If eyes are the windows to your soul, then eyelashes are the gatekeepers. Not only do they keep dust and debris out of your peepers, they also frame them quite nicely, especially when they’re longer, thicker, denser and darker.
It’s why the industry for false eyelashes — including eyelash extensions, those semi-permanent lashes that a technician glues to your existing lashes — is projected to reach $1.5 billion in sales by 2023. They do look great, but are eyelash extensions worth the price you might pay? And we’re not just talking about the dollars.
Eyelash extensions 101
Eyelash extensions are made out of silk, mink or synthetic materials. The appropriate lash extension for you depends on what look you’re going for — from natural to Kardashian-esque — and your own natural lashes.
Eyelash technicians, who require a license, recommend which extension will work best for you, balancing your desired look with the capacity of your natural lashes, and choose the length, width and degree of curl accordingly.
Typically your eyelash technician glues one eyelash extension to each of your existing lashes. But if you opt for the advanced lash technique known as “Russian Volume,” your technician will apply a fan of eyelash extensions to each lash.
Why longer and fuller isn’t always better
While you may be inclined to go big or go home, your natural lashes may not be sturdy enough to support the extensions of your dreams.
The longer and wider the extensions, the more stress you put on your own lashes, says Yu. Too much tension on the eyelash will make it fall out, taking the extension with it. But it could also damage your follicle, the small cavity from which your lash grows.
“Repeated damage to your follicles could eventually slow or even stop production of your natural lashes,” says Yu.
And you don’t want that.
Eyelashes protect your eye
Since eyelashes keep dust and debris out of your eye, you might reasonably surmise that the longer lash length of extensions would be even better at keeping debris away.
“They actually do a worse job of protecting your eyes,” says Yu.
It turns out that intermediate-length lashes work best to divert air from your eye — keeping particles out and moisture in — and yes, researchers have actually tested this in a wind tunnel.
Not only are eyelash extensions likely to do a worse job of protecting your eyes, but they can also introduce other problems.
The risks of getting eyelash extensions
Many of the glues used to apply eyelash extensions contain the preservative formaldehyde.
“That’s a chemical compound that can cause an allergic reaction in your eye and also on the skin around the eye,” says Yu.
While you might think a patch test could help to detect such an allergy, most allergies manifest about 24 to 48 hours after the glue is applied.
“Additionally, an allergy can arise at any time, even if you have been using the same glue for months or years,” say Yu.
The solvents used to remove glue from your eyelash can also cause allergic reactions and are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says Yu.
Suspect an allergic reaction if you experience pain, itching, redness, burning or swelling around the eye area. And get thee to an ophthalmologist.
Dry eye, stye and infection
When you get eyelash extensions, you’re told to treat them gently, with instructions to avoid getting them wet with water, cleansers, creams or any other product for the first 24 hours. Once that window has passed, you need to keep oil-based products away from your eyes (because the oil could dissolve the lash adhesive). You’re not supposed to scrub or pull at them either.
“In an effort to protect them, you can end up not doing the natural cleansing that you would normally do,” says Yu.
This means that dirt or bacteria that get trapped by your eyelash extensions may not be removed as they usually would, giving them easy access to your eye.
It can also block the oil glands at the base of the eyelash, says Yu.
The oil produced by those glands is part of the tear film that helps protect your eye. One of the oil’s functions is to prevent evaporation of your tears. When oil production is out of balance, tears can evaporate too quickly, leading to dry eye.
Like it sounds, dry eye is uncomfortable. Symptoms include irritation, burning, itching, redness, tearing and sometimes a foreign body sensation, as if something is in your eye.
Blocked follicles could also form a stye, which can develop into a bacterial infection, says Yu. If your eye is infected, you may experience symptoms similar to dry eye, plus photosensitivity, swollen eyelids and pus discharge.
“If your eyes are crusty upon waking up, that’s a possible sign of bacterial infection,” says Yu.
And, you guessed it, time for a visit to your ophthalmologist.
Fibers in the eye
“Our lashes normally fall out all the time and sometimes they get into that little pocket in the corner of the eye,” says Yu.
When an eyelash falls out, that eyelash extension glued to it falls out along with it. And while not common, sometimes an eyelash extension does get embedded in the transparent membrane that covers the eyeball.
If you have a foreign body sensation in your eye that doesn't resolve, you should see an ophthalmologist.
Eyelash extensions require a risk versus reward analysis
“Many beauty routines come with some inherent risk, and each individual will be more or less comfortable with taking that risk,” says Yu.
If you do decide to go for eyelash extensions, Yu recommends that you choose lashes that are not too long or heavy.
“And if you do experience any problems or have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to an ophthalmologist,” she says.