Horror is that feeling when you’ve just finished an amazing makeup look on yourself , you go to put on false eyelashes as the finishing touch, and your eyes start to water, streaking your concealer, blush, and highlighter. ~Hits knees and waves fists at the sky while screaming, “NOOO!”~ Watery eyes can make a precise eye makeup look turn into a watercolor mess. But if you tend to get teary, waving your hands in front of your eyes isn’t the only solution—and, honestly, that doesn’t really work.
First, you have to figure out what’s causing your eyes to water . It could be dust or allergens in the air, an allergic reaction to the product you’re using, a corneal infection, a side effect of eye strain , or dry eyes , says Andrea Thau, O.D., the immediate past president of the American Optometric Association . There could also be a case where your lids don’t close properly or the tear ducts aren’t quite open or are clogged. You should see your optometrist for a full exam and diagnosis if watery eyes is something that bothers you on the regular.
If this is something that comes up only when you’re getting your makeup done, it’s most likely reflex tears. “There are two types of tears,” says Dr. Thau. “Tears that are designed to keep the cornea lubricated, protecting it from exposure and evaporation, and reflex tears in response to an insult. These tears irrigate the eye to eliminate whatever foreign substance is there.” Reflex tears are the ones that pop up as soon as you even think about putting something close to your eye (like lashes or a sharpened eyeliner pencil).
We spoke to Dr. Thau and Smashbox global pro lead artist Lori Taylor Davis for tips on getting these reflex tears under control, and how to keep your makeup from getting messed up when you tear up.
“If you think there is something bothering you, using an over-the-counter artificial tear can add more liquid to your eye and flush out whatever is in there,” says Dr. Thau. But make sure to choose a drop without preservatives and that isn’t targeted to redness . “Most of those agents that get the red out are habit forming and they can make the eye look worse in the long run,” says Dr. Thau.
If you think the tears might be the result of an allergic reaction to something in your products , look for hypoallergenic mascara, eyeshadow, and eyeliner. Dr. Thau recommends brands like Almay and Clinique. Fragrances and dyes can be particularly irritating for sensitive eyes. “Carmine is a red pigment that comes from beetles, and it’s used in bright pinks and purples. It is a big source of irritation,” says Dr. Thau. “If you think you are allergic to something, you want to discontinue all products. Wait until it heals and re-introduce products one at a time, waiting a few days in between.”
Dr. Thau sees tons of patients with styes after they’ve shared makeup products or brushes with a friend, gone to a makeup artist who didn’t clean between clients, or just used a tester at the beauty counter. Using communal makeup could cause an eye infection (which can lead to tears). You also want to make sure that your makeup isn’t expired. “Change your mascara every three months,” says Dr. Thau. “Liquid makeup is more likely to spoil than powders, so if it doesn’t smell right, throw it out.”
“One of the things I tell anyone with watery eyes: Prep that area. Start with under-eye primer or eye cream,” says Davis. “The thing about tears is that they contain salt, which can dry out the under-eye area. Primer helps moisturize and stretch wearability of makeup.” Try the Smashbox Photo Finish Hydrating Under-eye Primer ($29). The same goes with lashes. Try using a lash primer to help bolster your favorite mascara formula.
Putting eyeliner in the inner area between the lashes and the eyeball can make watery eyes worse. The waterline is where the Meibomian glands are located. These glands secrete oil that coats the eyeball, helping keep tears on the surface of the eye without evaporating. “The makeup can wash into the eye and clog the glands, making eyes more dry and more likely to tear up and cause a sty,” says Dr. Thau. Also skip the lower lash line because if you happen to tear up, gravity is going to pull the tears downward ruining your eye makeup.
If the tears start mid makeup application, tilt your chin up, take a deep calming breath, and look upward. Try not to do too much blinking, which will send the tears rolling down your cheeks. Davis also has a pro trick to redirect your attention. “I tell [my clients] to squeeze their toes down into their shoes,” she says. “It is the most random thing, but concentrating on that stops the water works.”
Inevitably a tear or two will escape. So be prepared by keeping a tissue right under the eye to catch every droplet before it can ruin your makeup. Davis even uses a tissue barrier when she applies false lashes. She closes the eye she wants to work on, with the tissue as close to the root as possible. “The tissue acts as the blotter, and as you’re tearing, all the tears are going to the tissue,” she says.
Typically powder is the go-to to get long-lasting makeup , but that is counterintuitive if you’ve got watery eyes. Davis says, powder will actually absorb the water as it runs down your face, creating streaks in your makeup. Setting spray is a better option if you’re looking to set your makeup because tears will sit on top of makeup and blot away easily without leaving tear tracks.
To avoid continual eye irritation and wateriness, make sure to remove all the makeup from around your eyes at night. “You want to clear the base of lashes and eyelids at night, so those glands don’t get dry and irritated,” says Dr. Thau. She recommends using pre-moistened makeup remover wipes like ones by Klorane, Ponds, or Neutrogena because soap and water don’t really reach the small crevices of the eye.
Davis recommends waterproof makeup formulas for her clients who get misty-eyed. Because they're made to stand up to water, they are harder to wash off. Davis likes bi-phase formulas because they have oil and water. “Anything that is oil based will loosen up the waterproof product and wash it away,” she says.
But Dr. Thau is not a big fan of oil-based cleansers (and therefore of waterproof makeup). This oil can coat contact lenses or clog those Meibomian glands, causing styes. If waterproof is a must, make sure to follow any oil-based or bi-phase makeup remover up with a clarifying cleanser or oil-free wipe to remove any last traces of makeup and the oil you used to take it off.