If you have dry, sensitive eyes, it could be down to formaldehyde in your mascara, says a new report. A top eye doctor assesses the risks, and we’ve sourced five guaranteed formaldehyde-free mascaras

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Dry eye syndrome, which is twice as common in women, is on the rise. Many blame the fact that we’re constantly staring at our digital screens. But new research shows that there may be another everyday culprit, and it’s sitting in your makeup bag.

Mascara, but also eyeliners, lash glues and even eye makeup removers – can legally contain traces of the largely-banned preservative chemical formaldehyde – yes, the very same as used as embalming fluid. Now a new report has brought to light that this may be especially damaging to the eye area. Ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon Rachna Murphy warns that formaldehyde is “toxic to the eye surface and can kill off its cells as well as annihilate eyelid glands.”

The last thing anyone needs is a scare story to ruin our pleasure in makeup, so how concerned should you be and what exactly can you do to make sure you don’t let your cosmetics interfere with your eye health? The answers are below.

Is formaldehyde even allowed in mascara?

Technically, that’s more or less a no – at least not in Europe and the UK. The European Cosmetic Products Regulation is stringent and ensures substances can only be included in proven safe doses. And yes, there are safe and strictly regulated doses of formaldehyde in skincare. But what the new report, led by a Harvard Professor David Sullivan, highlights is that those doses may be damaging to the more sensitive eye area.

“A Harvard report has concluded formaldehyde at levels 2000 per cent lower than EU limits is toxic to eyes – it should not go anywhere near eyes at all,” says Murthy. “So the European regulations aren’t sufficient to safeguard eye health, and the report calls for more rigorous legislation and specific testing for the ingredients and application of eye cosmetics.”

And it’s not just formaldehyde that could be irritating your eyes. The report found that many beauty products that we put on our eyelids and under-eyes – includingeyeshadows, eye creams and lash growth serums– contain ingredients that, while considered safe (in strictly regulated amounts) for the skin, are damaging to the far more vulnerable and permeable eye area. Even the common preservative phenoxyethanol, ever-popular retinol and all-natural tea tree oil can contribute to sensitive eyes and eyelids

How do you know if there’s formaldehyde in your mascara?

The ingredients list may not tell you that there is formaldehyde in your mascara if it’s in a concentration of less than 0.05 per cent, i.e. so small the brands don’t have to declare it. Incidentally a 2022 amendment to the European Cosmetics Regulation has brought that down to 0.001%, although brands don’t have to update their labels until 2024. It does mean that we may blithely use these substances for years, only to discover in hindsight they weren’t as safe as we thought.

How do I avoid formaldehyde in my cosmetics?

If you like having a wide choice of cosmetics, the answer isn’t an easy one, but if you are suffering from sensitive, dry or watery eyes, Murthy strongly advises you take action. She isn’t saying that loads of eye cosmetics have levels of the chemical in it – most probably they don’t. But because they don’t need to mention trace amounts, you can’t be 100 per cent sure. So your best ways to avoid it are below.

  • Look for ‘formaldehyde-free’
    “Choose mascaras and other eye cosmetics from brands or retailers that have a clear list of banned ingredients, as formaldehyde is bound to be on the ‘no’ list,” says Murthy. That would leave you with quite a small list.
  • Beware ‘preservative-free’
    All cosmetics need some kind of preservative to prevent growth of bacteria during storage, control infection and prolong shelf life, and formaldehyde is one. “So if no preservative at all is listed, that’s actually a red flag,” says Murthy. “It may mean undeclared trace amounts of formaldehyde were used.”
    However, many other preservatives “should be avoided in eye cosmetics if you already have sensitive (dry, burning, red) eyes, as they will also make matters worse,” says Murthy. “These include but are not limited to parabens, phenoxyethanol, BAK, and chlorphenesin.”
  • Don’t go waterproof
    “We advise patients with sensitive eyes not to use waterproof eye make-up and removers,” says Murthy. Generally, she says, these use more aggressive chemicals that non-waterproof products that are too harsh for sore eyes. Unfortunately, much the same goes for anything ‘long-lasting’ or ‘budge-proof’.
  • Change your technique
    “Try to use your products less close to the eyelash base or use them less frequently,” says Murthy. Easier said than done, we know, as is her advice not to layer on tons of different eye cosmetics so as not to increase the ‘chemical load’!
  • Avoid toxic twins
    To make matters worse, “rather than using pure formaldehyde – and listing it as such – cosmetic companies often use compounds that, when put together, react and release formaldehyde,” says Murthy. The list includes (look for these on your ingredients list and avoid if you spot them) DMDMhydantoin, quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol (or Bronopol).

Guaranteed formaldehyde-free mascaras

These five have made a point of excluding formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing compounds

Jones Road The Mascara, £24 

Type: volumising
Shade range: 1 - inky black

Its curved wand makes it really easy to curl and lift lashes as you brush this mascara through. It's a really inky black that doesn’t smudge or flake. The formulation is cruelty-free and contains vitamin E for a hit of lash nourishment.

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Milk Makeup Kush Mascara, £26  

Type: volumising
Shade range: 1 - black

This mascara is formaldehyde-free and vegan as well (lots of mascaras can contain beeswax). It has a chunky wand that makes coating your lashes speedy and the formula contains tiny fibres to make lashes look fuller.

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Rose Inc Ultra-Black Lash Lift Serum Mascara, £24

Type: lifting
Shade range: 1 - black

Also containing peptides to strengthen lashes as well as nourishing squalane, this mascara is another vegan one The wand has a curved brush with two lengths of bristles either side so you can really comb through lashes to make them look lifted and lengthened.

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Kosas The Big Clean Mascara, £22 

Type: volumising
Shade range: 1 - black

Containing peptides, vitamins and plant oils to nourish and strengthen lashes, it's mineral oil, silicone, fragrance, carbon sulphate, gluten and cruelty-free - it's a wonder there's anything in the tube! But what we really love about it, as well as the bendy curved wand, is that it comes in two sizes including a smaller 5g option - perfect for travel.

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Eyes Are The Story Eye Proof Mascara Trio, £42

Type: lengthening
Shade range: 1 - black

Designed specifically for those with dry eyes and contact lens wearers, this mascara has had anything that can irritate and sensitise the eye area removed. It has a creamy, ultra black formula and comes in three mini-sized mascaras to limit contamination and the build-up of bacteria.

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