The Best Eyeliner for Tightlining: A Close Look at a Fascinating-Yet-Kind-of-Scary Technique
Tightlining is such an interesting trend: when done correctly, it can be absolutely striking, but very few people know how to do it—and even fewer know how to choose the right eyeliners to make it work. It’s one of those weird better-known/lesser-understood techniques, and there’s not too much written about it online.
So, here, we’ll take a close look at one of our favorite techniques. We’ll explore the eyeliners that are good options for everyone from beginners to pros (and discuss our pick for best eyeliner for tightlining overall), and then we’ll describe the process at length: what it is, how to do it, and perhaps most importantly, how to remove it when you’re done.
OK, lovelies, let’s get started:
Tightlining Picks: Our Favorites and Reviews
Here’s a quick run-down of our picks:
Rimmel Scandaleyes Kohl Kajal Liner: best drugstore pencil
Neutrogena Nourishing Eye Liner: best pencil for light / brown lashes
Inglot AMC Eyeliner Gel: best gel option
Buxom Hold The Line Waterproof Eyeliner: best for tightlining and smoky eyes;
Marc Jacobs Highliner Gel Crayon: best overall / best high-end pick
…and here are the reasons why they may / may not be a good option:
Rimmel Scandaleyes Waterproof Kohl Kajal Liner
OK, first things first: “Scandaleyes” is one of the best names we’ve ever seen for a makeup product, ever. It’s absolutely brilliant. Naming cosmetics is difficult, especially when there are literally thousands and thousands of cosmetics already named, and “Scandaleyes” is smart and tricky and funny and sassy all in one. Just wonderful.
The bad news is…. sometimes the best part about makeups with great names is just the name, and they’re nothing to write home about.
The good news is… we think the Rimmel Scandaleyes Waterproof Kohl Kajal Liner is actually worth a look! It’s our pick for the best eyeliner for tightlining for beginners, especially those who would like to line both the upper waterline and between the lashes. It is a sharpenable pencil designed for intensity and longevity, and it’s a drugstore option, which is always nice.
Rimmel formulated the Scandaleyes Liner with a lot of silicone, which technically makes it a gel pencil, and we appreciate that deeply, because it means that it’s formulated to glide on soft and easy, which is ideal for tightlining. They also made sure to make it waterproof, which is so important for tightlining, especially if your eyes can get very teary, and it means you can wear it to the beach or pool or gym! Plus, plus, plus.
Lastly, Rimmel has packed the Scandaleyes Liner with a lot of pigment, so it’s formulated to go on opaque (not transparent, in other words) with just a quick swipe, and that’s also a good thing for tightlining—multiple applications with an eyeliner can be brutal on your skin.
So, we like this one a lot, especially for a drugstore option, but there’s one thing we should mention: if you are looking for a liner that you can use above the lash line as well, this one may not be ideal, because it’s very soft and might be hard to control. Those are the exact features that make it slide in between the lashes so easily, which makes it great for tightlining, but not for using above the lashline.
Recommended for: beginners (and even intermediates) who would like to tightline the upper waterline as well as between the lashes.
Neutrogena Nourishing Eye Liner
We don't usually think of Neutrogena as a makeup brand, but their Nourishing Eye Liner is, in our humble opinion, a solid pick, especially for those with light-colored lashes who would like to have just one eyeliner that they can use all over the eye.
The issue you will often run into with mechanical eyeliners is that they are a little too firm for tightlining, but Neutrogena formulated this eyeliner to be quite soft, so though it is still firmer than the average gel pencil formula, it may not tag on your skin the way other mechanical eyeliners might. Because of this, it can work for tightlining, lining the upper and lower lashlines, and for lining the waterline.
Neutrogena added a healthy amount of olive oil to this formula, which is wonderful for nourishing the skin around the eyes, and may even have a fortifying effect on the eyelashes.
Neutrogena makes the Nourishing Eyeliner in multiple colors, with brown being our favorite tightlining shade for those with light hair colors. The black shade isn’t as opaque as other options on this list, so it may not work as part of a very dramatic look, but we think it could be a good choice for those who want natural-looking makeup but for whom brown colors are a little too warm.
Recommended for: beginners who prefer a softer look and would like an eyeliner that can do it all, with the brown shade especially excellent for those with fair eyelashes.
Inglot AMC Eyeliner Gel
The Inglot AMC Eyeliner Gel is our favorite gel eyeliner for tightlining, and we think it’s a particularly excellent choice for those who’d like to focus on working the eyeliner in between their lashes rather than along the upper lash line.
