Is there any better feeling than nailing the perfect cat-eye on your first attempt and confidently sauntering through the day, knowing that it’ll still be intact the next time you pass a mirror? (Well, probably — but it’s pretty up there, is what we’re saying.)
That sharp wing isn’t dependent on mere skill alone — an eyeliner with a quality applicator and a formula that stays put despite what the day throws your way is, of course, clutch.
We set out to find the liquid liner of all liners that applies smoothly and precisely, stands up with all its might to moisture, sets quickly and doesn’t transfer, is reasonably priced and is pigmented enough so reapplying the line — and potentially messing up that wing you perfected on the first try — isn’t necessary.
But before we get into our winners, let’s first clear the air here: Finding the “best” of any beauty product will forever be a mission of endless variables and subjectivities. What works well on someone’s oily skin may not fare so well on another’s dry and sensitive skin. For every person who loves a highly pigmented product, there’s one who prefers a more subdued option. Liquid eyeliners, alas, are no exception.
So to determine what we could accurately call the best product in this category, we enlisted the help of several Underscored staffers with a range of skin types, skin tones, eyelid shapes, skill levels and preferences. A consensus was not always easy. We realize the world is full of many different beautiful faces with different beautiful features; those with deeper skin tones may prefer a more pigmented liner that stands out more, and people with oilier eyelids may be more discerning when it comes to liners that’ll stay put all day, for instance. Plus, some may be in the market for liner to create more dramatic or artful looks, while others are seeking a good option for subtle everyday looks. But there were some clear standouts — liners whose precision, staying power and value were unmatched by the others in our testing pool.
After a month of spending time with a dozen liners (and plenty of wings so sharp they could kill — and a handful that could merely injure), we settled on three that we could all easily, ahem, define as the best:
A quick look at the winners
The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22) is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.
The Tarteist Double Take Eyeliner ($24) is named as such because it’s double-sided: on one, a felt-tip liner that dries to a semi-matte finish, and on the other, a gel pencil eyeliner ideal for your bottom lash line, for creating a smoky look or even for drawing an outline for your wing. The Tarteist liner raked in points for its smooth and precise application, ability to stand up to sweat and moisture and, most notably, its deep pigmentation. It’s the perfect liner for anyone who prefers a bold, dramatic look that’ll stay in place the whole day.
The NYX Epic Ink Liner (starting at $6.99) is a drugstore eyeliner that provides stiff competition to its beauty-store counterparts. With a paintbrush-like tip, it glides on smooth as butter and retains its pigment throughout the day; in fact, it scored the highest among all our liners in the application and precision categories. While it lost a few points in the sweat- and waterproof department (after long walks on a hot day, we had to fill in a few — but only a few — places that had faded), you won’t find a better overall liner at this budget-friendly price point.
A deep dive into the winners
The Stila Stay All Day excels at many things that all of our testers agreed on: It applies smoothly and precisely, its firm felt marker-like tip allowing us to create a perfectly sharp wing with minimal effort. While firm enough to apply with accuracy, though, it does not snag or pull on the eyelid, and its staying power is top-notch. After naps, workouts and even rubbing our eyes, the Stila liner barely budged. No panda eyes to see here, folks — keep it moving.
What’s more, it didn’t irritate sensitive skin after a full day of wear — not even, in two cases, when someone accidentally fell asleep still wearing it (which, to be clear, we do not recommend!). We also appreciate how you can hear the product when you shake the pen, so you’re generally aware of how much liquid is left. All three of our picks are pens rather than two-piece liners, so it’s recommended to store the product horizontally.
Because the pigmentation of the Stila liner is a tad lighter than our runner-up, the Tarteist Double Take, it’s the kind of eyeliner that works for both subtle and dramatic looks alike, depending on whether you choose to build the color with an additional coat. To that end, it’s also available in a “microtipped” version for hyper-precise lines or more artful designs, or for more easily filling in the space between your lashes along the waterline for a fuller-lash effect. If you find yourself as in love with the Stila Stay All Day Liner as we are, and you’re an everyday-eyeliner wearer, you might want to consider using them in tandem.
