Liquid and Cream Mascara

The use and status of mascara increased steadily through the twentieth century with cake mascara establishing itself as the most popular form.

Cake mascara made in the 1950s was still being manufactured in much the same way as it was in the 1920s, when triethanolamine stearate and other less alkaline soaps were introduced into the formulation. The packaging design had an even longer pedigree, with the product still being sold in containers that looked very similar to the water cosmetique/mascaro boxes of the late nineteenth century.

See also: Cake Mascara and Water Cosmetique (Mascaro)

Although popular, cake mascara suffered from two major drawbacks: it required wetting before the mascara could be lifted from the cake and applied, but water was not always readily available; and although some forms of cake mascara were water-resistant they were not waterproof, which meant that the mascara was affected by tears and perspiration. These issues led some women to use either a liquid or cream mascara instead.

Liquid mascara

The addition of pigments or a suitable oil-soluble dye to a typical ‘eyelash grower’ would make a primitive liquid mascara.

See also: Eyelash Growers

A more sophisticated form could be produced using a dilute gum mucilage made from gum tragacanth, quince seed or some other mucin, with more modern forms using a synthetic hydrocolloid like hydroxyethylcellulose. The water-soluble gum served as a film former, suspending and spreading the pigments as well as helping stick the pigment to the lashes, while the more volatile alcohol decreased the drying time. Cheaper versions could leave out the alcohol but this increased the time they took to dry.

 per cent.
Gum tragacanth0.2
Lampblack 8.0

(Harry, 1944, p. 112)

Although these liquid mascaras did not need water to be applied, they were affected by tears and perspiration in the same way as cake mascara. They also tended to stick the lashes together and the mixture was brittle when dry, resulting in the mascara having a propensity to flake.

Liquid mascaras were also made by suspending powdered black or other pigments in an alcoholic solution of a resin, such as rosin (colophon) or benzoin. Turpentine or industrial methylated spirits could be used as the solvent as could isopropyl alcohol or the more expensive ethyl alcohol.

Rosin tincture (10%)21.5
Castor oil2.0
Industrial spirit (toilet quality)60.0

(Jannaway, 1936, p. 438)

These liquid mascaras formed a kind of lacquer on the lashes. They dried relatively quickly and, more importantly, were waterproof – which made them more attractive than cake mascara for some people – but stung quite badly if the mixture got into the eyes. They were generally packaged in small glass bottles with a good screw top lid – needed to reduce evaporation – to which a brush applicator was attached.

Maybelline liquid mascara

Above: Maybelline liquid mascara.

Cream mascara

A simple cream mascara could be made with a base of lanolin or petroleum jelly further thickened with waxes like beeswax or ceresin. This produced a preparation similar to a cream rouge.

Bone black (fine)40
White beeswax5
Petroleum jelly40

(Jannaway, 1936, p. 439)

As they were not susceptible to evapouration they were generally sold in small pots.


Above: 1954 A pot of Danielle Roche Talika Mascara.

Being made exclusively from oils and waxes, these anhydrous mascaras were waterproof but not smear-proof. Being greasy, they were not very satisfactory; they took a long time to dry out and if the drying time were reduced by adding a volatile solvent, this increased their potential as an eye irritant.

A better cream mascara could be produced by making an emulsion. As lanolin is an emulsifying agent a simple method was to take a lanolin absorption base, mill lampblack into it and then add water until the desired consistency was reached. A second method was to simply mix pigment into an oil-in-water emulsion, vanishing cream base.

Pigment10 parts
Beeswax9 parts
Carnauba wax2.25 parts
Triethanolamine3.5 parts
Stearic Acid XXX8.0 parts
Water67.25 parts

(deNavarre, 1941, p. 373)

Cream mascaras could also be made by using an emulsion formula normally used to make a cake mascara but adding water so that it formed a cream.

The presence of water in all of these mascaras had other useful effects. It was absorbed into the lashes increasing their diameter which made the lashes look larger. Occasionally, it also caused them to curl.