Inglot formulated this gel eyeliner to be high-performing in a few different ways, the most important of which for tightlining is that it is extremely long-lasting and waterproof. Once applied, it may take a few seconds to set, but once it does, it was designed not to move or smudge throughout the day. It was also formulated with intense pigmentation, so it goes on very dark and opaque without the need for additional layers. That’s a great feature, because as we mentioned (and discuss again in our “Features to Look for in Eyeliners for Tightlining” section below), you want to make as few passes as possible when tightlining. It’s a delicate procedure that can irritate your eyes if done too much, so you want to get it done as quickly as possible. Gel is great for that sort of thing.
As with other gel eyeliners, you can use the AMC Eyeliner Gel to line above the lash line, and it is a particularly fitting choice for creating a cat-eye or a retro-inspired winged eyeliner—two looks that happen to appear a lot more polished if you combine them with tightlining.
Lastly—and perhaps our favorite thing about the AMC Eyeliner—is that it’s made in a wide, wide, wide variety of color tones—black to green to teal to blue to yellow and more—and that sets the cosmetic apart. There are so many eyeliners that are only made in one color, that it’s wonderful to see so many shades.
Recommended for: those who’d like to focus on tightlining the lash line rather than the upper waterline or anyone who’s a fan of winged eyeliner, and those who want a wiiiiide color range of options.
Buxom Hold The Line Waterproof Eyeliner
Buxom’s Hold The Line Waterproof Eyeliner can be a good option for both tightlining and for creating a defined smoky eye. It was formulated to be soft yet boldly pigmented, in a sharpenable pencil format. That pencil format is a nice touch, because it makes it easy to put in your purse / backpack / satchel and go about your day.
Buxom designed this eyeliner to be very creamy, so it’s made to glide easily over the sensitive skin of the top waterline and to work into the lash line. Since it’s a sharpenable pencil, you can get it into a very fine point, so it can also work for lining the upper or lower lash lines, in which case we recommend smoking it out a bit for a sultry makeup look. It was designed to lock into place (for up to 14 hours!) once it sets, and that can be a great perk if you’ve got a long day at class / work / out-and-about adventuring.
Buxom offers this eyeliner in a few really gorgeous shades, but we think Call Me (black) and Here’s My Number (brown) are the two that will work best for tightlining.
And, lastly—this isn’t anything about the cosmetic itself, but we love this: the product includes a makeup pencil sharpener, which we think is a thoughtful and considerate touch. Why don’t all eyeliner pencils that need sharpeners come with sharpeners? They know we’re going to need them, and how many times have we been out in the world, ready to re-apply eyeliner, only to find that we need a sharpener and don’t have one? The answer to that question is “Many, many times.” So, in addition to being a product we really like, we really like that Buxom included, you know, the tool you need to use it.
Recommended for: those who prefer a soft, sharpenable pencil for tightlining and smoky eyes, that you can throw in your bag and take with you (and that has a sharpener!).
Marc Jacobs Highliner Gel Crayon
Our “luxury” pick for the best eyeliner for tightlining is definitely, and without a doubt, the Marc Jacobs Highliner Gel Crayon. It’s an Allure Best of Beauty Winner, which is a small hint to how well it performs in general, but we think it’s particularly good for tightlining.
Marc Jacobs packaged the Highliner as a mechanical roll-up pencil, which is highly unusual for gel crayon formulas, and we love this innovation because it’s designed to make the Highliner non-fussy and easy to use. When you’re attempting a delicate technique that requires a lot of manual dexterity—and tightlining would definitely fall into that category—“easy to use” is something we definitely look for. It was crafted to be waterproof, too, which is another important feature for a tightlining eyeliner to have.
The Gel Crayon was designed to offer the same intense pigmentation and smooth glide as gel eyeliner, so it can be phenomenal for really getting in between the lashes when tightlining, but since it is also a crayon, it can still be used on the upper waterline. Some of our readers may find the crayon portion a little too thick for achieving a very fine line. It comes with a little sharpener tool that can help get the tip a little finer, but in general, we think the thicker tip is actually part of the reason why getting in between the lashes with this product is so easy.
Recommended for: makeup users of all experience levels who like an intense look and have a taste for luxurious, high-performing products.
What is Tightlining?
Now that we’re past the reviews, this is a good place to start. Tightlining is a powerful technique, that can:
- Draw attention to the eyes;
- Make heavier eye makeup appear more polished;
- Give you a way to line the eyes when you don’t have a lot of lid space;
- Thicken up the look of the lash line, and finally
- Be totally imperceptible to others, for that wonderful “no-makeup” makeup look.