This liner is available in a staggering 12 shades (though not all seem to be in stock at the moment, at least seven are, via the buying links above), if playing around with blues, greens, grays and browns is your thing. All shades are vegan, and the brand is cruelty-free.
Ultimately, the Stila Stay All Day liner was one of only two liners (the second being our budget pick, the NYX Epic Ink Liner) that 100% of our testers agreed they would happily purchase with their own money. It’s a crowd-pleaser that ticks all the boxes, and for that reason, we’re confident naming it the best liquid eyeliner of 2020.
The Tarteist Double Take Eyeliner brings the drama — and much more. This liner actually scored a fraction of a point higher than our overall winner, the Stila Stay All Day, garnering some bonus points for its value as a neat two-in-one liner. That value, of course, is only valid if someone uses a pencil liner, which perhaps might not be the case for a person in the market for a new liquid liner.
That said, at one end of this pen is the liquid felt tip that we judged in our assessments, which dries to a bold semi-matte finish, and the other is a self-sharpening gel pencil. In addition to using the pencil for tightlining or using on your bottom lid, it can also work to create a rough outline for your wing before filling it in with the liquid, which may be a benefit for cat-eye newbies.
For the purpose of this review, however, we did not judge the quality of the pencil liner, but focused solely on the liquid. And when it comes to this liquid liner, it’s among the most highly pigmented in the game. We generally considered this feature a plus, but again: back to our earlier point about how judging beauty products can be quite a subjective exercise. If you’re a person who prefers a more subdued look as opposed to a saturated, dramatic wing, the Stila Stay All Day liner may be the better choice. (Or, if you’re like us, you might want to invest in one of each, because options are always fun.)
The Tarteist Double Take scored an equal amount of points as our winner when it came to staying power, barely budging even on our testers of the oily-eyelid variety. It resisted transferring and smudged only slightly after an intense workout. The Tarteist fell just a tad short in the smoothness category — if you have sensitive eyelids, you might find that with too much pressure, the stiff tip can feel like it’s dragging across your lid, so we would recommend it with the caveat that less pressure is more.
Also, can we take a quick moment to mention that the weighty pen just feels so…fancy? While we didn’t take packaging design into consideration based on mere aesthetics, we did appreciate it. The product is vegan and cruelty-free, and is available in matte black and brown, a fun metallic-finish black and a mini version of the matte black.
Ultimately, we adored the Tarteist for its ease of use, its ability to easily create a thick line with a defined wing and its resistance to moisture. If you love a bold eye and/or you’re looking for a liner with an ultra saturated pigment, we think this is the best option on the market for you.
The feeling of gliding the NYX Epic Ink Liner across our lids can best be described, in a word, as glorious. Unlike the slightly firmer tips of the Stila Stay All Day and Tarteist Double Take liners, the tip of the Epic Ink Liner is more like a flexible paintbrush that lends itself to buttery-smooth, nearly foolproof application. Because of this, and because you have some time before it sets to fix snafus easily with a wet cotton swab, it’s also a great option for beginners who haven’t quite perfected their wing skills yet.
Though it falls somewhere in the midrange in the pigment department, if a more buildable color is what you’re looking for, you’ll find it in the NYX liner. Thanks to its ultra smooth application, we found that adding a coat or two for a bolder look was less likely to mess up any perfect line we nailed on the first try. It’s been said by many across the internet to be strikingly similar to the KVD Tattoo Liner (a product, we’ll note, that we did not include in our testing pool, based on prior long-term experience using it; while it is incredibly smooth and precise, we think you can find liners with much better staying power at half its price) — and we agree.
We were impressed by how well it stood up after long walks on hot and humid days, particularly for a lower-end product. If you have oily lids or find yourself wearing this liner during a high-impact workout, you’ll likely have to touch it up at some point during the day — but that’s par for the course for a drugstore brand, and we believe this one delivers the most value for its paltry price tag.
Based on our experience with this liner, we can confirm what many customer reviews mention as another plus, which is that this pen lasts quite a long time (though you should probably toss it after its recommended six-month shelf life). The NYX Epic Ink Liner is both vegan and cruelty-free, and it’s available in black and brown.
If you’re looking for an eyeliner under $10, we’re certain you won’t find an option more impressive overall than the NYX Epic Ink Linker.
