Change Your Look: Eye Makeup History and How-To

With a change as simple as thicker eyeliner or a brighter shade of eye shadow, different eye makeup applications can drastically alter your look. Read on to learn about eye makeup’s deep heritage, how to decipher the different types of products on the shelves, discover some tips on flawless application and find out how to choose the right colors for your complexion.

Every woman has her own signature cosmetic item that she wears even on days when she goes “makeup-free,” whether it’s lip gloss, eye liner or mascara. But whatever your preferred product is, there’s no denying the dramatic power of eye makeup in the right situation. Once you learn a little more about eye makeup – how to create a look specifically for day or night, proper application and shade selection – eye makeup will become an effortless step in your daily beauty routine.

Eye makeup’s smudged roots: Kohl

Eye makeup has been around for centuries, but its original purpose wasn’t cosmetic. Kohl, the great ancestor of today’s eye makeup, is a lead-based black eye paint that’s now known to be toxic when used long-term, but it was used as far back as Ancient Egypt and the Bronze Age.

Kohl was not used for decoration, but to shield the sun’s heavy rays, much like athletes do today. In fact, some mothers even carefully spread kohl around their infant’s eyes in the belief that it would bring strength and good health while warding off evil spirits. Since the average lifespan was much shorter at the time, women didn’t suffer from the poisonous effects of kohl, like cataracts, as they would now.

During these times, women were also known to decorate their eyes with emerald green paint made from a malachite powder mixed with an adherent, most likely animal fat. And, since brushes were yet to be invented, the makeup was often applied with a small stick or bone. Research today suggests that this emerald malachite powder may have also helped kill bacteria around the eyes.

Eye makeup today has evolved to safer, non-toxic formulas, but it still has that same dramatic effect. Although kohl is now banned by the FDA in the United States because of its toxic properties, its prominence in eye makeup lives on, and you can find imitation “kohl” eye liners that give that dark, charcoal-like effect, sans the safety risks. However, some parts of the world still use kohl, so be safe and check the ingredient list when buying eye makeup abroad.

Types of eye makeup and how to apply

While you might be overwhelmed by all the different tools and products, a professional-looking eye makeup application is really just a four-step process. Begin with a base or primer, then apply eye shadow and follow with eye liner. Finish the look with mascara. To learn about the history and how-to of mascara, read our complete guide here.

Step 1: Base

  • Eye makeup primer. If your eye makeup wears off easily or creases as the day goes on, a simple solution is to start by applying an eye makeup base, which contain silicones and polymers that hold the shadow in place throughout the day. Some primers, like bareMinerals Prime Time Eyelid Primer, aim to brighten your eyes while providing a smooth, even palette for your color. In a pinch, you can also use foundation or tinted moisturizer as an eye makeup primer.
  • How to apply. To ensure a flawless, even look, always select a shade that matches your skin tone. To apply, makeup artist Bobbi Brown instructs, “Use a large shadow brush and saturate your lids with the color from your lash line to your brow bone.”

Step 2: Shadow

  • Powder eye shadow. Powder shadows are probably the first shadows you’ve tried and are the easiest to blend and contour. They’re typically sold in a handy compact – although mineral formulas come in small, separate containers. When choosing a color, remember that the shadow might look dark in the compact, but it’ll appear lighter and more translucent on your lids.
  • How to apply. Start by investing in a quality eye shadow brush, like Jane Iredale Deluxe Shader Brush or Jane Iredale Eye Contour Brush, which gives a much better application than the flimsy brushes that come with the compact. To begin, swipe your brush over the pressed eye shadow a few times, tap off the excess powder and evenly brush the shadow over your lids.
  • Cream eye shadow. Cream eye shadows give your lids a smooth shade that’s more defined than powder shadow. Even though they’re waterproof, creams can wear off easily when applied to oily skin. Most cream shadows, like NARS Duo Cream Eyeshadow, can be easily applied with your fingertips or a convenient pen applicator and are a good choice for on-the-go application.
  • How to apply. Using a brush or your fingers, simply glide the color on right up to the crease of your eyelids, adding a second coat to give the shade a deeper glow in the evenings.
  • Liquid eye shadow. These shadows dry as soon as they touch your lids, giving your eyes a bold, shimmering effect that’s best for nights out when you want a more dramatic look.
  • How to apply. Liquid eye shadow, like tarte emphasEYES Waterproof Clay Shadow – Linerpot, Indigo, typically comes with an applicator, so just carefully drag the liquid across your lash line, working up as close to the crease as you’d like for different levels of boldness.

