Accessibility & Beauty

How to Apply Eye Makeup If You Have Shaky Hands

Hand tremors don't have to interfere with your love of makeup. Here are the tips you should know, from experts with first-hand experience.
photo collage of a close up of a person applying winged liquid liner surrounded by blue green and yellow blobs and...
Design by Bella Geraci

This story is part of The Beauty of Accessibility, our series on inclusivity and representation for people with disabilities in the beauty industry and beyond. 

People who have steady hands might not think about this on a daily basis, but steady hands are a privilege. The ability to quickly flick an eyeliner pen or effortlessly blend two eye shadows? That's a privilege. Because for people who have shaky hands (or hand tremors) — whether caused by neurological conditions, damage to the nervous system, or even as a side-effect of certain medications — doing eye makeup can be a wholly different experience.

"The shakier the hand, the more challenging it is to achieve the level of precision required to draw an even line across the waterline or lash line, or to coat eyelashes from root to tip without the dreaded eye poke that makes a huge mess and definitely doesn't feel good," says makeup artist and Guide Beauty founder Terri Bryant, who has Parkinson's disease. "We also want a certain level of symmetry across both eyes, which adds to the frustration of applying with shaking hands."

After developing hand tremors, some people may feel like makeup isn't something they can enjoy anymore. "Makeup is one of the first things that people, in general, give up because it's work," says Lainie Ishbia, a writer and speaker on disabilities who was born with a nerve disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. "It takes time to balance your hand to be able to do a line, for example."

But as Ishbia and other experts who have hand tremors point out, it doesn't have to be that way. With certain tools, an adjusted makeup station, and some new techniques (alongside practice and self-encouragement), people with hand tremors can ease some of the difficulty and anxiety of putting on eye shadow, eyeliner, and the like. Below, an outline of all the best tips on how to apply eye makeup with shaky hands.

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Where you do your makeup is just as important as how.

First things first: It's time to take your go-to makeup space into consideration. "Setting up a proper makeup station where I can comfortably sit with my mirror close enough — so I'm not working at strained angles and am allowing myself enough time that I don't feel stressed or rushed when applying — has been a huge help," Bryant explains.

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If you have a large, steady surface in your home, like a kitchen table or bathroom counter, try sitting down and doing your makeup there with a big, hands-free mirror. "I almost always brace my elbow on a desk or counter to give my hands more support," says beauty influencer and writer Alle Connell, whose hand tremors are the long-term neurological result of a car accident. "I imagine my entire arm is a single unit and move from my elbow rather than my wrist or fingers, as that gives me added stability."

A wide expanse of counter space provides the added benefit of quick accessibility. Ishbia, for instance, has laid out a Velcro mat at her station so nothing slides around or gets knocked off the counter. "I have Velcro on the backs of [my products] so that I can just grab them off of the Velcro [mat] versus having to dig them out of a container or drawer, keeping everything open," she explains.

If you don't have any large surfaces like that in your home (hello, city dwellers), take another page from Connell's book and do your makeup sitting down with your elbows braced on your knees. If you have a bathroom sink but little surrounding counter space, you might consider a folding cover for laying out all your products and tools.

Product design makes a world of difference.

With hand tremors, the mere act of picking up something, opening it, and holding onto it for a period of time can be difficult — and that plays a huge part in the ability to apply eye makeup. To counter this, you can use products and tools that have grip-friendly packaging design.

In the makeup aisle, Ishbia advises looking for products with bigger and heavier packaging that can be opened without much force. Urban Decay's series of Naked eye shadow palettes, for example, are some of her favorite products. "It's heavy enough that you don't drop it because it's got weight to it; it can sit on the counter and you can open it with one hand," she says. She avoids slim, magnetic palettes and small, singular eye shadows because they simply take more effort to open.

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Anything with ridged edges, studs, or a rubbery texture is a big plus. "That's traction and grip for a person like myself," Ishbia explains. She names Benefit's BadGal Bang Mascara as a great example, because its handle is big and covered in multidimensional studs. Connell says that Fenty Beauty's Flyliner Liquid Eyeliner is also great for the same reason: "The pen is easy to grip and the wear is bananas." 

Long handles on things like mascaras, eyeliners, and eye makeup brushes are helpful too. "A lot of people with fine motor problems have no pincer grip, so if it's a small object, there's nothing they can do," Connell points out. A longer tube or handle, on the other hand, "gives you an ability to hold it with your whole palm, or with your thumb and another finger."

Some brands, like Bryant's Guide Beauty, offer tools created with these features in mind. "We specifically designed our tools to be easy to grip, steadying, and allowing for precise application," Bryant says. "This allows for the tool to become a natural extension of the hand, which reduces stress in holding the components, thereby reducing misapplication and accidental eye pokes."

The brand's Lash Wrap Mascara, for example, features a circular knob that can be held between the index and middle finger. That, Bryant previously explained to Allure, frees up the thumb, which can then rest against the face during application for added control.

Guide Beauty Lash Wrap Mascara, $26 (Shop Now)

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Modify the things you already own to be more grip-friendly.