How we tested
We scoured the internet and drew from our firsthand experience to find the top liquid liners on the market, ranging from drugstore makeup products to higher-end beauty store options, to include in our testing pool. Our testers were diverse with regard to skin type, skin tone, eyelid shape, eyeliner prowess and makeup preferences. Ultimately, we considered smooth and precise application as well as staying power to be the primary measures of a good eyeliner.
We weighted equally and heavily how smooth and defined their application was as well as how they lasted through hot and humid summer days (wearing them during workouts, while cutting onions and on rainy days) — criteria we considered to be the primary measures of a good eyeliner. We paid mind to how easily they flaked or transformed our aesthetic into raccoon-esque.
We also took value into consideration, meaning that we did not include in our testing pool any liquid liners priced over $32. While there are several “luxury” liquid eyeliners that boast rave reviews — and some that we’ve had personal experience with — we find the idea of paying any more than the price tag attached to our most expensive liner tested to be wholly unnecessary in order to secure a quality product. (In short, is a $59 eyeliner ever worth it? We think not.) We also took into account other factors like whether the product is cruelty-free (we are not monsters, after all), if it has any interesting features that add to its value and how many shades the product is available in. For the purposes of testing, however, we compared only black liners.
To determine the most accurate overall scores, we broke the testing into the following categories and subcategories:
Ease of application
- Smoothness: We noted whether it applied to our lids in a smooth manner or if it snagged or pulled.
- Precision: We observed how precisely we could draw a line and wing with the liner, noting whether it was challenging to do so given the shape of the tip and if it bled at all immediately after application.
- Ability to retain structure: We considered whether the applicator frays or loses its structure/bristles over time, using both anecdotal evidence from customer reviews as well as our firsthand long-term experience with products.
- Moisture resistance: We noted how sweatproof and waterproof the liner was, observing how it stood up after long days in hot and often humid weather, without wearing a primer. We considered how much touching up our liner needed after working out, going on long walks, chopping onions and getting caught in the rain.
- Setting speed: We observed how quickly it dried.
- Transfer resistance: We observed whether it transfers easily to other parts of the eyelid after applying (particularly for those with hooded eyelids).
- We noted how saturated the pigmentation was and if it required multiple coats to build a more highly pigmented color. (We acknowledge that a deeply pigmented liner may not be a universal pro, depending on the look one is going for — though, in general, the consensus was that most prefer a highly pigmented black eyeliner so they don’t have to retrace the line.)
- Cost per ounce: We did the math to determine the ratio of the volume of the product to its price.
- Shelf life: We considered how long the product lasts (i.e., whether it dries up quickly and becomes more difficult to apply over time) before needing to be replaced, using both anecdotal evidence from customer reviews as well as our firsthand long-term experience with products.
- We looked into whether the brand tests on animals and if the product has vegan ingredients.
- We noted how many shades the liner is available in.
- We considered whether there are any interesting features that add to the product’s value (e.g., a dual-sided tip, curved shape, etc.).
How we rated
We determined a maximum number of points each product could get for every category and subcategory test listed above, including a higher number of overall points for the features we identified as being most important to the experience of using a liquid eyeliner.
- Ease of application had a maximum of 30 points: precision (15 points); smoothness of application (10 points); ability of applicator to retain its structure (5 points).
- Staying power had a maximum of 30 points: moisture resistance to sweat and water (20 points); setting speed (5 points); transfer resistance (5 points).
- Pigmentation had a maximum of 20 points.
- Value had a maximum of 5 points: We assigned each product a point value relative to its price per ounce and also factored in anecdotal evidence about shelf life.
- Cruelty-free/vegan had a maximum of 4 points: Both cruelty-free and vegan (4 points); either cruelty-free or vegan, but not both (2 points); brand is cruelty-free but parent company is not (1 point); neither cruelty-free nor vegan (0 points).
- Range of colors had a maximum of 3 points: More than five colors (3 points); between three and five colors (2 points); two colors (1 point); one color (0 points).
- Additional features had a maximum of 3 points.
