Beauty and Discomfort: Can Mascara Cause Headaches?

Mascara is a makeup staple for many, allowing people to achieve lush, eye-catching lashes. But could this cosmetic product actually be the culprit behind some headaches? While mascara is generally safe for most people, there are some ingredients and application factors that, in rare cases, may trigger headaches in sensitive individuals.

Certain components commonly found in mascara, such as fragrances, preservatives like formaldehyde, and irritants like propylene glycol, can provoke allergic reactions or ocular irritation in some wearers. The resulting inflammation around the eyes and sinuses can lead to headache pain. Furthermore, the scent added to some mascara formulas can trigger headaches in people prone to migraines or scent sensitivities.

Beyond ingredients, the act of applying mascara could potentially cause strain-related headaches. Using heavy, volumizing formulas or tensing facial muscles while applying product might stress the eyes over time. Additionally, neglecting to regularly replace old mascara raises risk of eye infections that may cause headache pain. While not exceedingly common, these factors demonstrate why mascara could spur headaches for select individuals.

To minimize risk of mascara-induced headache, experts advise choosing hypoallergenic, fragrance-free formulas, replacing mascara every 3-6 months, taking mascara breaks, and avoiding tensed application. Overall though, mascara is typically safe – but being aware of potential risks allows smart steps toward comfortable, glamorous lashes. Consult a doctor if headaches persist despite precautions.

Key Ingredients Often Faulted in Mascara-Linked Headaches

Certain components commonly incorporated into mascara formulas have been anecdotally tied to headaches in some wearers. These include well-known allergens and ocular irritants.

Allergy-Provoking Ingredients

Multiple ingredients frequently added to mascara can prompt allergic reactions in sensitive users. Resulting inflammation around the eyes and sinuses may spur headache development.


Added synthetic fragrances give many mascaras a pleasant scent. But these complex mixes can trigger reactions in those with fragrance sensitivities. Common problematic compounds include:

  • Phthalates – Scent stabilizers linked to endocrine disruption and reactions.
  • Synthetic musks – Ingredients like galaxolide and tonalide associated with migraines.
  • Botanical extracts – Allergenic essential oils like lemon, lavender, peppermint.

Switching to fragrance-free formulas can help avoid exposure to these headache-provoking ingredients. Unscented products labeled hypoallergenic undergo testing to minimize allergy risk.


Preservatives extend the shelf life of mascara by inhibiting microbial growth. However, some common choices like formaldehyde and parabens may cause immune reactions.

  • Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen that can trigger severe allergic responses at low levels. Though formaldehyde is banned from cosmetics in some regions, alternative preservatives that release low levels of formaldehyde over time, like quaternium-15 and imidazolidinyl urea, are still used in some mascaras.
  • Parabens have displayed endocrine-disrupting effects in studies, interfering with hormone signaling. Their use in cosmetics is being phased out.

Opting for preservative-free mascara or formulas using newer preservative options may decrease allergy potential for sensitive individuals.


A small subset of mascaras incorporate natural latex from rubber trees, which can prompt life-threatening anaphylactic reactions in those with latex allergies. Latex-free formulas are vital for anyone with this severe allergy.

Key Allergenic Mascara Ingredients

Category Specific Allergens Health Concerns
Fragrances Phthalates, synthetic musks, botanical extracts Endocrine disruption, migraines
Preservatives Formaldehyde, parabens Carcinogen, hormone interference
Latex Natural latex Anaphylaxis

Ocular Irritants

Ingredients that irritate the delicate mucous membranes around eyes are another potential mascara additive connected to headaches. These can cause ocular discomfort and pain signaling. Common irritating ingredients include:


Isopropyl alcohol and SD alcohol help thin mascara formulas for easy application while accelerating dry time. However, these alcohols may cause stinging and dryness in some wearers, leading to eye strain and headaches.


Foaming agents like cocamidopropyl betaine allow mascaras to glide smoothly onto lashes. But some surfactants can be harsh and strip natural oils around the eyes.

Thickeners and Waxes

Ingredients like paraffin wax, beeswax, and cellulose derivatives give mascara its thick, creamy texture that adheres to lashes. But these may feel heavy on eyes over hours of wear.

Seeking out mascaras made without alcohols or harsh detergents can help minimize exposure to potentially irritating ingredients.

Mascara Application Methods That Can Contribute to Headaches

Apart from ingredients, certain application techniques and practices may also help explain mascara’s connection to headaches for some wearers.

Tension During Application

Applying mascara requires careful precision close to the sensitive eye area. For some, holding small brushes steady prompts unconscious tensing of facial muscles. Furrowing the brow, staring widely, or holding breath during application can strain eyes.

Over time, this tension may spur headaches. Being mindful to relax the face, maintain normal breathing, and use proper posture when applying mascara can minimize this effect.

Heavy Mascara Formulas Causing Eye Strain

Full, thick lashes come at a cost for some mascara aficionados. Heavy-duty volumizing or lengthening formulas can feel weighty on lashes and surrounding eye muscles.

