En español | Our eyes are the most prominent facial feature we can show the world — and they've become the focus of attention ever since our mouths and noses have been covered by masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic is surely behind at least some of the growing interest in eye beauty, including salon and at-home eyelash augmentation procedures. The false-eyelash market alone is expected to expand steadily and be worth almost $2 billion worldwide by the end of 2024, with the U.S. fueling much of its growth, according to Market Research Future, a global market research company.
Extensions have become one of the most popular ways for women to build up their eyelashes (besides mascara, of course). While they are generally safe, applying them can sometimes lead to complications, especially if you don't take proper precautions before and after the procedure.
"The irony here: You're trying to get your lashes to look better but can end up damaging them in the process,” Andrea Thau, a New York City–based optometrist and past president of the American Optometrist Association, says, referring to extensions as well as to other methods of lash enhancement (see below).
Here's what you should know about lash extensions.
What they are
Eyelash extensions are individual fibers glued onto natural lashes, one by one, with tweezers, to enhance the appearance of length and fullness. The painstaking procedure (typically, anywhere from 50 to 150 lash extensions are applied to each eye) requires skill and precision and should be done in a spa or salon by a licensed aesthetician or cosmetologist. The initial process takes one to two hours.
“The application shouldn't be painful,” says Clementina Richardson, founder of Envious Lashes, a New York City eyelash-extension salon. “Some clients experience a slight stinging sensation — that's normal.”
Price varies, depending on where you live and your technician's level of experience, but expect to shell out $100 to $500 for a full set of extensions. Touch-ups, recommended every two to three weeks (lash extensions shed with your natural lashes), will run $75 to $100.
With an array of extensions to choose from — ranging in length, thickness, material and type of curl — a stylist can transform a woman's eyes. “For example, women 50 and older start to lose volume in their natural eyelashes, and their outer lids may start to droop a little,” Richardson says. “Using lashes of multiple lengths, we can create volume where it's nonexistent and actually lift the eye."
Hypersensitivity or contact dermatitis, caused by an allergic reaction to the lashes themselves or the adhesive used to secure the extensions in place, is a possibility. (The solvents used to remove the extensions or the under-eye gel patches or tape used to cover the lower lashes can also cause problems.) This can lead to irritation in the form of redness, itching or burning. “I've even seen people who experience so much swelling they can't open their eyes afterwards,” says Ilyse Haberman, M.D., a New York City–based ophthalmologist affiliated with NYU Langone Hospitals. If you experience burning or tear up during the application, speak up.
Another danger: If the individual extensions are too heavy, they put weight on your natural lashes, causing them to break or even fall out. The College of Optometrists in London has warned that “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.”
These bald spots are more than just unsightly. “One of the functions of your lashes is to protect your eyes by helping to sweep debris away from your eyes,” Thau explains. “If you lose enough lashes — and they sometimes don't grow back — you're setting yourself up for eye problems down the road."
And then there are the problems that can pop up post-procedure. Women who want those pricey extensions to remain in place for as long as possible may slack off when it comes to hygiene. This encourages debris to accumulate in the lashes and oil glands that line the eyelid margins, potentially causing blepharitis (an inflammation of the eyelid and lash line) and styes (from a bacterial infection in the oil glands). What's more, “you're at higher risk of getting eye mites at the base of the lash line because they're attracted to the bacteria and dead skin that's not being sloughed off,” says Arian Fartash, an optometrist and the owner of Corona Vision Center in Southern California.
Ways to lower your risk of complications
Practice good hygiene. Keep lashes and lid margins clean by washing them every night before bed. “Oil-based products will break down the adhesive bond, causing lashes to shed prematurely,” warns Fartash, who instead recommends We Love Eyes, a foaming oil-free cleanser, to patients. Another option, Fartash says, is hypochlorous eyelid cleansing spray. “A lash sealant can also help,” Richardson adds. “Like a nail polish top coat, it creates a protective barrier around the adhesive, locking it in place and protecting it from dirt, oil and makeup."
