A huge number of women - with hair colours from white blonde to black - volunteered to try out the products, proof of how important finding a good mascara is to most of us. The panel included Rachel Thackray, Stephanie Rich, Nicola Warren, Anna Nicholas, Philippa Yeoman, Emma Bartlett, Anna MacLellan and Claire Blezard.
Even the very latest mascaras didn't always live up to (increasingly high) expectations. The testers wanted moist, creamy mascara which felt good on the lashes, went on without clumps, lasted all day without smudging and made lashes seem longer without looking false. They were also highly critical of packaging; as one remarked, "It's important that it looks nice, because deep down you know you've paid lots of money for not that much."
***CHRISTIAN DIOR MASCARA FASCINATION
Fascination was notable for two reasons: it comes in a "terrible, Eighties airport-glitzy" or "lovely, opulent" royal blue, navy and gold container which panellists either loved or hated; and the colour sent was "plum", since Dior feels blondes should never wear black and brunettes benefit from the subtlety of this colour. "At first no-one in my office wanted to try it, because it's purple," reported brunette Philippa Yeoman, "but it looks fine on; the colour doesn't show up at all." Blonde Claire Blezard liked the feel of the mascara, but said it made her look "as if I'd been on the booze for several nights. I'd buy it in black." Dark-haired Nicola Warren gave Dior the thumbs up: "It's less harsh than black and less muddy than brown; it's kind on the eyes."
Yet despite lavish claims about the mascara's cashmere content, which allegedly keeps lashes soft while lengthening them, Anna Nicholas found the results "disappointing, thin and not very enhancing".
Individualist pounds 13.50 &
Raincoat pounds 12.50
Named for its function in bringing "each individual lash to its fullest potential", Estee Lauder's Individualist mascara impressed Anna Nicholas as "very defining and luxurious. But the container is smaller than other expensive brands and you do worry that you're just not getting your money's worth." Claire Blezard praised the brush, which has a flat reservoir side to deposit the maximum amount of mascara onto the lashes, and supple bristles on the other side to comb and separate them. "You can get right to the bottom of the lashes, there's no clogging and several coats build up well," she reported, "but it turned out to be a bit dry-looking on the lashes; the colour isn't deep black. But I might consider buying this." This was high praise from such a pale blonde and inveterate mascara-user.
There was controversy, however, over Estee Lauder's unique Raincoat product, a clear sealant designed to go over your non-waterproof mascara. Some panel members agreed that it did prevented their make-up from smudging, but didn't do much to test it; one said she went swimming and it did work, but didn't see the point since she normally took her mascara off first; while Rachel Thackray - who was obviously having a particularly lacrymose time - complained that she did cry while wearing Raincoat "twice - and it came off, and I went swimming and it came off everywhere."
*****ELIZABETH ARDEN DEFINING MASCARA
Apparently ahead of the crowd due to its reduced wax content (one of the main reasons for clump formations, especially as mascara ages), Defining Mascara was voted the winner in our survey by a narrow margin. Anna MacLellan thought it had the nicest packaging, "very Audrey Hepburn," and all the testers agreed with Emma Bartlett that the product itself "doesn't gunk; it has a lot of volume but doesn't clog up. It did actually extend the lashes, quite an achievement on a pale blonde." Stephanie Rich decided it was "the best of the browns sampled; we liked this a lot," and Rachel Thackray acclaimed it "very natural-looking".
With no extravagant claims and a modest price tag, panellists wanted to be well-disposed towards this Boots product - but half were disappointed. "I use another mascara by No7 all the time and it's excellent," said Rachel Thackray, "but this was spiky and blobby and got under my contact lenses." Nicola Warren had the same problem: "It's murder on the contact lenses - I felt like I had eyes full of fibreglass," she wailed, whereas those with 20/20 vision were pleased with it: "It's fine, it separates the lashes evenly and there are no clumps or flakes. It's good value for money," said Philippa Yeoman. Claire Blezard was not as impressed. "No7 is very liquid," she reported, "and clumped my lashes. It builds up OK, but is very spiky - you have to tease lashes out with an eyelash comb. But it didn't smudge, so it's not bad considering the cost."
****17 BIG VOLUME
Another Boots product associated with the teenage market proved better value than some much pricier brands, even if its "Austin Powers packaging, revolting smell and wand that looks like a toilet brush" put off Stephanie Rich. She had to admit that "it goes on well and looks nice," and most testers agreed. Claire Blezard commented that "the huge brush is difficult to manoeuvre, especially first thing in the morning. The mascara itself is thin and takes some trouble to get onto the lashes, but the black is a really nice colour, and it doesn't smudge." Rachel Thackray added approval: "It's excellent value. It doesn't have as much volume as Estee Lauder, but it's a third of the price."
*MAYBELLINE GREAT LASH
Anna MacLellan had been "really looking forward to the arrival of Maybelline". Apparently one virulent pink-and-green package of it is sold every 1.9 seconds in the US, and the manufacturer aims to become the biggest- selling brand in Europe by the end of 1998. Dream on. Testers loathed the "little-girl packaging" (Philippa Yeoman), "the small stiff brush, wielding very liquid, gloopy mascara" (Claire Blezard) and the resulting facial mess - "I looked like a panda by the time I got home on the sweaty Underground," said Anna MacLellan. Nicola Warren summed the experience up: "I haven't looked like this since I went to a Sweet concert in 1973. It goes on as unctuously as oil from the Exxon, leaving the odd glob, then sets into hard spikes. When reapplied, I looked like two sea-urchins winking at each other."
In case you don't know, Francois Nars is a make-up artist famous for his work on the catwalks, and his mascara is meant to give "a more dramatic effect" - it also comes in a range of bright colours. Testers who did know spoke well of his other products, but felt that paying pounds 16 for the "lovely black, rubbery container" was strictly for completists. "Nars has a dreadfully stiff brush; I couldn't get much onto the lashes and it stuck them together," Claire Blezard complained. Nicola Warren liked the "strong scent of roses", as did Rachel Thackray, who added "it doesn't look different from my normal No7, and you don't get much of it for your money".
"This is rubbish," said Emma Bartlett of Stila's allegedly natural-looking mascara: and indeed, Stila failed to score any points. "It looks great in the aluminium casing, but smudges everywhere." Claire Blezard was not the only tester to struggle with the super-trendy cardboard packet, only to find "a definite grey cast to the colour". Stephanie Rich was even more crushing about the brown version: "This is very American, very wet and an absolutely hideous colour - pure poo! It's not dark enough to have any significant effect, it costs pounds 16 and it smells peculiar. I'd never buy it." Rachel Thackray found it got under her contact lenses and denigrated its pallor: "It would be better to have your eyelashes tinted for that price."
**SHU UEMURA MASCARA BASIC
There was more faint praise for this stylish-looking mascara from Japanese brand Shu Uemura. Anna MacLellan found the bullet-shaped packaging "very sexy. The scraper inside the container does the trick. The mascara doesn't clog, but the brown is so pale you have to put a lot on." Nicola Warren noted that Shu Uemura "smells like bread-and-butter pudding - how clever! And it does the job." Claire Blezard thought it had "quite a good brush, but the supposedly dark brown is appalling. I seemed to have ginger lashes. I couldn't go out in it and can't believe anyone would buy this a second time." The black was "OK, but not as good as the trad brands like Arden," said Emma Bartlett.
Maybelline, No7 and 17 available from Boots (0845 070 8090 for branches); Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Dior widely available nationwide; Shu Uemura from Liberty (0171 734 1234); Stila from Space NK (0171 379 7030); Nars from Liberty and Space NK.