Recently, before my summer wedding, I got eyelash extensions for the first time at the recommendation of my favorite makeup artist. She said that semi-permanent lashes would pop in photos and stand up to wedding-day emotion better than mascara. She was 100 percent right, and I felt totally glam on my wedding day.
But as someone who can't be trusted to cut her hair more than once a year, I didn't expect to be so into my new look that I'd want to continue getting lash extensions after my wedding. Plus, I had no idea how much the habit would cost me in terms of cash, time, and my health.
Here are some things I wish I'd known before getting (and totally falling for) eyelash extensions.
1. Semi-permanent eyelash extensions are way different from temporary strip or individual lashes. Semi-permanent ones are applied by hand one lash at a time by a technician who glues extensions on top of your actual lashes, according to Courtney Akai, a New York City–based eyelash extension technician with more than 12 years of experience. They can last for six to eight weeks with proper care and remain on your natural lashes until they naturally fall out, as all lashes do.
2. Eyelash extensions aren't a one-size-fits-all-eyes situation. After you decide to get extensions, you have to make a whole lot of other decisions, beginning with the lash material, such as mink's fur, silk, or some other kind of synthetic. (Mink is usually pricier, feels softer, and looks more natural; however, some synthetics, which are highly customizable, can also look and feel natural and end up costing as much as or more than mink.) Then you'll have to pick your density (more lashes create a fuller look); curl (the steeper the slope, the more dramatic the effect); and length (a matter of personal preference, really).
To complicate things even more, every place offers different lash and application options, so your best bet is to show your technician a photo of the look you want and talk through options and costs.
3. The longer the extensions, the more lashes you'll probably need. Super-long lashes appear to spread as they extend away from your lid, which can make them look less full than your natural lashes. It's why I thought my first set looked sparse and spidery, so I went back to my technician two days before my wedding to get 30 more lashes per eye at $0.50 apiece. But when I opted for slightly shorter extensions the second time around, I got away with purchasing fewer of them.
4. You have to lay low for at least 12 hours after application. Most technicians will tell you not to sweat, cry, swim, or wash your face for at least 12 hours after getting extensions to give the glue a chance to dry. When glue doesn't dry, it can dissolve and invade your eyes, or vaporize in response to your body temperature, according to Zaina Al-Mohtaseb, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. These scenarios can trigger eye redness and irritation that's unflattering and uncomfortable.
5. Extensions are expensive and time-consuming to maintain. While extensions are typically dramatic enough to give you the same effect as mascara, which isn't recommended for use on top of extensions because it can damage them, don't kid yourself into thinking extensions will save you money on makeup in the long run. In New York City, a basic set (typically 70 to 80 lashes per eye) can put you back at least $100, but upward of $400 for application by the most experienced technicians. And then you also have to tip. Plus, the entire experience can take up to two hours.
But the high-maintenance fun doesn't stop there. Because eyelashes grow and eventually fall out, you've also got to go back every few weeks for fill-ins, which can cost anywhere from $50 to $165 depending on how many new lashes you need.
PSA: The longer you go between fill-ins, the more lashes you'll need, and the more it will cost you. Also, beware that some technicians won't fill in lashes after a certain point because it's easier to start from scratch (i.e., take the lashes off using a special solution that dissolves the glue), and more lucrative to charge you for a brand-new set of extensions than a fill-in.
6. Extensions make everyday eye makeup pretty much unnecessary. When I first got extensions, I knew they'd stand in for mascara but didn't realize that the base of each extension would create the illusion of eyeliner too. I've never worn a ton of makeup during the day, but I stopped wearing eye makeup altogether the day after my wedding. I still felt selfie-ready every second of my honeymoon, and still feel pretty stellar whether I've just rolled out of bed or gotten back from a run. And to be honest, feeling just a bit more put-together during my early-morning barefaced gym sessions is a major perk.
7. They get in the way when you do want to wear eyeliner (or remove it). When special occasions have called for a more dramatic makeup look, I've found it incredibly difficult to apply basic eyeliner. The exaggerated angle of the lashes can block your view, making it hard to see where the liner is going. And because rubbing your eyes can loosen natural lashes, removing eye makeup with cotton pads or oil-based wipes can wreak havoc on your lush falsies, accidentally pulling them out or dissolving the glue.