Over hours of wear, this can tire out the eyes and cause strain that leads to tension headache pain. Using lighter mascara formulas daily while reserving dramatic products for events allows eyes to rest.

Infection Risk from Old Mascara

The moist environment inside used mascara tubes allows buildup of bacteria, fungi and other microbes over weeks of use.

Pseudomonas, staphylococcus, and candida fungi are commonly detected. To avoid eye infections, mascara should be replaced every 3-6 months.

Infections like bacterial conjunctivitis can cause irritation, discharge and inflammation. These symptoms often coincide with headache pain. Proper mascara replacement prevents this issue.

Allergy Risk from Mascara Sharing

Sharing eye makeup like mascara spreads bacteria and greatly raises chances of eye infections. Allergens can also be passed between individuals, provoking new reactions.

Both infection and allergic irritation around the eyes can lead to headache development. Never share mascara for safety.

Other Factors Potentially Linking Mascara Use to Headaches

Beyond direct ingredient and application triggers, a few other variables may also connect mascara to headache complaints.

Added Fragrances Exacerbating Headaches

While synthetic fragrance allergies can directly cause some mascara-linked headaches, added scents may have wider-reaching effects.

Even in non-allergic wearers, fragrances may exacerbate headache disorders like sinus headaches or migraines. Those prone to scent-triggered migraines should use only fragrance-free mascaras.

Hormonal Fluctuations Behind Some Headaches

Hormone changes during menstruation or menopause can increase headache frequency for those prone to migraine.

Since many routinely apply mascara during times of hormonal headaches, the timing may incorrectly imply causation. The hormonal changes themselves are the true headache triggers.

Tracking headaches and avoiding mascara when headaches are already active can reveal if hormones are the real culprit.

Stress as a Confounding Variable

Stress and headaches share a close relationship. Headaches arise during times of high stress for many.

Since applying “going-out” makeup like mascara often coincides with social, work or school stressors, there could be a perceived link between mascara and headaches.

However, stress is likely the underlying trigger in these scenarios, rather than the mascara itself.

Nocebo Effects

The nocebo effect occurs when negative expectations of side effects prompt the actual experience of those effects.

If someone anticipates mascara will give them headaches, this belief alone may contribute to headache development through the nocebo response.

Precautionary Measures to Prevent Mascara-Linked Headaches

While mascara is generally safe for most, those prone to related headaches can take certain precautionary steps:

  • Carefully read labels and avoid known allergy or migraine triggers
  • Stick to hypoallergenic, fragrance-free formulas
  • Replace tubes every 3-6 months to reduce infection risks
  • Use lighter, non-irritating formulas for daily wear
  • Apply gently and relax facial muscles during use
  • Take occasional mascara breaks to relieve eye strain
  • Clean applicators frequently using rubbing alcohol
  • Don’t share mascara to prevent irritation and infections
  • Track headaches to identify possible triggers
  • See an allergist to identify problematic ingredients through patch testing
  • See an optometrist to address any underlying eyestrain issues
  • Consult a neurologist about headache treatment options


Can mascara directly cause headaches?

There is limited evidence that mascara directly causes headaches in most people. However, in rare cases, ingredients or application methods may trigger headaches in those prone to them.

What ingredients in mascara could potentially contribute to headaches?

Fragrances, preservatives like formaldehyde, and latex may cause allergic reactions resulting in headaches for sensitive people. Alcohols and surfactants can also irritate eyes and provoke headaches.

How could applying mascara lead to headaches?

Straining facial muscles, applying heavy formulas, neglecting replacement, and sharing mascara can cause eye irritation and tension that may result in headaches.

Are headaches a common side effect of mascara?

No, most people can use mascara without experiencing headaches. Reports of headaches are rare, but certain individuals may be more vulnerable.

What precautions can sensitive people take to prevent mascara-linked headaches?

Reading labels to avoid personal headache triggers, using light hypoallergenic formulas, replacing mascara regularly, not sharing products, and taking mascara breaks can help.

If I get frequent headaches from mascara, what should I do?

Consult an optometrist to address potential eyestrain. See an allergist to identify ingredient sensitivities. And discuss recurring headaches with a neurologist to explore treatment options.

Can natural or organic mascaras still cause headaches?

Yes, even natural ingredients may provoke headaches in those with sensitivities. But natural mascaras do tend to have fewer irritants. As with any formula, take precautions.

Final Verdict: Low Headache Risk for Most Users

Overall, there is limited rigorous evidence definitively linking mascara use to headache development. While theoretical risks exist based on anecdotes, mascara is unlikely to directly cause problems for most wearers.

However, those already prone to headaches may prefer to exercise caution. Being informed on potential headache triggers allows for smart precautions and customized mascara choices.

Testing different products and ingredients can also reveal one’s individual tolerance levels. Targeted headache treatments may be advised for those who experience frequent, severe pain.

While making informed choices is wise, the takeaway for most remains: With proper precautions, mascaras can safely enhance lashes without adverse effects.

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