Chances are if you have sensitive eyes, you’ve been avoiding eye makeup like a bad date that won’t stop texting. You feel incompatible, it’s irritating, and you’re over it. Even the lightest coat of mascara or swipe of eyeliner can result in watery, itching eyes, and let’s face it—red eyes aren’t cute or comfortable. But there’s one thing makeup artist William Murphy wishes you knew: You don’t have to avoid eye makeup altogether, “you just have to treat yourself better.”
Even the heaviest smoky eyes or most dramatic upside-down eyeliner looks are safe, as long as you know the proper techniques and use the right products. So we’re breaking it all down for you here because the latest eye makeup looks are too pretty to blow off. To start, arm yourself with hypoallergenic and ophthalmologist-tested products, like those from Almay. Then, follow these 10 easy, expert-approved application techniques and product recommendations.
Use a Ballpoint Liner
If you have sensitive eyes and don’t already have a ballpoint eyeliner, add it to your arsenal now, says Murphy. It’s “a great way to get a strong going-out look without abusing your eyes,” he says, and ballpoint tips create super-defined looks while gliding on smoothly and easily.
Apply Shadow in a Patting Motion
Even the process of blending eyeshadow can be enough to leave sensitive eyes feeling sore. Your best approach? "Apply eye makeup in a patting motion and blend without applying too much pressure," says makeup artist Steve Kassajikian. "Practice on being light-handed during application to avoid irritating the eyes," he notes. It's best to add a little bit of shadow at a time, slowly intensifying the color, to avoid harsh blending.
Use Waterproof Mascara
So many things can irritate sensitive eyes—dust, wind, air pollution, allergies—that your eyes are very likely to tear up. "Waterproof mascara will be your best friend," notes Murphy. Almay One Coat Mega Volume Mascara ($8) has a unique megaphone-shaped brush, too, so you can build volume with every last lash. Comb the flat end through your lashes first to load them with product, and then sweep them out using the flared end of the brush.
Invest in Quality Brushes
“Don’t be afraid of the eye shadow,” says Murphy, “be specific about how you put it on and what you put it on with.” Translation: Don’t grab any ol' brush. Whether you use synthetic or natural brushes is up to you, but be sure to choose something soft, not scratchy, to the touch. The Kjaer Weis Eye/Soft Makeup Brush ($16) is a great option. And "don’t apply makeup directly to your eyes," adds Kassajikian. Always reach for your preferred tool, even when using a liquid or cream shadow.
Focus on the Outer Corners
For dramatic liner looks, Kassajikian says, "focus the liner more on the outer corners of the eyes" where the skin is a bit heartier and there's more lid space above the waterline. He suggests using "creamy, gel like products that glide on like the Urban Decay 24/7 Eye Pencils ($22). Apply in light short strokes rather than a full line to avoid tugging on the skin."
Avoid the Waterline
Heavily rimmed lids with loads of liner is always popular in the beauty sphere. Just one problem—these liner-heavy looks can be particularly painful for sensitive eyes. As an alternative, Murphy says to line the eyes as close to your waterline as you can get without actually touching it. Start the line midway across your lid for an edgier, more modern look. Do the same on your lower lash line, starting your liner halfway across and drawing to the outer corners to meet your cat eye.
When applying eyeliner, follow your lower lash line as a guide. Depending on your eye shape, a liquid liner can look great with your eyes closed, but when you open your eyes, that whole shape changes.
Clean it Up
To create a defined eye look without too much finagling, keep some tools on hand for easy clean-up. Murphy likes the Almay Oil-Free Eraser Sticks, which are cotton tip swabs that are individually filled with the brand’s best-selling oil-free eye makeup formula. You can use them to sharpen the edges of your eyeliner or shadow without rubbing or pulling.
Don't Overdo It
"Keep it simple," says Kassajikian. When you have sensitive eyes, you'll want to "avoid wearing too many eye products." If you're going for a smoky eye, don't add a dramatic cat eyeliner on top. Conversely, when you want an eyeliner moment, don't overload your lid with tons of shadow on top of that. The less product you're introducing, the less chance of irritation—and the easier to wash it all off.
Read the Ingredients
"Avoid products with alcohol, fragrance and essential oils," says Kassajikian. Products with these ingredients can be irritating in general, but especially for those with sensitive eyes. He recommends Urban Decay shadows ($20), which "are all cruelty-free and the eyeliner and eyeshadow formulas are very smooth and creamy."
Grab a Cleansing Balm
Removing your makeup properly is just as important as putting it on, if not moreso. "Don’t sleep in your eye makeup!" says Kassajikian. "I recommend a cleansing balm to breakdown the makeup and then use a damp cotton round to gently wipe." Cleansing balms are emollient and packed with oils that break down makeup easily.
Next up, check out these 15 simple eyeliner looks that are anything but boring.