As with emulsion-based cake mascara, these oil-in-water emulsions commonly used soaps like triethanolamine stearate or oleate, diglycol stearate and glyceryl monostearate as emulsifiers. Waxes were included to improve adherence of the film to the hair, increase water-resistance, and add body and gloss; oils were added to reduce flaking; and water-soluble gums were included to help suspend the pigments, act as film formers, and reduce smearing of the pigments after they were applied. Other ingredients included antioxidants to help stop the unsaturated oils from going rancid and preservatives to prevent bacteria from growing in the aqueous mixture.

 (parts by weight)
Oleic acid4.75
Glyceryl monostearate (pure) 1.25
Beeswax, yellow9.00
Carnauba wax6.50
Cellosize (H.V.)1.50
Pigments 5.0-8.0
Preservatives q.s. 
Antioxidants q.s. 
Water q.s.100

(deNavarre, 1975, p. 714)

Cream mascaras of this type were generally packaged in tubes to help stop them from drying out and squeezed out on a mascara brush, like toothpaste on a toothbrush. As a cream they were more viscous and so were easier to apply than liquid forms. Both water-resistant and waterproof forms were made, giving them an appeal second only to cake mascara.


Above: 1935 Pinaud 612 Cream Mascara with applicator.

A formulator could make a cream mascara water-resistant by carefully selecting the ingredients or by using a water-in-oil emulsion rather than the more common oil-in-water form. A completely waterproof cream mascara required excluding the water and the emulsifiers altogether and replacing them with a hydrocarbon solvent. Aluminium stearate could be used to gel the hydrocarbon solvent and add body to the mascara, something that would otherwise require a large amount of wax; while beeswax would add adhesion to the hair; and ozokerite would add substance to the film.

 (parts by weight)
Beeswax, yellow26.00
Ozokerite 75/78°C4.00
Aluminium stearate2.50
Hydrocarbon solvent (38-48°C) q.s.100

Procedure: The aluminium stearate is added to the solvent with stirring while the mixture is heated to approximately 90°C and maintained at that temperature until solution and gelation are evident. The waxes are melted together and added to the solvent. The pigments are ground in a portion of the solvent-wax mixture and added to the remainder of the batch. Stirring is continued until cool to avoid settling of pigments while the mixture is still warm and fluid.

(deNavarre, 1975, p. 715)

Like liquid waterproof mascaras, solvent-based cream mascaras could irritate the eyes. They were also more difficult to remove than oil-in-water emulsions. Some formulations attempted to overcome this by adding in a small amount of soap such as triethanolamine stearate. However, this came at the cost of making them less than waterproof.

Automatic mascara

Although cream mascaras enjoyed some success their domination of the mascara market only came about when a new mascara applicator was introduced in the 1950s. Known originally as automatic mascaras – because the mascara was picked up ‘automatically’ by the wand in the tube – the first product of this type was the Mascara-Matic developed by Helena Rubinstein in 1957. This new applicator revolutionised the mascara market and was widely copied. In its slim, gold case made by the German firm Schmidt & Niedermeier (Joliff & Mathiez, 2016) it had an elegance that had only been rarely achieved in cake mascara packaging. So when Maybelline – then the largest manufacturer of mascara in the United States – introduced its automatic applicator, Magic Mascara, in 1958, this marked the beginning of the end for the dominance of cake mascara.

Rubinstein’s Mascara-Matic was covered by patent (U.S. patent No. 3,033,213) but its design owed much to an earlier patent developed by Oscar and Egon Wurmböck of Munich, Germany (U.S. patent No. 3,363,635) which had been acquired by Rubinstein. Fortunately for Rubinstein an earlier patent taken out by Frank L. Engel Jr. in 1939 (U.S. patent No. 2,148,736), had long since expired.

It should also be noted that the Mascara-Matic was not the first commercial mascara to use an inbuilt ‘automatic’ applicator. In 1939, Parfum Ronni, Inc. of New York released a cream mascara into the American market that had a saw-shaped applicator attached to the lid. It appears to have disappeared within a few years. The reason for its disappearance is unknown but America’s entry into the Second World War in December, 1941 may have been a factor.


Above: 1939 Ronni Mascara Applicator. The small comb attached to the cap was replaced in the tube after use.