It’s gained a lot of popularity in the last few years, but not everyone knows about it—and for sure, it’s not for everyone—but it can be a fantastic technique, and mastering it can be a worthwhile pursuit, especially if you’re a makeup artist (or hope to become one!).
Here are the details on how it’s done, and we’ll go into more detail below:
Tightlining consists of applying eyeliner along the upper waterline (the little strip of skin between the eye and the upper lash line) or right in between the lashes of the upper lash line. You can do both, or concentrate on just lining in between the lashes, depending on the look you’re going for or how much of your upper waterline is visible. If you need a visual representation of all those terms, this is very helpful:
You are likely already familiar with the practice of putting eyeliner in the bottom waterline, which can give the eye a sultry look or open look, depending on the color chosen. With tightlining, eyeliner is applied from below the lash line rather than above it (as you would with traditional liner), and cam make the lashes look more full. While lining the waterline is not essential for most makeup looks, tightlining’s subtle effects can make a big difference if you’re looking for a little more “oomph.”
By the way, if you want a quick rundown of the different eyeliner looks, here’s a great rundown from Birch Box of the different techniques you can try. There are a lot of examples out there, but this is one of the easiest to read.
Types of Eyeliners for Tightlining
The best eyeliner for tightlining often comes down to format. You can use many different kinds of eyeliners for tightlining (with one we’d recommend in particular), and here are your options—along with their benefits, drawbacks, and how to use them:
Regular pencil eyeliners are the most common type of eyeliner, and they're a good option for tightlining. You're probably familiar with these: they’re usually made of wood, and require sharpening, and there are drugstore options and high-end options. They usually have a nice firm texture, so you can get a precise line with them, but they can also soft enough for smudging (depending on the specific model you get). If you’d like to have just one eyeliner that you can use for both tightlining and for lining above the lash line, they can be a good choice.
With pencil eyeliners, it's important to always sharpen them before using them, both for hygienic purposes as well as to avoid accidentally scratching yourself in the eye with a bit of wood that sticks out over the tip.
Mechanical Eyeliner Pencil
Mechanical eyeliner pencils (sometimes called roll-up eyeliner pencils) are a great alternative to regular eyeliner pencils, for one main reason: they don't require a sharpener, and you don’t have to spend your time whittling away a tip so that you can make yourself up. In function, they are very similar to regular eyeliner pencils, but instead of sharpening them, you just roll them up. Easy peasy WONDERFUL.
Like regular eyeliner pencils, they’re a decent choice if you’d like just one eyeliner you can use all over the eye—for regular application above/below your upper/lower lashes, but also for more technical application, like tightlining and waterlining.
The main drawbacks are that they produce more waste (once you use a pencil down to the nub!) and they can break easily if you roll them up too high (which happens more than you’d think).
Gel Pencil Eyeliner
Gel pencils are often the best types of eyeliner for tightlining, because they combine the best elements of a pencil eyeliner with the best elements of a gel eyeliner: the control of a pencil, with the soft application of a gel. Those two features make them the go-to option for a lot of makeup wearers (and a lot of makeup artists!).
Because they have a very soft texture, they don't tug on the skin, and because their color tends to be very dark and opaque, it can be easier to apply them with fewer passes. You need a good sense of control to use them—they’re a little more challenging than pencils, in that way—but they’re often the best candidate for a tightline look.
They can be messy to use above the lash line—the eyeliner is very soft, after all—but for tightlining, they can be a really fantastic option.
Gel eyeliners are thick, creamy formulas that come in a little jar. While they are very popular for applying winged eyeliner above the lash line because they are very pigmented and offer a lot of precision, but they can also be used for tightlining.
You would normally apply them with an angled brush or a skinny eyeliner brush, but for tightlining, it is best to use them with a push brush or a squared-off concealer brush, like the Sigma Flat Definer Brush. If your focus is on getting the color right in between your lashes, gel eyeliner can be a good option, because it's easier to get in there with a brush than with a pencil tip.
These aren't always a great option if you're new to tightlining—the gel, and in particular, the brush, can make things challenging—but if you know what you're doing, gel can be a very powerful tool.
What About Liquid Eyeliners?
