There’s something incredibly powerful about a bold eyeliner. Be it an overexaggerated cat eye, a playful geometric design, or a colorful double wing, a dramatic eye always seems to know how to steal a scene and make a statement. Unless you’re Pat McGrath or Julia Fox, however, chances are you might have some difficulty perfecting the look. But alas, there’s hope yet—even for the most unsteady hands among us.
Water-activated eyeliner, TikTok’s latest craze and the secret to many of the memorable styles currently taking over the internet, is opening new avenues to mastering eyeliner, from simple lines to elaborate designs. Just as you might suspect based on its name, water-activated eyeliner (also called “cake” liner) is a flat, compact pigment that comes to life when a little water is added to it. “Dipping your makeup brush into water and mixing it with the pressed powder product will create a creamy liquid consistency that dries completely matte,” says London-based makeup artist Alex Reader. “It is quite literally like painting with watercolors.”
Water-activated eyeliner can appeal to all kinds of makeup users, but its fluid consistency and effortless glide make it a particularly great option for beginners or those who have an unsteady hand. “These eyeliners stay fluid as long as you keep your brush wet, which allows you to take your time to get it right,” Reader says. “It is also a lot easier to clean up edges or any mistakes by reactivating the product even after it dries, giving you time to fix it.” But even the makeup veterans among us can benefit from water-based eyeliner. “For those who are more advanced and love creating bigger and better graphic eyeliner looks, water-activated eyeliner gives you endless creativity from bold or intricate shapes to mastering those multi-colored gradient liners,” Reader adds.
We conducted hours of research on the best water-activated eyeliners, evaluating each on the number of shades available, color payoff, and ease of application. We also took into consideration what types of looks each deliver—from more traditional tightlines to bold geometric graphics. We also had a look at the formula’s longevity, from how quickly it takes to dry to how easily it smudges. After consulting with two celebrity makeup artists, and considering dozens of brands, we landed on the following best in show.
Glisten Cosmetics Wet Liner
Easy to use
Big color payoff
Very small size
There’s no better way to create a bold eye than with a bold color—and Glisten Cosmetics offers a full rainbow of hues with its Wet Liners. With just a tiny bit of water, these liners deliver seriously rich pigment that will last all day and night. “They have the most vibrant color ranges and the color payoff is incredible,” says Reader. Choose from dozens of shades, including some duos that offer two colors in one.
Price at time of publish: $9
Number of shades: 150 | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Laura Mercier Tightline Cake Eye Liner
Easy to use
Lasts a long time
Can smudge easily with too much water
This easy-to-use cake eyeliner from Laura Mercier is specifically designed for nailing the difficult “tightline” technique. “It’s an amazing super pigmented deep black that line your lashes, allowing you to get right into the root,” Reader notes. The formula is highly pigmented and glides on the lash line smoothly to deliver long-lasting color all day long. You can also pop the individual shade out of its compact and place it alongside your other favorites in a three- or six-well custom palette.
Price at time of publish: $28
Number of shades: Three | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Smudges in extreme conditions
According to New York-based makeup artist Neil Scibelli, Kryolan’s Aquacolor range makes for “ideal” water-activated eyeliners. The color-intensive compacts can be used in a variety of ways on both the face and body, but they’re extremely helpful for creating a playful eye. Aquacolor comes in 18 shades, from bright neons to subtle neutrals, so you can find something for every kind of occasion.
Price at time of publish: from $6
Number of shades: 18 | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
NYX Professional Makeup Cake That! Powder Eyeliner
Glides on smoothly
Gets chunky with too much water
This water-activated liner from NYX makes mastering a bold eye or thin, sharp wings a piece of cake. The palette includes two matte pressed powders—one in black and one in brown—so you can mix and match to suit your needs. And while water is a necessary ingredient for a deep, rich finish, you can also use this liner dry for a more subtle look.
Price at time of publish: $17
Number of shades: Two | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Beginners
Ben Nye Cake Eyeliner
Easy to use
Long staying power
The Ben Nye Cake Eye Liner is ideal for makeup beginners or anyone challenging themselves with a complicated look. It’s incredibly forgiving and softer looking than other liners, but it still delivers a clean edge and precise line. The Ben Nye liner is also available in a host of natural colors, so you can really tailor your choice to your specific coloring.
Price at time of publish: $12
Number of shades: 10 | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
SUVA Beauty Hydra Liner
With Suva Beauty’s Hydra Liner, you really get a big bang for your buck. With just one easy swipe along the lash line, this liner delivers rich pigment that will last all day long. Just keep in mind that it may smudge if your eye waters or even when exposed to hot or humid weather.