P.S. If you do need to apply a full-on eye and eventually remove it at the end of the night, use oil-free pads and gently swipe downward to take off the makeup.
8. Daily maintenance isn't entirely effortless. Lashes can get tousled when you sleep or get them wet, which makes them look messy, and they can also pick up debris. So it's important to gently brush your lashes with a clean, disposable mascara wand when you wake up, after you shower, and at the end of the day. (Akai recommends applying diluted baby shampoo to the lashes for gentle nightly cleanings.) "It's a myth that you shouldn't wash your lashes," Akai says. She also warns not to play with, pick at, or rub them.
9. Extensions can seriously mess with your eyes. The third time I got them, I left the salon (not Akai's establishment!) with gorgeous lashes but really red eyes.
But I really started to worry the next morning when I woke up with the same redness plus itchiness. And later that night, I noticed a sticky yellow discharge in the corners of my eyes and lower lids, and I started to feel like I had something foreign lodged behind my left eye. The next day I got my eyes checked out by the nurse at my office, but instead of returning to the salon for lash removal ASAP like she'd recommended, I went to urgent care to get a second opinion and a test for cornea damage.
The urgent care doctor diagnosed me with conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection I might have picked up from having the eyelash technician get all up in my eyes with her bare hands. ("You can't work with gloves on because they get caught on everything, and everything gets stuck to them," Akai later explained.) Of course it's also possible that I picked up the infection from something else, like contaminated lashes or even rubbing my eyes after riding a Citi Bike. The doctor prescribed antibiotic eye drops and told me I'd only have to have my new lashes removed if the itching didn't go away after seven days of using the drops. After three days of use, the itching finally stopped; the redness went away a few days after that.
To minimize the risk of transmitting icky stuff, make sure your technician washes their hands between clients, wears a mask, uses sanitary pillow covers, sterilizes their tweezers, and uses disposable eyelash brushes—all things Akai does at her salon.
Reactions to extension applications are pretty common. A web-based survey conducted in Japan found that 26.5 percent of people who'd gotten them experienced some kind of reaction, such as redness, irritation, and itchy, swollen eyelids. It could have something to do with irritants like formaldehyde in the eyelash glue. For this reason, Akai recommends sticking to salons that use American-made glues, which are typically made without the ingredient. Just ask where glue is made when you make an appointment, and don't be surprised if salons that use glues sourced in the U.S. charge slightly more. Glues made with butylcyanoacrylate and octylcyanoacrylate are ideal because they're flexible when dry, odorless, and generally "less toxic" to the eye than alternatives, according to Dr. Al-Mohtaseb, but you're still talking about chemicals near your eyes. It's no wonder the American Academy of Ophthalmology frowns upon extensions in the first place. Besides the bacterial infection I picked up, extensions also put you at risk of conjunctival erosion (damage to the membrane that covers your eyeball) from the eyelid-fixing tapes used during application.
If you do experience any abnormal symptoms, it's smart to return to your salon to get the lashes removed. "It's hard to differentiate between the bacterial infection and an allergic episode or a combination of both, so [removal] will lead to faster resolution," Dr. Al-Mohtaseb says.
10. After you get extensions, your natural lashes will always seem much shorter to you. Akai says extensions shouldn't cause lash breakage, so long as your technician doesn't overload fragile lashes with extensions that are too heavy. That said, when I got my first set removed before replacement and asked to see my natural lashes, I couldn't believe how much shorter they appeared relative to the XXL ones I'd been seeing in the mirror. #Ruined.
11. No one knows whether frequent application of eyelash extensions causes permanent damage. When I asked Dr. Al-Mohtaseb about this, she didn't exactly reassure me. "There is not much data showing if eyelash extensions affects any aspect of lash length, growth, or health long-term, although some talk about traction alopecia, in which natural lashes can fall out as a result of the constant weight of the repeated eyelash extensions," she says.
12. You'll probably be addicted to extensions despite the cost, inconvenience, and icky risks. The last time I got my extensions touched up, I had to see two doctors, buy antibiotic eye drops, deal with a week's worth of itchy eyes, and work from home for two days to avoid spreading my infection. But, in an admittedly crazy way, I still sort of love them.
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