If you don't want to purchase new or different products, there are ways you can modify what you already have at home to provide better grip.

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"I put rubber bands on the ends of makeup brushes… because it creates a little bit of texture for grip and helps me to hold them," Ishbia says. You can also buy rubber or foam grippers similar to the kind you'd buy for pens and pencils, she adds.

You know those stick-on rings you can attach to your phone case? Turns out phones aren't the only thing they're good for — Ishbia sticks those on the back of some of her products: "I drop things a lot... so having the rings to put your finger in, obviously, makes it easier." 

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Do your eye makeup before everything else.

Eye makeup is one of the most time-consuming parts of any beauty routine, and sometimes it's best to knock out the hardest stuff first. "I start by doing my eye makeup and those more detailed techniques first and then build my look around the eyes," Bryant says. "That way I take care of the more challenging application techniques first, while my hand is freshest."

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Plus, if you aren't wearing any complexion products before doing your eye makeup, you'll have free range to clean up your work after the fact. Keep some cotton swabs and your makeup remover of choice on hand, especially when creating elaborate or graphic looks that require sharp edges and straight lines. This strategy also enables you to clean up any fallout from eye shadow before layering on concealer, foundation, or face powder.

"I'm never afraid to go in after [applying eye makeup] with a narrow brush and makeup remover to fix my work — I'm still a perfectionist, after all," says Connell. Ishbia does the same thing with a cleansing balm and extra-long, surgical-grade cotton swabs that she can grip with her palms.

Plan and map out looks in advance.

You can tell by one glance at Connell's Instagram that she's well-versed in bold and graphic eye looks. She doesn't always nail them on the first try, so she sets aside time to practice looks and outlines her approach to them based on those practice rounds. "I approach delicate looks with all the assistance I can get," she says. "This means practicing looks beforehand so my hands get used to the physical feeling of executing it, and I can see if I need to adapt my ideas anywhere."

This way, Connell knows exactly which application methods work for certain looks. "If I’m doing a cat eye, for example, I'll use a light shade of powder eye shadow to draw subtle guidelines, then I'll create the shape using shorter strokes, which are harder for my shakes to affect," she explains. This mentality can be applied to more than just elaborate looks: If there's an everyday look you want to get better at, practice it a few times and make notes of where your biggest challenges lie. From there you can cater your methods, tools, and work station to suit that look's specific needs.

When in doubt, take a deep breath. You can do this.

One of the most important pieces of advice these experts offer (and this is easier said than done) is not to be too hard on yourself. Shortly after developing tremors, Connell recalls feeling angry and ashamed of failing when doing her makeup. "I would scold myself, mascara wand in hand, as if my hands shaking uncontrollably was something I could talk myself out of," she says. "Of course, the more pressure I put on myself to get it together, the worse my hands would shake."

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With that painful experience in mind, Connell has learned (and is still learning) how to be kinder to herself. "Being cruel to myself about my hands shaking only serves the lie that my value is completely tied to an ableist, unattainable standard of 'perfect,'" she says. "No longer treating myself like I’m unworthy has been the biggest change I’ve made, and it’s affected every aspect of my life, including the confidence with which I share my beauty work."

Bryant shares a similar sentiment: "Applying makeup is an art form, and with practice, you will get better. It’s important to be kind to yourself. Makeup doesn't have to be 'perfect,' and washes off easily, so there's room to play." A great way to reset yourself when you're feeling frustrated mid-makeup, as Bryant says, is to take deep breaths. Then take a step back from your mirror so as not to get caught up in the details. She advises, "Always take a step back and look at the complete canvas." 

For the same reason, Connell recommends giving yourself as much time as possible when doing makeup. "Feeling rushed stresses me out, which makes my hands shake so much more, which makes me stressed, which makes me shakier — this will repeat until the end of time," she says. "Having enough time to do my makeup calmly and slowly is beneficial for my brain and my face."

Don't shy away from the colors, shapes, and trends you love.

As Ishbia mentioned, people with shaky hands might shy away from makeup altogether or feel they can't execute looks with bright colors or bold lines. But if you love makeup and are shielding yourself from it, that can impact your mental health, especially if makeup is the way you express yourself creatively. "Makeup is universal; it connects people," Ishbia says. "People with disabilities often feel alone, and makeup is what keeps us feeling like ourselves. The more you take away from who you are and how you look and how you want to be, the more disabled you feel."

If the technical aspect of a makeup trend or using certain colors intimidates you, there are solutions to that too. "Brighter, bolder colors can be a brilliant way to refresh and lift your look — and your mood," Bryant says. "If your hands are shakier and you want a technique that allows for a quicker application, you can choose bright shades in sheer textures, which are easier to work with and blend."

Besides, makeup has no rules, and true perfection doesn't exist. "There have been times that I subconsciously avoided products that were too bold or showy because I was afraid people would see if I’d applied them a little wonky — I refuse to worry about that anymore," Connell says. "Give me all your bright colors, your matte finishes, your sharp liners, your dramatic fake lashes.… I don't have to avoid anything in 2020 except fascists and racists, and neither does anyone else."

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