Price at time of publish: $16
Number of shades: 12 | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Quick Drying
Graftobian Cake Eye Liner
Professional compact size
Easy to use
Brown color is not super pigmented
Graftobian’s Cake Eye Liner, a favorite of many professional makeup artists, comes in a professional (read: larger) compact, so it’s especially easy to use. Available in black, brown, and white, this liner dries quickly, works for a wide range of looks, and remains smudge- and transfer-proof until it’s removed.
Price at time of publish: $13
Number of shades: Three | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Our best overall pick is the Glisten Cosmetics Wet Liner is the most universal option, delivering lasting results in a wide range of colors. For a more affordable pick, consider Kryolan Aquacolor, which is highly pigmented and super easy to apply.
Meet the Expert
- Alex Reader is a London-based makeup artist, who has worked with Zara Larsson, Josephine Skriver, and Eva Chen, as well as British Vogue, LOVE Magazine, and Vogue Italia. Her editorial and celebrity work is full of graphic eye moments.
- Neil Scibelli is a makeup artist in New York City, focusing on fashion and celebrity. He has worked with Elle Macpherson and Molly Sims, and his work has appeared on the runway at New York Fashion Week. He has extensive experience working with graphic eye looks.
What to Look for in a Water-Activated Eyeliner
Like most makeup, eyeliner is extremely personal, so finding the best water-activated liner for you will really come down to personal preference. That said, there are a number of factors to keep in mind when searching for your perfect match. “Luckily, there are a range of palettes on the market right now that specifically cater to water-activation,” Scibelli says. He suggests thinking first and foremost about the color. “There are also a range of colors, from pastels to earth tones, to neons,” he notes, so it’s worth considering what you would use your liner for and what color(s) that will require.
It’s also important to think about the formula of your cake liner. While high pigment—and therefore, rich color—is often seen as the holy grail in eyeliner, you may be looking for a softer, more natural look. With all water-activated liners, there will be at least slight color dropoff, meaning what you see in the compact is not necessarily what will end up on your lids, and the water is likely to dilute it a bit. You should also make sure your cake liner has a creamy consistency so it doesn't dry up or crack after being activated.
Lastly, consider the packaging. Although your priority should always be the actual product, some water-activated eyeliners may have some helpful extras, like brushes, included. You will need a brush or applicator with all cake liner, so opting for a liner that comes with one may save you some time and money.
What is water-activated eyeliner?
“Water-activated eyeliner is similar to how it sounds,” explains Scibelli. “It is eyeshadow or eyeliner pigment in a flat, compact form that activates with water.” Think of these liners as watercolors for your face: easy to use, very forgiving of any mistakes, and fun to play with.
Are water-activated eyeliners long-lasting?
Since water-activated eyeliners are water-based, unfortunately most are not waterproof, so if you shed a tear or go outside in the rain, it could move around. “In general, they are fairly long-lasting and smudge-proof, however they are not as long lasting compared to using an oil-based eyeliner, such as a gel,” Reader says.
How do you use water-activated eyeliner?
One of the best parts of water-activated eyeliner is how easy it is to use. “Dip your brush into a mixing liquid, such as water or a mixing medium (for longevity), and then either wet the pigment directly in its pan or scrape off some of the product onto a palette with a spatula and mix,” Reader advises.
Mixing outside of the pan will help your product last longer and will prevent any cracks or drying. “The ratio you mix will depend on the look you desire—adding more liquid will give you a sheerer finish and adding less will deliver a creamier opaque effect,” the makeup artist adds.
Do water-activated eyeliners smudge?
Yes, but that’s what makes them so user-friendly. Using water as an activator will make your eyeliner more susceptible to smudging, but there are steps you can take to minimize this. “If you are wanting your eyeliner to be more durable and longer-lasting, then I would recommend using a mixing medium, which provides grip and locks the formula in,” Reader says. “My favorite mixing medium for this is the Makeup by Mario Master Metal Manipulator.” You can also try a water-activated eyeliner designed for theatrical use, which tends to be more waterproof and less likely to smudge.
What kinds of looks can you create with water-activated eyeliner?
You can create bold and sheer statement eye looks, depending on how you use the product. If you’re hoping for a bold, dense finish, create a paste-like, creamy consistency by swirling more product into your water. If you’re after a sheerer color finish, add more water. Reader suggests testing the consistency on the back of your hand before applying to make sure you’re happy with it, then reaching for a very thin makeup brush to paint on your liner.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Gabby Shacknai has been writing about—and living and breathing—beauty for more than six years. For this roundup, she consulted with qualified makeup experts to ensure that the information presented is accurate and helpful. She also combed through reviews and tested many of the water-activated eyeliner products featured to offer readers the very best picks.