You may have noticed we left out liquid eyeliners. That may seem unjust, because liquid eyeliners are wonderful and amazing. Sadly, even the most extreme liquid eyeliner fanatics should probably avoid using liquid eyeliner for tightlining. Because liquid eyeliner is so thin, it's very hard to get it in between the lashes or along the waterline without also having some of it get in the eye where it can sting or irritate. There is also too much moisture so close to the eyeball, so liquid eyeliner won’t be able to set quickly enough before it runs. Sad, but in our experience, true!
Features to Look for in Eyeliner for Tightlining
So now that you know the types of eyeliner you can use for your tightline, let’s chat about how to choose specific products. There are a few features you should pay attention to when looking for an eyeliner that will suit your tightlining needs and preferences:
For tightlining, it’s best to stick to black, gray, or brown eyeliner. Because tightlining is such a subtle makeup technique, it's always better to opt for a darker color that will look natural and invisible. Exciting colors like blue, pink, or purple can look awesome in the lower waterline or above the lashline, but their effect will most likely be totally lost with tightlining.
As for choosing between black, gray, or brown, this depends on the rest of your makeup look and your natural hair and lash color. In general, we think it's best to match the tightlining eyeliner to the mascara, so If you have lighter hair and lashes and you're going for a more natural makeup look, then brown eyeliner is fine.
If your hair is darker or you're going for a more intense eye makeup look that involves black eyeliner or eyeshadow above the lashline, then black eyeliner is probably the way to go.
Lastly, gray can be a great option for those who have ash blonde, cool brown, or gray hair. With this kind of coloring, brown eyeliner can often be a little too warm or red-based, so gray is going to be a much softer and more natural choice.
Pigmentation is a term that refers to how saturated a makeup product is with pigment or color. In other words, it doesn’t refer to the specific color, but to how intense the color is. Products with low pigmentation are sheer, while high pigmentation products are more opaque (meaning, not transparent).
For tightlining, it’s always better to have an eyeliner with high pigmentation, because you want it to go dark and bold on the skin on the very first swipe—because, after all, the more time you spend building up color, the likelier you are to irritate the eye or tear up, which can cause the eyeliner to smudge. We tend to look for pigment-intense eyeliners when choosing a tightlining eyeliner.
Eyeliners range from firm to soft, with pencil and mechanical eyeliners being the firmest and gel eyeliners being the softest. The softer the eyeliner, the easier it will be to tightline with it, since it will slide right in between the lashes.
That sounds good, right? Sadly, softer eyeliners, while they may feel a little more gentle, offer less control for lining the upper waterline. That is why we usually recommend choosing a medium soft liner, like a gel pencil, for both kinds of tightlining. They’re firm enough to get the job done, but not so firm that they won’t be pliant.
For lining all around the eye, including tightlining, medium-firm liners are usually the way to go.
Waterproof or Water-Resistant
Since tightlining is so close to the actual eye, it is usually a good idea to use a water-resistant or waterproof eyeliner for it. These days, most mainstream eyeliners are at the very least water-resistant.
That said, it’s important to note that softer eyeliners do not become waterproof until they’ve had a chance to dry down, so you might have to be careful with blinking after applying them so that they don’t smudge before they’ve had a chance to set.
Is Tightlining Safe? Great Question!
So, now that we know a little bit about the technique, let’s talk about a concern that a lot—a lot a lot—of new tightliners have: is this a safe and sane thing to do?
Seeing someone tightline can look really odd, with the way their head is tilted—it looks almost as though they’re drawing straight on their eyeball! So we understand if some of our readers worry about the safety of tightlining.
Luckily, if you tightline correctly, it’s just as safe as applying eyeliner to the waterline—an activity a lot more people are comfortable with.
That doesn’t mean tightlining is 100% safe for everyone. In fact, research has shown that eyeliner applied to the waterline can migrate into the eye. Normally, it will get flushed out after a few hours on its own, but for those with sensitive eyes or for contact lens wearers, there is a higher risk of issues. Definitely something to keep in mind!
To make the activity safer, there are a few things you can do:
- Make sure your eyeliner hasn’t expired. Eyeliner that’s turned has a lot of bacteria in it, and can cause a reaction in and around your eyeball, and while that’s never happened to us, it sounds like no fun at all;
- Don’t share eyeliner with anyone. This is one of those things they teach you in makeup artist school. Bacteria and infection can spread via eyeliner, so… don’t do that;
- Make sure you’re using a fragrance-free formulation if you’ve got sensitive eyes. Very often, people with sensitive skin and eyes are irritated by the chemicals that cosmetics companies use to make their signature scents. If you’ve experiencing irritation, fragrance may be the culprit.
