Lashing Out: Make Your Eyelashes Grow

It turns out a glaucoma medication can make lashes grow longer. But should you really use it for cosmetic reasons? Joanne Chen does the honors.

woman applying fake eyelashes
(Image credit: Greg Delves)

When glaucoma sufferers started using the eye-drop drug Lumigan eight years ago, who knew there'd be fringe benefits: longer, lusher, darker eyelashes. Eventually, Allergan, the makers of the drug, sped it into clinical trials (this time for hypotrichosis, aka underdeveloped eyelashes), repackaged it, gave it a girly name (Latisse), and marketed it for its lash-boosting magic. Now, with FDA backing, it's headed to a pharmacy near you.

It isn't the first time a serious disease-fighting treatment has been repurposed for its surprise payoffs. Some of today's most famous drugs were accidental discoveries: Cosmetic Botox (also made by Allergan) was first used by ophthalmologists to suppress eyelid spasms; Minoxidil debuted as a blood-pressure remedy; and Viagra was an enthusiastic by-product of a hypertension cure.

But instead of helping you recover your original smooth-skinned, fully maned self (as with Botox and Minoxidil), Latisse actually changes what your genes had programmed for you before birth, as if something had been clinically amiss all along. As Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Ph.D., a sociologist at City University of New York, puts it: "The line between medicine and cosmetics is blurring. Having a drug in your makeup bag next to your tweezers and lipstick is the new norm."

LASH LUST: Here's a list of our favorite mascaras

There's a reason we're all obsessed with our eyelashes - one that goes back to evolutionary biology, explains Michael Cunningham, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies physical attractiveness at the University of Louisville. Beyond looking nice, large eyes--and the long, upturned lashes that enhance the illusion of them - are considered a sign of youth. In turn, youthfulness signifies health and fertility and the assurance that your DNA will survive into the future. So subconsciously, men are lured by long lashes and women will continue to pursue them.

As for me, despite my own sparse lashes, I've never been moved to try growth enhancers like RevitaLash or Talika. Falsies remind me of hairpieces, and lash extensions - crafted from human hair - sound creepy and desperate. And yet now, because there's a product that requires pharmaceutical vetting (at $240 for a two-month supply, no less), perhaps using it isn't so much vain as medically prudent?

The doctors I speak to, from derms to ophthalmologists, are already Latisse converts. "I wouldn't have trouble prescribing it," says Dr. Tamara Fountain, spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "I'd first screen patients for pre-existing conditions, like cataracts, but for the most part, Latisse has a high safety profile."

Dr. Scott Whitcup, Allergan's executive vice president of research and development, adds that if you consider all the patients who have used Lumigan, you'd count 8.8 million years of product exposure with hardly a complaint.

He's assuming Lumigan's safety record will be the same for Latisse. And yet, the products are not exactly one and the same. "With Lumigan, you want the eye to absorb it, but with Latisse, you're applying it locally," explains Dr. Wendy Lee, assistant professor of oculoplastic surgery at the University of Miami's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

Latisse consists of at-home drops applied on the lashline of people with healthy eyes - a protocol tested on only 278 adults in a 16-week study. What happens in week 138? I find out that the most common side effects are redness and itching (in 3.6 percent of cases). There's also a slight chance of a darkening of the iris. All of this gives me pause. But I soon remind myself that I'm no stranger to eye irritation (I'll spare you my contact-lens adventures) and that my irises can't get any browner. Besides, the prospect of seeing my lashes grow - 25 percent longer! 106 percent thicker! - persuades me to forge ahead.

The application process takes less than a minute - and isn't as fussy as using mascara. Lee suggests that I proceed with my evening routine as usual and apply Latisse before bed. The first night, I take out my contact lenses, wash and moisturize, then gingerly dab the clear liquid across my top lashline with the disposable applicator provided. I blink, and much to my relief, it doesn't drip into my eyes and I feel no stinging. Even though I'm told it won't stain the sheets, I lie on my back in bed just in case. Feeling pretty pleased with myself - as if I exercised or ate right - I drift off to sleep.

I embrace the chore for many days, but eventually the regimen grows tiresome. I keep checking my lashes each morning: straight on, in profile, eyes open, eyes slightly closed. I've never invested so much time in front of the mirror in my life.

Week one: nothing.

Week two: still nada.

Lee assures me that subjects rarely see a change in two weeks. It takes at least a month. And, in fact, according to the Allergan report, initial changes, on average, don't occur until week eight. I persevere.

Week three: hmm. Could it be? I peer at my lashes in profile and am cautiously pleased. They look a tad longer. I measure them and find they've grown just under a millimeter - barely noticeable with a passing glance, but enough to keep me motivated.

Week four: My lids are feeling as if they're sunburned. I chalk it up to my overly energetic technique. In any case, it's a small inconvenience given that my lashes have sprouted a good millimeter - hardly lush, but an improvement from the set I was born with. Most importantly, a regular lash curler can now easily grasp my lashes and turn them upward, which means I can wear mascara without black semicircles appearing under my eyes as soon as I blink. My cautious joy turns to downright elation.

Even so, by week five, my diligence starts to slide, and I skip Latisse on nights I'm too tired. Don't get me wrong - I love my new lashes, which have grown just past a millimeter by now. But I'm much lazier than I am vain. I foresee Latisse tucked away in the back of my medicine cabinet - along with several mascaras. After all, it's one thing to extend your daily routine to save your sight - it's another to do so solely to enhance your appearance. Without Latisse, my lashes will ultimately return to their hypotrichotic state. But maybe the extra sleep will keep me looking wide-eyed.