Step 3: Liner

  • Pencil or crayon eye liner. Whether powder-based or wax-based, this type of eye liner is extremely versatile. They’re the best choice for blending into the lash line for a natural daytime look, yet they can easily be smudged for a smoky eye effect for evening wear. Some pencils, like bareMinerals Big and Bright Eyeliner Pencil, even come with a smudge tip on the other end.
  • How to apply. Using short strokes, begin on the outer upper eyelid and move inward above the lashes, keeping the pencil as close to the lash line as possible. It’s important not to literally draw a line – some women prefer to draw a series of dots along the lash line and then blend them to fill in the spaces. To set the liner, apply a loose layer of powder at the end.
  • Cream and gel eye liner. Cream and gel liners give a thicker, more defined look and are often the solution for women who find pencil liners to wear off too easily.While both give intense color and can be smudged to create different looks, gel eye liners like Stila Smudge Pot are water repellent.
  • How to apply. These eye liners often come in small pots and must be applied with a very fine brush, like Stila Brush #28 Smudge and Line. In steady strokes, start at the center of each lash line and move outward. Don’t use cream or gel liners on the lower lids; instead, switch back to a pencil liner.
  • Liquid eye liner. For the boldest look on your night out, liquid eye liners are the ultimate choice. This quick-drying, no-smudge type of liner will give you a retro femme fatale look.
  • How to apply. Notoriously thought of as too difficult to apply, liquid eye liners can actually give you the cleanest lines once you learn how to apply them properly. With an extremely steady hand, start in the center of the upper lid and apply the liner outward, lifting the lid slightly to get closer to the lash line, and then repeat with the inner eyelid. Some liners, like Jane Iredale Liquid Eyeliner, come with a brush to allow you to create thicker, cat-eye lines. In general, your line should be narrower toward the inner eyelid and thicker as it goes outward.

Choosing the right shade of eye color

When choosing an eye shadow color, it’s important not to try to match your eye color, but rather find the color that best enhances it.

  • Blue eyes. Try warm golds, browns and bronzes. While purples will complement your eye color, pinks will give them an unflattering reddish hue.
  • Green eyes. Layer your lids with yellowed beiges, deep greens and greys, as well as velvety violets and purples.
  • Brown eyes. Brown eyes can usually pull off any color, but the most natural shades are dark browns and beiges.

If your eyes have a speck of color in the iris, enhance them with complimentary shades. It’s best to keep bright colors and thicker makeup application for a night on the town, and stick to softer shades for the office.


Day vs. night : Applying too much shadow for daytime wear will distract from your eyes instead of subtly accenting them. So, save the dramatic eye makeup for a night out. For day, you’ll want a palette of light and neutral shades, like Philosophy Supernatural Eye Palettes in Truffles. For night, you can go bolder with the smoky shades in Philosophy Supernatural Eye Palettes in Smoke and Mirrors.

Contouring. These multi-shade shadow compacts contain shades that are meant to be used together on different parts of your eyelid. You can also create a personalized look by pairing darker and lighter shades of your choice, instead of using shades from the same palette. Apply the darker shade(s) to the outer corner of your lids and crease, and the lighter shade(s) to the inner corner of your lids and just under the brow bone.

Eye makeup safety

Eyes are very sensitive and susceptible to infections like conjunctivitis, so follow these tips to keep your eyes healthy and your makeup looking fresh.


  • Wash your hands. Always start your makeup routine by washing your hands. If you’re on the go, keep an antibacterial gel like CLEAN Anti-Bacterial Hand Cream close at hand.
  • Use eye makeup remover. Using only water to remove your eye makeup doesn’t completely remove everything – traces of the makeup remain and can get in your eyes and cause an infection. Use an eye makeup remover, like Vichy Purete Thermale Eye Makeup Remover, on a cotton pad and gently press down on your lids to rub off the color. If you’re traveling, try Klorane Soothing Eye Makeup Remover Wipes.
  • Sharpen often. Sharpen your pencil regularly with a sharpener like DuWop Beauty Blade to keep your lines clean and prevent bacteria from building up.
  • Follow expiration dates. When products are out of date, they’re the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To play it safe, throw out a product if you notice any changes in its color, smell or consistency.


  • Lay brushes down. It’s easy to rest your brush on the sink or counter when applying eye makeup, but these surfaces may contain bacteria and germs that can be carried directly to your eyes. Instead, lay your brushes down on a clean tissue or towel.
  • Moisten products. It’s a habit for some women to wet their pencil with spit or water before applying, but this only increases the likelihood that bacteria will pass to your eyes.
  • Use lip liner on your eyes. Al l m ak eup pro duc ts ar e formul ated diff eren tly, so by us ing li p li ner on y ou r eye s, you m ay be ina dvert en tly intro duci ng an in gredient t hat’s not approved for the eyes or spread bacteria fr om you r mout h to your eyes.
  • Store makeup above 85 degrees F. Bacteria grows best in warm, moist places, so it’s best to keep your makeup in a dark cabinet – never near the shower or in your glove compartment.
  • Share products. The easiest way to spread infections is to share makeup, so stick with your own products. It’s also important to be careful when testing makeup in stores – always use single-use testers and make sure your hands are clean.

Bottom line

Eye makeup is a key element to the makeup routine. Even slight changes in its application can convey different looks for different occasions, so it’s essential to choose the product and color that’s best for you.

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