I'm Allergic To Mascara

The problem with my eyeballs began about three years ago. I was getting over an emotional phase that can be summed up as “rarely leaving the house and never putting on make-up,” and as part of my re-emergence into the world, I decided to return to my old cosmetic regimen.

It wasn’t complicated – eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara. But within the first week of getting back into it, I realized that something had changed – my routine suddenly left me with a horrible, itchy red rash on my eyelids.

Not wanting to accept the obvious, I visited an ophthalmologist.

“I think I just have a patch of dry skin or something,” I told her. She examined me, determined that I had some sort of bacterial growth, and gave me an ointment. At the end of the two weeks, she said, whatever was living on my eyelids should be gone.

I followed her instructions, then tried my beauty routine a second time, and was immediately plagued again by irritated, inflamed lids.

This might seem like something that you’d want to remedy as fast as possible, but I’m sort of embarrassed to say that I let it go for almost a year. Aside from the fact that it seemed like something I could outsmart – if I just pretended my eyes didn’t itch, then they wouldn’t – I can only imagine that I was hesitant to go to the dermatologist because I already knew that I might be allergic to something in my make-up. See, my mother is allergic to most kinds of make-up, and I had inherited her dry skin, so it followed that I might be the bearer of other hereditary epidermal problems, too.

Eventually, though, logic prevailed, and I accepted that wishful thinking did not an anti-itch cream make, so I sucked it up and made an appointment.

My dermatologist is a lovely lady who’s about five years older than me, listens to and answers all of my questions, and in general, makes me thrilled that women are going into the field of medicine at equal if not higher rates than men. I explained my problem to her, and she looked at me with empathy.

“I think,” she said, “that you’re probably allergic to mascara.”

The first wave of emotion that hit me was denial. Surely I wasn’t allergic to every kind of mascara! Surely there was some brand, I said, that she could recommend that was reliably safe for freakishly sensitive people like me.

There was not. My best bet, she said, was to go out there and try as many mascaras as I could. “The good news,” she added, “is that most department stores let you return them if you need to.”

This suggestion sounded like some sort of seventh dimension of shopping hell, but I was determined to kick my problem, and so I launched a frantic, ongoing search for a mascara that wouldn’t make my eyes puff up like a couple of blowfish.

I began by going through all of my mascaras past – if they hadn’t bothered me before, why should they bother me now?

This did not go well. The Maybelline took one day to give me a rash. The Cover Girl took about two days, allowing me a fleeting period of false hope before I watched my left eyelid slowly begin to protrude away from my face.

I then tried all the mascaras that call themselves organic or that tout their hypoallergenic properties. Almay: an outright lie. Whole Foods brand: an utter disaster and among the worst of all the mascaras I tested. Clinique: this one held out for a few days, like the Cover Girl, but eventually reduced my face to a pile of scratchy, bloated skin.

As my hope dwindled, I was forced to face the fact that I had become reliant, a long time ago, on make-up to make me feel like my best self. It’s not that I couldn’t go out of the house with a bare face — I did, and indeed still do, without feeling self-conscious. But even despite my year’s reprieve, I still felt like a different person without my once-familiar beauty routine; I felt a little less visible and a little more likely to slip quietly into the background.

Anyway, after a long search, I finally found a mascara from The Body Shop that didn’t give me an allergic reaction until I’d worn it for about three days. This is, to date, the best I’ve done. What it means depresses me even to type – I can only wear it once every few weeks, for a single day at a time.

I’d love to say that this is a story of acceptance and growth, of realizing that I can be my best self with or without a certain type of make-up upon which I’m overly psychologically reliant. But it isn’t. I still want to find a magical kind of mascara that will save me from a life sentence of bare eyelashes. If that doesn’t work, I’m considering dying them, although it occurs to me that if I’m allergic to the dye, I could be in for a world of hurt.

In the meantime, I’m trying to channel someone less superficial than myself. So far, it’s to moderate success.

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