Black vs. Brown Eyeliner: When and Why to Wear Each

Black vs. Brown Eyeliner: When and Why to Wear Each

Rosie Huntington-Whitely in profile, head turned to the camera, with black winged eyeliner

@nikki_makeup / Instagram

In This Article

Benefits of Brown Eyeliner Benefits of Black Eyeliner What to Consider When Choosing Between the Two The Final Takeaway

Even if your eyeliner collection is filled with a rainbow of shades, we've all got that trusty neutral we turn to for everyday wear. For some, it's a barely-there brown; for others, it's a drama-inducing midnight black. While both have benefits, the question remains: In the battle of brown versus black eyeliner, which reigns supreme?

According to makeup artists, the answer is the classically frustrating yet liberating "both"—it just depends on the look you're trying to achieve. The good news is that you don't have to choose just one. Read on for everything to consider when it comes to brown and black eyeliner, straight from makeup artists Tomy Rivero and Carly Giglio.

Meet the Expert

  • Tomy Rivero is a professional makeup artist and founder of Tomy Rivero Beauty Lab.
  • Carly Giglio is a professional makeup artist and beauty educator based in New York City.

Benefits of Brown Eyeliner

Delivers a more subtle look

Brown shades are inherently lighter and more subtle than black, and according to Rivero, “[are] great for creating a softer presence on the eyes.” If you’re going for a natural, no-makeup makeup look, then brown liner is your best bet. 

Flatters fair features

While anyone can wear any shade of eyeliner they please, makeup artists say brown tones are particularly flattering on lighter features because they’re less harsh than their inky-black counterparts. “Green and grey eye colors and very fair skin tones with pink undertones are best suited for brown eyeliner,” says Rivero. 

Tons of shades to choose from 

With black liners, your options are essentially limited to “black” and “blacker.” But with browns, you’ve got a full range of shades to choose from. “There are variations of brown liner—you can opt for ones that have a little more red or bronze, for example, which is where you can really play to your eye color,” says Giglio. “Think about the color wheel and opposites that will make the eye color pop.”

If you have green eyes, for example, she recommends picking a reddish-brown (like Stila’s SmudgeStick Eyeliner in Spice, $22). If your eyes are blue, she suggests going with something with warmer, more copper tones (like Victoria Beckham Beauty’s Kajal Liner in Cinnamon, $32). 

Benefits of Black Eyeliner

Adds drama

From Cleopatra to Elizabeth Taylor, black eyeliner has solidified its place in history for its ability to add drama to any look. "Black eyeliner is a statement!" says Giglio. Rivero notes that more glam looks, like cat and smoky eyes, tend to look best when created with black liner. 

Looks great on anyone

Unlike brown tones, which tend to pop more on lighter eyes and skin tones, anyone can use black eyeliner to amp up their look. "Pretty much anyone with any eye color can wear black liner—it's up to preference," says Giglio.

Available in multiple formats

Though black liners are fairly monotone, that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with them by way of different formats. Liquid formulas are great for creating seamless graphic lines, while pencils can deliver a softer look. “I like pencils for smudging or even blending and building out shadow for a smoky eye, and liquid liners are great for a clean, crisp line,” says Giglio. 

What to Consider When Choosing Between the Two

How va-va-voom you want your look to be

By nature, black is a more intense shade than brown. “Whether it’s a smudged liner or crisp wing, black will stand out stronger,” says Giglio. With that in mind, opt for black eyeliner when you want a more statement-making look, and stick with brown for your more understated makeup days. 

Your eye color and skin tone

While both shades can work beautifully on anyone, you'll want to consider the contrast they create with your natural features (and the vibe you're going for) when choosing between them. "If you have light eyes and light skin, black liner will show up more dramatically on you," says Giglio. Simply put, "If you're very fair-skinned and don't want the drama of a black liner, opt for the brown."

Your eyeliner skills

Liner rookies, this one’s for you. If you make a mistake with liquid black liner, you’re stuck scrubbing away at it with makeup remover—ultimately sacrificing the rest of your look. That’s not the case with brown shades, which makeup artists say are a whole lot more oops-proof (and thus, beginner-friendly) thanks to the fact that they’re closer to your natural skin tones. “If you’re new to liner, brown is a great way to dip your toes in,” says Giglio. Once you’ve got that winged line down pat, you’ll be ready to upgrade to Onyx.

The Final Takeaway

When considering brown versus black eyeliner, "It's really about preference and wearability," says Rivero. "Everyone can wear black eyeliner, and everyone can wear brown liner." The good news? You don't have to choose just one. Test out both and see which feels right for you (spoiler alert: it might be both!), and know that you can swap between the two as often as your heart—and your makeup budget—desires.

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