The Mascara-Matic combined a reservoir of mascara with a grooved applicator built into a screw top cap. As the applicator was withdrawn it was pulled through a central opening that acted both as a seal to reduced evapouration and as a wiper to remove superfluous mascara from the applicator. The applicator itself was a metal rod with grooves to trap mascara when the rest of the rod was wiped clean. The amount of mascara remaining on the metal rod after it was withdrawn was very important; too little made applying the mascara very tedious; too much and the eyelashes would stick together.

Mascara-Matic applicator

Above: The Mascara-Matic applicator built into the screw top cap.

The mascara formula Rubinstein used in the Mascara-Matic appears to have been the one she used in her earlier Waterproof Mascara. The use of a solvent mascara reduced the possibility of bacterial contamination – an issue with this type of mascara – but also affected the selection of materials used in the container. Solvent-based mascaras are very prone to evaporation so a good seal was needed to help reduce this. Also, as many plastics are degraded by solvents, or allow solvents to permeate through them, the mascara was stored in an inert glass vial held within a metal case.

c1957 Television advertisement for Helena Rubinstein’s Mascara-Matic

Brush applicators

The grooved metal applicators were far from satisfactory. The Scoville Manufacturing Company came up with a compromise of rod and comb but within a few years most automatic mascaras had switched to using a spiral wire brush, the first of which was Maybelline’s Magic Mascara introduced in 1958.

1958 Scoville mascara container

Above: 1958 Scoville mascara container. This model appears to have been used by Aziza in their first Azizamatique.

Spiral wire brush applicators contained bristles, typically made of a synthetic material like nylon, inserted between bent wire that was twisted around to make the brush. These had been used to apply mascara before, most notably by National Cosmetics in its Modern Mascara released in 1937. This used a spiral wire brush to lift and apply mascara from a hollow, cylindrical, cake mascara; not a cream formulation as found in the later automatic forms.

The shape of the brush, the bristle shape and the bristle count were important to the functioning of the brush. For example, brushes with higher bristle counts tended to pick up more mascara, resulting in a thicker application, while those with lower bristle counts were better at separating the lashes. A large number of different shapes were developed including: straight, curved, spiral, tapered and spherical. This range increased dramatically when technical advancements in moulding plastics enabled manufacturers to develop precisely engineered moulded brushes which produced a proliferation of mascara brush shapes, sizes and colours. Whether these have resulted in a substantial improvement in the application of mascara is an open question.

Assorted mascara brushes

Above: Assorted mascara brushes.

Developments in formulation

As in the past, formulations used in automatic mascaras can be loosely divided between those that are waterproof and those that are water-resistant. Water-resistant mascaras are typically water-based emulsions. These deliver a substantial film to the lashes that lasts throughout the day, while still being relatively easy to remove with soap and warm water. Longer lasting mascaras are generally made as anhydrous waterproof formulations using hydrocarbon solvents and anhydrous raw materials. As they contain no water these mascaras are very durable and resist tears, perspiration and smearing, but are more difficult to remove and potentially more irritating to the eyes. It is also possible to create intermediate forms between these two extremes by combining hydrocarbon solvents with emulsions.

The liquid nature of automatic mascara made it easy to introduce a wide range of additives into the formulations. An early example of this was the inclusion of fibres in lash-lengthening mascaras. When applied, the fibres extended beyond the natural ends of the eyelashes thereby lengthening them.

 (parts by weight)
Ozokerite 75/78°C4.00
Stearic acid XXX2.00
Inorganic pigments7.00
Aluminium stearate2.50
Rayon fibers5.00
Hydrocarbon solvent 38-48°C) q.s.100

(deNavarre, 1975, p. 715)

Other developments include the addition of hollow particles to create a thicker film, synthetic or natural polymers to induce a curling effect on the lashes, waterproofing topcoats, lash primers and the use of brightly coloured and pearlescent materials (Draelos, 2010, p. 192).

Updated: 11th January 2018


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Draelos, Z. D. (Ed.). (2010). Cosmetic dermatology: Products and procedures. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Le Joliff, J-C, & Jean-Louis Mathiez, J-L. (2016). Le monde magique des applicateurs de mascara – Partie 1. L’Observatoire des Cosmetiques. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from

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