term ‘mascara’ even originated from the name for a product to color beards and mustaches in the late 1800s.” According to cosmetic chemist Ginger King, cake formulas were messy to use and the key ingredients of petrolatum and coal were not desirable—they were also very waterproof, which made them especially difficult to remove. Whang says, “It was a time when you really only saw women wearing eye makeup in the movies, and women at home wanted to emulate what they were seeing on the big stars like Hedy Lamarr, Merle Oberon and Joan Crawford.”


Cosmetic visionary Helena Rubinstein introduced the first brush-in-tube “automatic mascara” called Mascara-matic. Celebrity makeup artist Sandy Linter recalls her earliest memory using the product in 1960: “I was 13 years old, and I had a subscription to Seventeen magazine. They had an ad for Helena Rubinstein mascara, and I had to send away for it. It was a metal spiral wand, and the color was frosted light blue. The very same day I wore it, I got compliments—maybe the first compliments I had ever received in my life.”

The first iteration of Great Lash in 1971, and what it looks like today. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the cult-classic pink and green tube.


As more women wanted in on the trend, Maybelline debuted a new interpretation of its original waterproof mascara called Ultra Lash, which Whang says was the first time an automatic mascara was available in the mass sector.


Maybelline launched Great Lash, the first water-based mascara. “The innovation was that it was water-based, so you could easily remove it, versus other mascaras on the market at the time,” Whang explains. “That was the beginning of what we know today as washable mascara and waterproof mascara.” Linter remembers buying Great Lash in a royal blue shade, which the brand recently reintroduced due to popular demand. “It was a more sophisticated shade than Helena’s light blue. It was also easier to remove, and affordable for a teenager,” she says. “I was totally sold on mascara. I’ve never gone a day without it since, but now I only use black.”


Blinc founder Lewis Farsedakis pioneered mascara tubing technology to fix common complaints of traditional, oilbased mascaras, like flaking, smudging and running. “Our original tubing mascara also delivered ultra-long wear while removing effortlessly without the need for makeup remover,” he says. “It comes off with a combination of lots of water and gentle pressure, but not just one or the other.” According to King, tubing mascara uses polymers— acrylate copolymer—to create tiny tubes around each lash, giving a lash extension–like appearance. “Being a ‘tube,’ it will not smudge, and when you wash it off with water, you see little pieces of tubes come off,” she explains. Celebrity makeup artist Nick Lujan says tubing formulas are known in the Pro Artist community as no-flake, no-travel mascaras because they stay put and remove easily. “On set, I love using a tubing mascara as a primer to other mascaras. It makes removal much easier.”

Last month, Blinc introduced its new UltraVolume tubing mascara, which is the brand’s biggest launch since 1995.


Mascara formulas began including more active ingredients to nourish the lashes, rather than just enhance them. “They also became more individualized based on the needs of volumizing, lengthening, waterproofing, or enhancing tiny lashes,” King says. Whang adds, “What’s really interesting is that if we look at the market over the past 10 years, the biggest segment has always been volumizing. Consumers love big, bold lashes.”


“We’re seeing bigger advances in the brushes, as different ones—like spiral brushes for curling and tree-shaped brushes for volumizing—can achieve different effects on the lashes,” explains King. Whang says we should also expect to see more mascaras inspired by salon trends, like faux lashes and lash lifts.

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