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Eyelash Extensions: Are They Safe?

Most beauty trends come and go, but a select few — like lipstick and long eyelashes — have stood the test of time and are likely here to stay.

In the case of long lashes, mascara is a staple in most makeup bags. But newer alternatives, including eyelash extensions, are being used to help women's eyes pop. Eyelash extensions are a growing trend and have gotten a fair share of publicity in recent years, with several big stars showing them off in Hollywood and beyond.

But not all the press on eyelash extensions has been attractive.

When actress Kristin Chenoweth showed up wearing sunglasses on a late night talk show a few years ago, she explained that the reason was an eyelash extension mishap that left her with badly swollen eyelids.

Soon after Chenoweth's appearance, Consumer Reports and the American Academy of Ophthalmology weighed in on this growing beauty trend, urging consumers to proceed with caution if they are considering having extensions applied.

Closeup of woman's eyelashes receiving eyelash extensions.
Eyelash extensions are glued to natural eyelashes one-on-one or in small groups.

What Are Eyelash Extensions?

There are lots of ways to get longer-looking eyelashes. The simplest and least expensive is traditional mascara.

Others include false eyelashes, eyelash transplants, permanent makeup, pharmaceuticals that promote lash growth, and even eyelash perms. To be clear, eyelash extensions don't technically fall into any of these categories.

Eyelash extensions are individual fibers — not a strip of lashes — that are glued, one by one or in small groups, onto your natural eyelashes to enhance the appearance of length and fullness.

Most eyelash extensions are made of synthetic fibers, such as nylon, and are bonded using various types of professional glues. Silk is another material used for eyelash extensions. There are even mink eyelashes made of natural fur.

How Eyelash Extensions Are Applied

You don't need a degree to apply eyelash extensions, but by no means does this imply that the procedure is easy to perform. In fact, it requires quite a bit of skill, and due to the precision required to place individual lashes, it is often compared to microsurgery — except it's usually performed in a spa or salon by an aesthetician or technician rather than a trained eye care professional.

Most aestheticians or technicians apply eyelash extensions using two pairs of tweezers. The first pair is used to separate your natural lashes. The second pair holds the lash extension, which is dipped in glue and then placed on top of the isolated natural lash. After a few seconds, the two will bond together.

Typically, anywhere from 40 to 100 eyelash extensions are applied per eye.

How Long Do Eyelash Extensions Last?

Eyelash extensions are shed with your natural eyelashes. Typically, eyelashes fall out and regrow every six weeks or so. After about a month, roughly half of your eyelash extensions will be gone.

Eyelash Extensions Cost

If you sign up for a full set of eyelash extensions, set aside about two to three hours and a few hundred dollars. Mink eyelash extensions can cost around $500.

Many salons offer "touch-up" applications of new eyelash extensions as existing ones are shed with your natural eyelashes. The cost for limited eyelash extension replacements is significantly less than the initial procedure.

An eye photographed before and after eyelash extensions.
Eyelash extensions can make short, sparse eyelashes look thicker and longer. But there are risks.

What Can Go Wrong

Certainly, anytime you're touching an area near the eye, there's cause for concern. But with eyelash extensions, problems don't usually result from sharp tweezers. Instead, most problems are caused by the glue that's used to bond the synthetic extensions in place, since these often contain formaldehyde or other chemicals that can cause irritation and allergic reactions.

An article published in Consumer Reports discusses several cases in which patients experienced infections and allergic reactions to the formaldehyde-based adhesives that were used to apply their eyelash extensions. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) likewise responded to reports cautioning consumers about the dangers of cosmetic eyelash extensions.

AAO cites the following specific dangers of using eyelash extensions:

  • Infection of the cornea
  • Infection of the eyelid
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Temporary or permanent loss of eyelashes

SEE ALSO: Latisse for Longer Eyelashes: Is It Safe? >

As the AAO notes, in addition to infections and allergic reactions, some people actually lose eyelashes in the process of trying to make them look more plentiful. This is because frequent use of eyelash extensions can damage the hair follicles responsible for eyelash growth and maintenance.

Other, less common, complications with eyelash extensions include forceps wounds, reactions to solvents used to remove the extensions, and reactions to the tape that may be used to hold your lids closed during the procedure.

Also, some eye doctors and researchers believe eyelash extensions may increase your risk of dry eyes. It appears there is an optimal length for eyelashes to protect the eyes from wind, dust and other debris. Animal studies suggest this optimal eyelash length is one-third the width of the eye.

Longer, fuller eyelashes create a fan-like effect with each blink, increasing air flow on the surface of the eye that can cause dry eye symptoms, according to Deepinder Dhaliwal, MD, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Eyelash Extension Safety Tips

The FDA doesn't regulate products used to apply eyelash extensions, so if you're set on getting them, it's important to do your own homework.

To assist, the AAO advises you take the following precautions:

  • Ensure that the aesthetician is certified and working at a reputable establishment.
  • Check that the aesthetician practices adequate hand washing and proper hygiene.
  • Check the eyelash adhesive ingredients before use.

How To Remove Eyelash Extensions

Eyelash extensions are applied with a substance similar to "superglue" and can be difficult to remove without the proper tools and techniques.

The best choice if you are unhappy with how you look wearing eyelash extensions or if some have fallen out and you want the rest removed, is to return to the salon and have an aesthetician or technician remove them.

If you are unable or unwilling to return to the salon and you don't want to wait for the extensions to shed naturally, you can try one of these home methods to remove eyelash extensions:

Steam and olive oil method

  1. Remove all mascara and eye makeup from your eyelids.
  2. Heat a pan of water on the stove until it is boiling, then turn off the heat.
  3. When the water is steaming but no longer boiling, lean over the pan so the steam can reach your face. Drape a towel over the back of your head to help capture the steam.
  4. After about five to 10 minutes, apply a few drops of olive oil onto a cotton ball and gently wipe your eyelashes until the extensions begin to come off. Avoid touching your eye or getting the olive oil in your eye.
  5. Rinse your eyelids with warm water and gently dry.

Solvent (glue remover) method

  1. Purchase eyelash glue remover from your salon or a drugstore.
  2. Remove all mascara and eye makeup using your normal method.
  3. Wet a cotton swab with the glue remover.
  4. While looking in a mirror, pull down one eyelid. (Keep the other eye open so you can see what you are doing.)
  5. Gently wipe your eyelashes with the cotton swab several times until the extensions start to loosen.
  6. Gently remove each extension with your thumb and index finger.
  7. Apply more glue remover to your eyelashes with a cotton swab if the extensions don't release easily.

Obviously, great care should be taken when applying a solvent (glue remover) near your eye. Be sure to follow the instructions on the product carefully, and don't let any solvent touch the surface of your eye.

Finally, if you do experience an infection, allergic reaction or other irritation after receiving eyelash extensions or attempting to remove them, contact your eye doctor immediately.

Eyelash Extensions Alternative

If you want longer, fuller eyelashes but are concerned about the potential risks and expense of eyelash extensions, another option is to use medical lash enhancers such as Latisse to encourage eyelash growth.

However, eyelash enhancers also have some risks. Be sure to talk with your eye doctor about pros and cons of eyelash extensions and products like Latisse before deciding to use any cosmetic eye products.

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Page updated October 2016