Do your research. Find a reputable salon and stylist. Most states, though not all, require a license. Ask the stylist how many procedures she has done. “Check online reviews to see what people are saying about their work, and look at before and after photographs on their website,” advises Fartash, who has heard her fair share of horror stories from patients who haven't done their due diligence. “There are people who go to nail salons to get extensions and end up with lashes glued under their eyelids, which scratch their eyes every time they blink.”
Be sure the salon is sanitary. Employees should wash their hands and sterilize tools between customers.
Request a patch test. “If having extensions applied for the first time, ask your stylist to do a patch test on your wrist, to be sure you're not allergic to the glue,” Haberman suggests. But remember, even if you don't have a reaction in the salon, it is possible to have one for up to three days afterward.
Three more ways to lash out
Latisse: A prescription eyelash-growth treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Latisse is swiped along the upper lash line, using a nail-brush-style applicator. One drop, before bed, is all you need for both eyes. (Since your eye should be closed during application, the solution will spread to the lower lash line.) It takes about three months to see full results. The only way to sustain the look is to keep using the stuff — once you stop, lashes return to their original appearance.
Note of caution: If applied properly, Latisse is generally safe, though a small percentage of users may experience irritation or dry eye. Also, those who use drops to treat glaucoma should get the green light from their eye doctor before trying Latisse. And “the serum may cause darkening of the eyelids, along the lash line, where the product is applied, which usually goes away once you stop using the product,” says Vivian Shibayama, an optometrist at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute. The most-dreaded complication: an increased and permanent darkening of the iris — though this kind of discoloration is rare. If you do develop problems, stop using the product and call your doctor.
Magnetic eyelashes: These reusable faux lashes are an appealing solution for those who want a longer, fuller fringe without having to grapple with messy glue. Lashes secure to lids with tiny magnets. There are two types. The first consists of two magnetic lash strips. One is placed on top of your upper lashes; the other, beneath your upper lashes, then both strips click together. (In short, your natural lashes are sandwiched between two magnetic strips.) With the second type, a magnetic eyeliner is swiped along the upper lash line. After the product has dried, the base of the magnetic lash strip is aligned with the liner, then pressed onto it.
Note of caution: Magnetic lashes — particularly the ones that sandwich your natural fringe — can be heavy on the lashes. “Over time, the weight can actually cause eyelids to droop, a condition known as ptosis,” says Michelle Andreoli, M.D., an opthalmologist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. That extra weight can also cause chronic lash loss from repeated tugging. And be aware that they can be difficult to apply, Andreoli adds: “You need a lot of patience and a steady hand.”
Lash lift: Think of this as a perm for stubborn, stick-straight lashes that won't cooperate with eyelash curlers. Lashes are lifted upward, from base to tip. “A lash lift can also make lashes look a little longer, since you're stretching the hair follicle,” Richardson notes. What it can't do: thicken lashes or give them a dramatic look. During the procedure, lashes are molded around a small curling rod. Chemicals are applied to break down the protein bonds in lashes, so they become malleable and ready to take a new shape, followed by a setting lotion, to “re-harden” lashes and lock in the curl. Lashes stay curled until they shed; then the process needs to be repeated to curl the new growth.
Note of caution: When performed properly, the procedure is safe, but in less-skilled hands, accidents can happen. Lashes can become over-curled, usually when the wrong size curling rod has been used. And if lashes are overprocessed — which can happen if the perming chemicals remain on lashes for too long — they can become brittle or even break. Dryness is also common after a lift. Using a conditioning serum (Fartash suggests African Angel Black Castor Oil) every night, before bed, can keep lashes healthy.
Further, there's the risk of a nasty reaction to the solutions used in the process, particularly if you have allergies or skin sensitivities, such as rosacea. If you're prone to skin problems, request a patch test on your wrist 48 hours before the procedure.