A thick fringe of long, black eyelashes is no longer just a question of heredity.
Niche boutiques that specialize in eyelash extensions are popping up around the county to give women the lush lashes they never dreamed they could have, spurring an increasing number of clients to add them to their list of regular beauty regimens alongside hair and nails.
“A lot of women think they’re only coming in to get extensions one time,” says Jackie Connolley Brown, a Woodbine native and owner of Lash Eyelash Boutique. “But when they see how good their eyes look, they get hooked.”
The beauty trend began surging in popularity on the East Coast over the last few years, as evidenced by a proliferation of 2013 articles on websites such as Cosmopolitan, Allure and Huffington Post. At the same time, outlets like Consumer Reports magazine alerted readers to potential health risks to skin and eyes.
But the trend has persisted, and local entrepreneurs are ready to meet the demand.
Applying extensions involves bonding mink, silk or synthetic eyelashes to a client’s natural eyelashes one at a time using a strong adhesive.
It’s a painstaking process, Brown says.
A lash artist must have two steady hands — one to gently maneuver the forceps to isolate an individual lash, and one to wield a pair of tweezers to pick up an extension, which can range from 0.05 millimeters to 0.25 millimeters in diameter. Extensions also come in nine lengths.
Clients relax on a bed with their eyes closed while the lash extensions are applied and often fall asleep for a while, Brown says.
A full set of lashes normally takes 60 to 90 minutes to apply, depending on the client’s natural lashes and preferences, says Jennifer Quitugua, a native of Guam, who operates Lash Out Loud Maryland out of a dedicated space in her Elkridge home.
Then appointments to fill in missing lashes are needed every three to five weeks, Quitugua says. Natural lashes gradually shed, just as hair does, taking the attached extensions with them.
Despite the investment of time and money — a full set costs between $140 and $300, and fills range from $50 and up — providers and customers say the increasing popularity of eyelash extensions is undeniable.
For some, it’s “a luxury thing,” says Coco Cao, owner of Coco Beauty, which she operates by herself out of Bliss Nail Salon in Fulton.
“They may be going to a company party or a prom, or getting married,” says Cao, a Vietnam native who moved to Howard County in May from Los Angeles, where “everybody has eyelash extensions.”
But Cao, who completed training in California with Borboleta Beauty, says many of her clients are age 40 and older and are professionals who want to look a certain way but spend less time on makeup.
“The demand for extensions just keeps growing,” says Cao, adding she recognized the industry’s potential early on. “Everybody wants to be pretty.”
But because the eyelash extension industry is not regulated in Maryland, it’s impossible to know how many service providers are operating across the state or to estimate how many consumers are using the service, says Summar Goodman, director of constituent services and outreach for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Service providers are also not required by the Maryland Board of Cosmetologists to have a license.
With the lack of government oversight and a client’s hefty investment, it’s easy to see why finding a trusted lash technician is key.
Lauren Wade, a Westminster-based eyelash professional who instructs and certifies trainees for national brand NovaLash, says the process is a meticulous one that must be performed by a qualified technician.
“This is a very precise service and [technicians] have to put on their surgeon’s cap,” says Wade, who certified Brown and Quitugua.
To find a reputable cosmetologist, Wade advises women to ask for referrals and, when making an appointment, to ask how many clients a technician serves per week.
“Unfortunately, like with any beauty service, there are reputable people who take the practice seriously and people who are in it to make a quick buck,” Wade says. “Studios should have photos of their actual work to show clients, not just photos [from the internet] of how extensions can look.”
Dr. Jeffrey L. Wexler says it appears that most female patients who wear extensions have done their homework in choosing a salon.
“I see women with eyelash extensions every day, and I very rarely see a problem,” says Wexler, who is chief of ophthalmology at Howard County General Hospital and a doctor at Physicians Eye Care Center.
Nonetheless, women who get this beauty treatment need to be concerned about the possibility of adverse effects on eye health, Wexler says.
Any kind of abrasion is a concern because it can cause inflammation of the eye. Also, bacteria can invade the eyelash extensions, since they’re not naturally occurring, and cause an eyelid infection. And the stress from repeated applications of extensions may cause a client to permanently lose eyelashes.
Above all, “Look for cleanliness” in a salon, Wexler says, “and keep your eyelashes clean.”
Clients who seek out long-term use in the aftermath of a health issue must be even more vigilant.
Brown, who manages two employees of Lash Eyelash Boutique, first encountered eyelash extensions six years ago, when her mother got them after a medical treatment caused her eyelashes to fall out and grow back in blonde.
“I was blown away by how natural they looked,” says Brown, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business and was originally considering a career in finance. “They are really awesome and can be completely customized to whatever you want — everything from a natural look to Beyoncé.”
Brown operates out of As You Like It Hair Salon in Glenelg and another salon in Westminster. Her business is solely dedicated to applying eyelash extensions made of synthetic silk, and the trio of professionals handles 150 appointments a month, 20 of which are new clients.
Lisa Cumberland is a regular client of Brown’s, whom she starting seeing when a chemotherapy drug for breast cancer led to permanent loss of her brown hair, eyebrows and eyelashes.
“The first time I saw my face afterwards, I was very emotional,” recalls Cumberland, who is 43 and has been getting extensions for five years.
“Jackie gave me my face back,” she says of the extensions, which she intends to get the rest of her life. “It’s been a life-changing thing for me.”
But the majority of women just want to look amazing while simplifying their beauty rituals.
“Extensions cut my morning routine in half,” says Maryam Sherif, a Laurel resident who likes that they’re low-maintenance. Extensions can withstand showering, swimming or exercise after an initial 24-hour waiting period.
Jenny Blazek of Taylorsville says, “I love it when I wake up ready to take on the world.”
Quitugua, who offers mink and synthetic lashes, says her clients range in age from 18 to 60, though most are 21 to 40 years old. She averages between 50 and 60 appointments a month, 10 to 20 of which are new customers.
“Women love that extensions make them feel more youthful and the way they open up their eyes,” says Quitugua, who works full-time in a salon and does eyelashes on the side. Like Brown, she switched career gears; she had planned to be a teacher.
“They feel instant gratification when they open their eyes, and their mannerisms change,” she says of her clients, adding she “never would have believed” she’d end up in the beauty industry when she was younger. “Doing this is how I get my high. It’s become a passion for me.”
Quitugua says most women get eyelash extensions for one reason: a personal desire to feel confident.
“They don’t do it for other people,” she says. “They do it for themselves.”