Welcome to the latest installment of my Do I Need This? series. In these posts, I offer my experience and opinions about whether or not I think a product or technique is worth it. Obviously, you don't really need ANY beauty products, so the answer to the question is always going to be no, to some extent. But is it going to change your life (or face)? Is it going to make things easier? Are you going to notice any difference at all? That's what I'm getting at. You may disagree with my verdict, because we all have different bodies/faces/brains/desires, but I'll try to offer a starting point, at least.
I wrote a while ago about how it seems like we're supposed to "prime" our whole bodies these days, and it's getting a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, eyeshadow primer kind of changed my life. Or at least how I wear eyeshadow. Mascara primer is another one that's been around for ages, at least in more expensive brands, but it's popping up more at the drugstore now as our need to prime proliferates. Over the years I've got countless mini tubes of mascara primer from brands like Dior and Lancôme as various gifts-with-purchase, and I've used them, but I was never really sure that they did much. So I figured I'd do a quasi-scientific test of a few lash primers to see if they actually make difference.
Do you need mascara primer?
Short answer: No, just use an extra coat of mascara.
Testing products like this is useful just for my own selfish purposes. Sometimes I really need to see a series of photos one after another to actually understand what's what. I'd always doubted that there was a real difference in performance between applying primer + mascara versus applying mascara + more mascara, but even as I was testing these products, I began to think maybe some of them were doing something special. Or were they? Possibly? Maybe not? The photos help me a lot.
I'm going to dive right into the evidence. I tested three primers at two different price points: the Lancôme Cils Booster Mascara Base and the Benefit They're Real Tinted Lash Primer are both around $25, and the Wet N Wild PhotoFocus Last Primer is about $5. (I've provided links to them because they're not bad products, per se, they're just redundant.)
Here are the brushes for the Wet N Wild (left) and Lancôme (right) primers, in case you're curious:
As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, I have a mini tube of the Lancôme product. I also used a sample of the Benefit primer that I got from So Choix, so I wasn't using their signature brush. More on that later.
I tested each primer with my current mascara, Urban Decay Perversion. Here's what it looks like on my eyelashes on a typical day. My method is to apply one coat to the back/top of my lashes (because they are blonde and if I don't it will look odd when I blink), then add a little to my lower lashes, then add one two coats to the bottom/front of my top lashes. Does that make sense? Basically I use two coats of mascara on an everyday basis. Like so:
As a sort of aside, I like most things about Perversion. It adds length and volume and makes my lashes look fluttery, not spiky. The only problem is that most days it smudges after a few hours--for some reason only under my left eye. And it does flake a little and end up looking less impressive than it was at the beginning of the day. See?
It's not a huge mess; it's just something that would prevent me from ever shelling out for a full size tube of this stuff. So far I've had one mini tube after another from various sources. I was also curious whether or not the primers would help with the smudging, so I'll say something about that below.
Let's start with Lancôme Cils Booster XL, which claims to "smooth lashes," "maximize the results" of mascara, "add extra length and thickness," and "intensify color." It's a white primer that applies smoothly enough. Here's how it looks on my lashes on its own:
Slightly more invisible than they would ordinarily be. Here's a side-by-side of two coats of Perversion (left) vs. one coat of Lancôme primer under two coats of Perversion (right):
A little thicker and darker on the right, though I think the length is about the same, and the "intensified color" is probably just because it's thicker. (I can see that it might help enhance colored mascaras, though.)
Next up, Benefit They're Real Tinted Lash Primer, which is brown rather than white like most other primers. It claims to "boost length and separation." It can also be used alone and, as I think you can see, it makes quite a nice brown mascara (one coat here):
As I mentioned, I was using a sample from So Choix, which just comes in a little vial with a disposable mascara wand. That means that I wasn't using the official They're Real Spiky Brush of Death. You can decide for yourself how important the brush is evaluating my results here.
Two coats of Perversion on the left vs. two coats of Perversion over They're Real Primer on the right.
Definitely more volume on the right, but it was uncomfortably spiky and clumpy. A bit too heavy. It's certainly lost that natural, fluttery quality that I like about Perversion. Maybe the real brush would have helped, but I did try to use a lash comb to fix it, and it didn't help much. I would say that if you're going for drama, however, you'll get it and that, though they advertise length and separation, you get more volume than anything else.
Then I got curious about whether there was a difference between using this Benefit primer as a first coat and just using the Benefit They're Real Mascara itself as a primer. They cost the same amount, after all. So I got a sample of the mascara from So Choix (same issue with the lack of the usual brush, of course).
One coat of They're Real mascara:
Ugh, so clumpy. I can see why it has that spiky brush, because this mascara is impossible without it. Personally, I hate the They're Real brush, because I inevitably stab myself in the eye with it.
Now two coats of Perversion over They're Real primer vs. two coats of Perversion over They're Real mascara:
Yes, it's a clumpy mess, but I'm not sure the difference is truly significant. Probably if you already have the mascara, you don't need to bother with the primer too.
Finally I have Wet N Wild PhotoFocus Lash Primer, the cheapest option by far. It claims to "add volume and length." Oh, by the way, all three of these primers promise to strengthen your eyelashes with vitamins, but I'm ignoring that, because what-the-fuck-ever.
Wet N Wild primer alone:
It's slightly more translucent than the Lancôme primer, but otherwise similar.
And, again, two coats of Perversion vs. two coats of Perversion over the Wet N Wild primer:
Say it with me: a little more volume and about the same length.
So yes, all of these mascaras perform as advertised. When you use them as a base coat under your usual mascara, you get some more drama. But that doesn't mean that this is a product that is necessary or even, really, beneficial. Effectively what I have done here is applied three coats instead of two. What if I just went ahead and applied three coats of Perversion?
More volume! But without any increased clumpiness. It's not quite as dramatic as the others, but I can add another coat and another without buying an extra product and having two tubes drying out at the same time. (By the way, there's also an Urban Decay Subversion Primer, but I haven't tried it.)
ETA: I forgot I'd also taken this photo with 4 coats of Perversion. Wheeeee!
If you like to layer, I think generally you'd be better off buying, for example, a volume mascara and a length mascara and wearing those together. At least then, if you're in a hurry, you can grab either one and wear it on its own.
The only significant benefit of a mascara primer over just wearing more mascara, at least as far as I can figure, is that a white base will force you to completely coat all of your eyelashes with mascara to cover it up, ensuring that you don't miss any spots. That might give you a thicker and more even applications. (And the Benefit primer also doubles as a brown mascara.)
As for the smudging, I can't see any real reason that a primer would help with that, since it seems to be the result of the mascara on the surface dissolving from contact with my skin. None of these primers claim to prevent smudging or flaking. I will say, however, that the few times I have tested the Wet N Wild primer in the past week, I haven't noticed any smudging. Then again, it's now finally winter where I live, so my skin might just be a bit drier. Do with that information what you will.
In the end, none of these products is bad (unlike some I've tested in this series), but they seem unnecessary to me. The small benefit they provide is not worth the cost of adding an additional product with a short shelf life to my routine.
Do you use mascara primer? Do you have a defense for it that I haven't considered here? Are your dreams now going to be haunted by that image of my eyeball like mine are?