Here’s a good article about tightlining safety that put us at ease, when we had concerns about it.
How to Tightline: Tips from Our Experience
OK! So, now that we know a whooooole bunch about it, let’s finally go down to instruction!
Tightlining is not the most obvious makeup technique, but with some guidance and some practice, it can become a lot easier:
- Many of the people we speak to are confused as to when in your makeup routine you should tightline. You can tightline at any time during your routine, though generally, we recommend doing it before mascara. Keep in mind, you can also wear tightlined eyeliner all on its own, and it’ll make even bare lashes stand out;
- If you are using a pencil eyeliner, make sure it’s clean and ready to go — we suggest sharpening or rolling it up, and then wiping it with a tissue so that the tip is not too sharp;
- If you are using a gel eyeliner, simply load up your brush with a little bit of gel, and wipe off the excess in a tissue or the lip of the jar;
- Get into a comfortable position similar to the position you get into for applying mascara. You will probably want the mirror a little below your face. You can tilt your head back if you have a wall mirror, or hold a handheld mirror a little below your face. You should be able to see the line of your upper waterline exposed when looking into the mirror. If it's not really visible even when you are looking downwards then you can concentrate on tightlining between the lashes and without worrying about tightlining the upper waterline;
- If you would like to tightline specifically on the waterline, start by having your brush or eyeliner tip come in contact with the outer end of your upper waterline;
- Then, quickly sweep the eyeliner inwards towards the inner corner of your eye, to line the upper waterline;
- If you’re nervous or tend to blink a lot, you can actually close your eyes after you have the eyeliner positioned, and then run it across to the other end of the upper waterline — you might end up staining the bottom waterline a little bit, but that's okay because you can clean it up at the end;
- Now for the trickier part, which is to really get the eyeliner in between the lashes. If you've also applied eyeliner above your lash line, you might actually see small gaps in between the lashes where the skin is visible. That's where you want to apply eyeliner now;
- With your eyes open and looking downwards into your mirror, wiggle your eyeliner in from below, once again starting from the outer end of the lash line. Make sure the eyeliner really gets in between the lashes, and then move it a little bit back and forth to deposit color;
- Pull the eyeliner out, and repeat this process a little further inwards along the upper lash line. Keep pushing the liner in and wiggling it to get it in between the lashes and deposit color all along the upper lash line;
- When you're done, you shouldn't be able to see any gaps of skin in between your lashes, and your lashes should look darker and fuller even if you're not wearing mascara; and finally…
- Unless you’ll also be wearing black eyeliner in the lower waterline, make sure to clean it up with a cotton bud lightly saturated with an eye-safe and oil-free makeup remover.
And… wallah! There you go. The process may be tricky the first couple times you try it—or maybe even the first couple dozen times you try it!—but keep at it, and it should get easier.
How to Remove Tightlined Eyeliner
Before we sign off, we should tell you how to get all that gorgeous eyeliner off your face. This is a VERY important step, that many makeup sites seem to overlook. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- To remove tightlined eyeliner you will need a cotton bud, an eye-safe and preferably oil-free makeup remover (oil-based makeup removers are safe to use, but they might leave a film over your eyes that can cloud your eyesight for a few minutes, and, um, that’s not good), and potentially a cotton pad (especially if you're also wearing other kinds of eye makeup);
- First, remove most eye makeup like mascara and eyeshadow by saturating your cotton pad with makeup remover, pressing it over the eye for a few seconds, and then wiping downwards and outwards until all the eye makeup over the lashes and lid is gone;
- Next, saturate your cotton bud with a bit of eye makeup remover, and run it over your upper waterline much in the same way you ran the eyeliner over your upper waterline when you were actually tightlining;
- Then, with your eyes closed, run the cotton bud directly over your lashes getting as close to their base as you can, in order to remove the eyeliner from in between lashes;
- You might want to go over your eyelid and under-eye area with a cotton pad saturated with eye makeup remover one final time;
- Finish things off by washing your face and applying your usual skincare products, especially focusing on nourishing the delicate eye area; and finally…
- If your eyes are feeling a little bit irritated, you can also put a couple of saline eye drops in each eye to flush out makeup and makeup remover residue, as well as to moisten the eyes.
There you go! This, too, should get easier with practice.
Congratulations, You Now Know a TON About Tightlining
For whatever reason, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about tightlining. Hopefully the paragraphs above clear up some of the confusion, and provide a bit of clarity on the technique and how to perform it. Good luck, have fun, and happy makeup!