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Brushes with greatness Cosmetic companies are going batty over numerous mascara formulas

Are lashes the new lips?

Lately, pages of women's magazines that were filled with ads for glosses and plumpers have given way to spreads that feature eyelashes that would make Betty Boop jealous.

During the past 18 months, the major cosmetic companies have introduced a vast number of lash enhancers with enough brush innovations and formula upgrades to make your eyes roll.

These new mascaras have brushes with bristles that are patented, flexible, long, short, cross-cut, individual and prismatic. Some have brushes that are combs.

Some have developed formulas that contain clinical-sounding ingredients like films and polymers. Others boast botanicals: linden extract, meadowfoam oil and "soft esters derived from olives." There are mascara mousses; there are mascara gels; there are mascaras that coat the lashes with tiny tubes.

At last count, cosmetic retailing giant Sephora had more than 120 mascaras, primers and eyelash conditioners on its Web site, Sephora.com. And that number doesn't include false eyelashes, which are in another category altogether.

So what's the deal? Why are cosmetics companies going batty developing new mascaras?

With women spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on department-store mascara alone, "it's no surprise that cosmetic companies are racing to create formulas that will outperform their competitors," says Catherine Piercy, a beauty writer at Allure magazine.

What happens on runways also has played a role, Piercy says.

"Lashes took center stage several seasons ago, when makeup artists were channeling mod icons like Twiggy, and they've remained in the spotlight ever since," she says. "Even 'natural' makeup now calls for a full, healthy set of lashes."

After lip gloss, mascara is the first makeup item many women learned to use, and despite the occasional raccoon look or black tear tracks, it is a product makeup wearers are reluctant to give up.

"Ask any woman which one beauty product she'd take to a deserted island, and chances are she'll say mascara," says Piercy. "With its ability to make the eyes look dramatically wider and more defined, it's no wonder we're constantly searching for new formulas to darken, thicken and lengthen our lashes. And unlike a favorite lip gloss, mascara doesn't need to be constantly reapplied. A few coats may be the quickest, easiest way to transform your face all day."

Makeup artist Dawn Pastor, owner of the Framed Brow in Williamsville, agrees. "I think women nowadays are becoming so busy that the easiest thing for them to do is to put on mascara. It's a quick fix."

In "Getting Gorgeous" (In Style Books), the editors of In Style magazine write that "even the most minimalist, makeup-shy women tend to wear mascara -- and for good reason. "Once you have found the right formulation for your lashes, applying mascara is practically foolproof."

Ah. The right formulation. Therein lies the rub. Or the smudge, the smear, the flake, the glob. Or the black dots that foul up freshly applied eyeshadow, or the hairy fronds that result when the second coat doesn't glide over the first quite as smoothly as promised.

Do new mascaras address these age-old complaints? Will we limp-lashed losers finally find the brand that will give us inch-long, perfectly separated lashes that look like they are made out of patent leather, lashes like all the magazine models have?

Well, probably not.

"Not only do I think [mascara] ads are enhanced, I think it is blatantly obvious they are wearing false eyelashes," says Paula Begoun, author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me" (Beginning Press). "But then again, women fall for ads of antiwrinkle products on noticeably retouched pictures of actresses or models who are children."

The good news, says Begoun, is that "mascaras have improved incredibly over the past two or three years. Finding a great mascara didn't used to be easy, and it didn't matter if it was expensive or inexpensive. There are many great options now," in both drugstore and department store brands, she says.

Experts say that recently developed ingredients definitely make a difference in the consistency and effectiveness of the new formulas. Gel polymers do, in fact, enhance glide and minimize flaking. And formulas with fewer waxes have helped do away with clumps.

But more important than the mascara itself is the wand, according to Begoun, who has spent more than two decades testing and evaluating cosmetics. "In terms of formulas, while there have been some changes, mostly technical, [good] mascaras are far less about the formula than the brush," she says. "A really great brush makes all the difference. It needs to grab the lashes, slightly pull and smooth, and deposit just enough color to hold but not clump."

To get the best results from mascara -- whether a new one or your trusted standby, experts offer these application tips:

* Start with lashes that are clear and dry, free of moisturizer residue or, ahem, yesterday's leftovers.

* Dab the wand, especially the tip, against a tissue to remove excess mascara that could leave a clump or a glob.

* Curl your eyelashes. It hurts, you say? Get over it. Curling makes a huge difference in the end result.

* For volume, hold the wand horizontally as close as possible to the roots on the underside of the upper lashes. Slowly and carefully wiggle the wand at the roots and then draw it up to the tips.

* For length, hold the wand vertically and run the tip against individual lashes, especially at the outer corners of your eyes. Apply second coat as above.

* To give lash tips extra oomph, blink them against the brush.

* Never pump wand in and out of the tube. This dries it out. Instead, twirl the brush inside the tube.

And if mascara isn't enough for you, you might consider false eyelashes. Jennifer Lopez wore lashes made of red fox fur to the 2001 Oscars. Madonna wore mink lashes during her Reinvention tour. And Oprah Winfrey's makeup artist reportedly purchased 200 mink pairs for his lash-fanatic client after he heard about Madonna's. (Animal rights activists can relax. According to New York Times writer Mary Roach, the fur is harvested by gentle brushing; no cruelty is inflicted.)

Roach reports that women in New York can now visit "eyelash bars" where they can buy lashes and glue and have them applied by a pro.

But perfectly good results can be achieved with drugstore lashes, experts say.

"False lashes -- formerly the territory of specialty brands -- can be snapped up just as easily in your nearest drugstore or at Sephora these days," says Allure's Piercy, who adds that there are also new tools that make their application more foolproof.

Piercy notes that lash extensions -- individual or small groups of false lashes that are glued onto real lashes one at a time -- also are becoming more widely available to anyone with two hours and a few hundred dollars to spend for the luxury of not applying mascara every day.

The bottom line, she says, is that "it has never been easier to achieve the lashes that good genes failed to provide."

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com

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