Eyelash serums are one of those beauty products that seem too good to be true. Sure, there are plenty of temporary lash-lengthening options, like mascara and false eyelashes. But growing thick hairs naturally is the ideal option. And the beauty industry agrees. Lately, there has been an influx of eyelash serums in stores that promise to strengthen and grow those tiny hairs. And you’ve probably seen the before-and-after pictures on Instagram and Amazon. But how do these serums really work, and are they safe to use so close to your precious eyes? We talked to the pros to find out.
Unfortunately, most of the eyelash serums you find in the store won’t do anything.
The most common active ingredient in over-the-counter eyelash serums, which are often marketed as conditioning treatments, is biotin. You’ll find it in nutrient-rich products like the Lancer Lash Serum Intense ($150; sephora.com) and Body Merry Lash & Brow Elixir ($25; bodymerry.com). Biotin is a B vitamin, and it is said to improve hair’s health by strengthening keratin, the protein that makes up hair. Unfortunately, “the influence of biotin on hair and nail growth is closer to urban myth than a fact at this point,” cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko, tells SELF. Dermatologist Pamela A. Lowe agrees and says that the same is true when it comes to your eyelashes. “There is no compelling evidence that biotin will increase lash growth. And because many supplements of biotin rarely get absorbed into one’s system efficiently—unless one is extremely deficient—it really doesn’t pay off to use it for this purpose.”
Related: 5 Habits That May Be Causing Your Eyelashes to Fall Out
You’ve probably also read about using castor oil as a DIY lash-growth serum. (There’s even a brand, CSCS, that makes an elixir ($19; walmart.com) specifically for lashes). But while hacks with this and other oils can make your eyelashes look longer, it’s probably just a trick of the eye, not legit growth. “What may be occurring is that the glossing and coating effect of oils can give the illusion that hairs are thicker. And it may also prevent breakage,” Ko says. But that’s about the end of the benefits.
Other eyelash serums include a cocktail of active ingredients like peptides, panthenol, and sodium hyaluronate, but the effects, if any, are very subtle. “Most of these act as water binders or moisturizers,” says Ko. “They can increase the flexibility of the hair (reducing fracturing and breakage) or even coating them to make them look thicker.” But he says there isn’t proof that they can actually increase hair growth.
In order for a lash serum to really make a difference, it has to affect the growth cycle of the hair—and only one is proven to do that.
Just like any of the hairs on the scalp, eyelashes follow a specific growth pattern. “There are three phases to eyelash growth: the anagen (active), catagen (transition), and telogen (resting),” Dr. Lowe says. During the anagen stage, the lash is constantly growing. This phase can last between four and six weeks. During the catagen phase, eyelashes are at their maximum length and the hair follicles begin to shrink. This part of the cycle can last from two to three weeks, Dr. Lowe says. The last part of the cycle is the telogen phase. It’s the resting period and can last approximately 100 days before the lash naturally falls out. “Each individual lash undergoes a phase at different times,” Dr. Lowe says. “On average, replacement of a single lash is anywhere from four to eight months.”
Latisse is the only FDA-approved treatment proven to make eyelashes grow. It can extend the anagen growth phase, and it is actually effective. The treatment’s key ingredient, bimatoprost, started out in glaucoma medicine to reduce pressure against the eye, Ko explains. Patients noticed that one of the side effects from using bimatoprost was longer, thicker eyelashes. And that’s how the cosmetic benefits were discovered. But since the treatment contains a regulated drug, the only way you can get your hands on it is with a doctor’s prescription. Though effective, it comes with some caveats. You need to faithfully apply it every night before bed, and be sure to do so right at the lash line. “Hair is dead, and applying things to the shaft’s ends won’t have any effect on growth (beyond preventing breakage),” explains Ko. It can take months to notice any results. And be forewarned: One of the side effects of bimatoprost is discoloration on the eyelids and the iris.
As an alternative, Dr. Lowe recommends Zoria Boost Lash Intensifying Serum ($110; ericksonlabs.com) to her patients. The peptide formula claims to support hair growth and is available without a prescription.
Related: This DIY Hack Will Give You Longer Lashes in Minutes
If you choose to try serums to enhance the look of your lashes, you have to be careful about how you apply them.
Most serum instructions say to apply the product close to the root, but you need to be careful since it can be tough to avoid getting products on your skin or in the eye. “Also, the gland openings on the eyelids that are essential for proper tear function can potentially become clogged, thereby causing discomfort, styes, and infection,” Dr. Lowe says. The easiest way to apply the serums is to use the included applicator, starting on the inner corner working toward the outside. And use the hand on the same side as the eye you’re working on, so your view isn’t obstructed.
With any beauty treatments, it’s always best to check with your doctor to find out what’s best for you. They’ll know exactly what will work best to help you get wink-worthy strands.
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