Other liquid eyeliners we tested
Milani Stay Put Matte 17HR Wear Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($7.99; ulta.com)
This drugstore liner truly impressed us: The waterproof version is a new upgrade to the original formula, whose waterproofability left much to be desired. We gave this product a nearly perfect score in the pigment department — it dries quickly to a deep matte black — and it ranked high when it came to smoothness of application and its ability to stand up incredibly well to moisture, especially for an eyeliner at this price. It lost points for precision, as its applicator didn’t have the sharpest point when compared to the rest of our testing pool (we’d also love if this were a pen rather than a two-piece pot and applicator design), but it’s a solid product at a wallet-friendly price, particularly if you’re looking for a dark matte line you won’t have to apply more than once.
We were fans of this liner’s smooth application (and its adorable cat-shaped cap), but it fell short in the waterproof and setting speed categories. Though it held up well during hot and humid days, it didn’t stand up to getting caught in the rain. Plus, it took a while to dry, which caused smudging when we tried to fix a mistake.
If you want to feel fancy as heck, this liner will do the trick: Its design is elegant and eye-catching, and it glides on impossibly smoothly. We appreciated that the top clicks into place when fully closed (as it should be — every drop counts when you’ve got $32 worth of eyeliner in your makeup bag!), and while we weren’t necessarily sold on the efficacy of its bendable applicator, we did find that it had a unique grip that made it easier to hold while applying. The Lancôme liner tended to stay put quite well, its heavy pigment long-lasting, with minimal touching up needed after an active day of wear. Also, the narrow, ultra precise brush allowed us to create a very clean line; while perhaps it’s a little too narrow to get that perfect wing on the first try, we’d recommend this product for those who wear false eyelashes, as it’s ideal for creating a precise line right above the waterline for a fuller-lash look. For its hefty price tag, though, we would have preferred it to be a pen rather than a two-piece product, which meant that sometimes the liner could get a bit gloopy when pulling the applicator out of the pot.
The only product in our testing pool to get a perfect score when it came to pigmentation, the Revlon liner has its merits as a drugstore liner. Its design is conducive to the tip of the applicator not holding on to excess liner, and you can create a sharp line with this one if you’re steady. But we found application harsh — the tip is hard, which contributes to its ability to create a precise line, but it snags a bit and can irritate sensitive eyelids — and we all found it came off way too easily with moisture, flaking nearly immediately at times.
L’Oréal Infallible Super Slim Eyeliner ($9.69; target.com)
While some may find that the longer applicator tip on this liner makes it easier to draw a precise line in one go, overall we weren’t huge fans of this product. We found application harsh, and the hard tip tough to glide across our eyelids to create a straight line. Though it was adequately pigmented upon application, throughout the day we noticed it tended to fade quite easily, and it smears off instantly with moisture; it also transferred almost immediately for one of our testers with hooded eyes.
Sephora Collection Long Lasting Eyeliner ($12; sephora.com)
We adored this liner’s smooth application and highly pigmented formula — it earned a perfect score in both categories, in fact — but it was among the least waterproof liners we tested. We also found it to be one of the less precise applicators in our testing pool. But if those aspects aren’t deal breakers, it’s a solid option for a mid-priced liner, particularly for those who have sensitive eyelids and would benefit from a super soft brush.
Maybelline Eyestudio Eyeliner Master Precise All Day Liquid Eyeliner ($5.99; amazon.com)
Application of this liner and the final look were all top-notch — it has a really smooth, thin tip that creates a super precise line. Sadly, it came off incredibly easily with moisture and didn’t hold up well on those of us with oily eyelids; after working out, our wings were but a smudge. It also lost points for lack of pigmentation compared to the other options we tested.
Clinique Pretty Easy Liquid Eyelining Pen ($22; sephora.com)
We were big fans of the flexible brush that — similar to our budget winner, the NYX Epic Ink Liner — made application feel like we were painting rather than a hard brush that can feel like it’s scraping across the eye; it was super smooth and controllable, sliding on in a straight line. But this liner lost major points thanks to a dearth of pigment, which necessitated going over the line a few times in order to build color. The formula doesn’t dry too quickly — which, paired with its low pigmentation, could actually make it a good choice for beginners trying to perfect their cat-eye skills. For those with a deeper skin tone, however, it’s not the best option for a bold winged look.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: