Choosing and Using a Magnifying Mirror – A Makeup Artist’s Ultimate Guide to Closeup Perfection

You are sloppy, incompetent and a bit of a loser. This is the subliminal message you send when you head out with roughly blended contour and uneven lip-liner. And the best way to fix this is to apply your makeup with a magnifying mirror.

Eyeliner needs a magnifying mirror

I’ve had plenty of experience using a variety of magnification mirrors, and have put together this guide on what to look for, how they work, and different things to consider based on your personal needs and desires. I’ve made expensive mistakes; now you can avoid doing the same. I don’t discuss particular models of mirrors in this article – go here instead for my views on the best magnifying makeup mirrors available to buy:

Choosing the Best Magnifying Mirror

The right magnifying mirror is an essential part of your vanity kit. It will allow you to apply eyeliner precisely, but without showing you every slightly enlarged pore on your skin. The key to choosing your mirror lies in finding the right magnification for your eyesight and needs, without dizzying distortion.

Many women carry a small compact mirror (my reviews) for a quick makeup touch up, and these usually include a closeup mirror.

To better understand what to look for in a vanity mirror, let’s dive into how this whole magnification thing works.

Magnification enlarges an image in order for it to be inspected more clearly, or, in our case, for us to apply makeup more precisely.

In order to magnify something, the mirror surface is concave in shape. How intensely a mirror magnifies your face depends on two things: the concavity of the glass and how far away you are. Your inner geek might want to click on the drop-down sections to see how this works.

There are plenty of laws in physics that help us understand how mirrors work. The most basic is the Law of Reflection. This states that when a ray of light hits a mirror, it will bounce back at the same angle that it hit the mirror. So, if the light comes in at a 30-degree angle, it will leave at a 30-degree angle.

When a mirror is flat, this creates your normal, 1x magnification image. Everything is reflected back exactly as you would expect, with no distortion.

A concave mirror still abides by the Law of Reflection. But, because a concave mirror has a curved surface, the rays of light reflect differently when they hit different parts of the mirror.

The inward curvature of a magnification mirror creates a focal point, a spot where all the rays of light reflect through. This is where the object – in our case, our face – is most in focus. Because these mirrors seem to collect all the light that reflects on them and focus it on one spot, they are often called converging mirrors.

So, how do you tell how intense the magnification will be on a mirror? Aside from the fact that it will probably be labeled at the store, you can use the following formula to understand your magnifying makeup mirror a bit more.

Here are the symbols and their meaning when calculating magnification:

fFocal length of mirror
vImage distance from mirror
uObject distance from mirror
hiHeight of image
hoHeight of object

With these definitions, it is important to note your face will be the ‘object’, and the ‘image’ is the reflection you see. The focal point is the sweet spot where you’re able to tweeze perfectly to your heart’s content. Now, let’s plug them into the mirror equation:

1/f = 1/v +1/u

How far away will the mirror-created image be? For example, let’s use a mirror that has a focal length of 6 inches. F = -6. Say your face is 9 inches from the mirror; then u is -9.

You may notice both of these numbers are negative. That is because their sign (+ or -) is determined in relation to the mirror. If objects are being measured on the concave side, they are negative. If objects are on the other side, they are positive. So, focal points for concave mirrors are always negative. Convex mirrors will have positive focal points.

Back to our equation. Let’s use some basic algebra to solve for v.

-1/6 = 1/v – 1/9

-1/6 + 1/9 = 1/v – 1/9 + 1/9

-3/18  + 2/18 = 1/v

-1/18 = 1/v

-18 = v

So, if our face was 9 inches away from the mirror with a focal point 6 inches away, our created image is 18 inches away from the mirror.

There are no heights or image sizes in the mirror equation. So, in comes the magnification equation.

m = -v/u

Let’s continue with our example above and use v = -18 and u = -9

m = –18/-9

m = -2

So, that mirror would have a 2x magnification. That means the image is twice the size of the original. If m was 3, the height of the magnified image would be three times the height of the original, also called 3x.

Once you have m, you can solve for the heights that things will appear with this equation:

m = hi/ho

This helps you see what size something will appear to you.

Let’s do an example with a high-strength makeup mirror of 10x, and you’re looking at your nose, which has a height of 2. How big would it appear in a 10x mirror?

m = 10, ho = 2

10 = hi/2

20 = hi

Yes, a 10x mirror would make your nose look enormous. That is both the delight and terror of a 10x mirror.

Why Am I Upside Down in the Mirror?

If your face is further away than the focal point, you will appear upside down because the rays of light cross (at the focal point) between you and the mirror. There’s a cool video here.

As you get closer to the focal point, your face will get larger and larger and then flip right side up at the focal point. Working between the focal point and the mirror is the sweet spot for tweezing, lining lips, or being precise with eyeliner. This is why you can’t consider magnifying power in isolation; it also affects how far away from the mirror you can sit and still have a useable reflection.

Focal distance for different magnifying powers

Understanding Magnifying Power

Now that we have an understanding of how these mirrors work, let’s figure out which is the best for makeup application.

Makeup mirrors will range from 1.5x to 20x, although the latter ones are often difficult to find. Mirrors can come as high as 50x, but that is unusable for makeup application. Check out this chart for a general overview of each magnification and their uses:

1x (flat mirror)Everyday home use, including checking your hair and outfit before you head out
2xGeneral makeup application where you like to see the whole picture while you work; ex: eye shadow application
3xPrecise makeup application for users with 20/20 vision; ex: applying eyeliner
5xClose up and personal makeup application. Ex: Deep pore cleaning or eyebrow tweezing
7xFor users with poor eyesight for precise makeup application, ex:  combing eyelashes or applying lip liner
10xIncredible magnification for high-precision application; ex: shaving
15xIntense magnification for precision application, for users with poor eyesight.
50xNever use this; no one needs to see their face this close.

How Much Power Do I Need?

Everyone’s makeup and magnification needs are different. A few factors that could change what you look for are:

  • Your style of makeup
  • Vision
  • Position of the mirror
  • Age

I’ll walk you through how each of these affect your decision.

Type of Makeup

Some of us are aiming for the sharpest flicked cat eye.. On top of this, we keep our eyebrows shaped to perfection while trying not to over-tweeze. If you find yourself using multiple products on your eyelashes, well, you’re probably in the same boat as me. We need a magnification between 5x and 10x.

This will allow you to have incredibly precise movements, focusing on individual eyelashes and sharp edges. Any more than this and you’ll miss the big picture. Any smaller, and you might miss out on some of the fine details you need.

Age & Vision

It is no surprise that our vision gets worse with age. But, for some, we started wearing glasses when young, and it was only downhill from there.

If you are nearsighted, you most likely won’t need additional magnification, as you can already see well up close. But, if you are farsighted or prefer putting your makeup in before your contact lenses, you will need a higher magnification. Anywhere from 5x to 15x can be your sweet spot, depending on just how much assistance you need to enlarge your face.

While you may increase your magnification to help with your poor eyesight, make sure not to get extra critical when laugh lines, wrinkles, and a few crow’s feet appear. Wear them proudly.

Mirror Placement

Mirrors come in all shapes and sizes, and that means they are put in all different places, too. Some makeup mirrors are attached to walls, while others are handheld (read my guide to the top handheld mirrors) or set on your vanity.

As we’ve mentioned, the higher the power, the closer you need to be. So high power mirrors should not be fixed on a far wall, otherwise you’ll need to lean uncomfortably forward over the table or bathroom countertop.

Lighting for Magnifying Mirrors

Magnifying makeup mirrors are better used under brighter lighting conditions than is required for plain mirrors. For many reasons, including:

  • poor vision
  • working close and casting a shadow
  • the physics of magnification causing a dimmer reflection

Your best option is a mirror which comes with built-in LED lights. For cosmetics, ring or circle lights with daylight LED light bulbs are the way to go. It’s useful to have adjustable settings for both brightness and different colors. I’ve written more about the ideal features of makeup lighting here.

As you figure out which magnification is best for you, there will be advantages and disadvantages to whatever choice you make. Remember that in general there are trade-offs between magnifying power, distance from the mirror, and the amount of your face visible. You either find a workable compromise or buy more than one mirror.

Seeing the details in a magnifying mirror

It is important to note that some makeup mirrors advertise themselves as distortion-free. But, this is simply not true. Due to the nature of a concave mirror, the higher the magnification, the greater the shape distortion. For putting on makeup on a small area, this is not an issue. But before you head out remember to check your entire look in a distortion-free flat mirror.

2-3x Magnification

This gentle magnification is best for someone who enjoys makeup but doesn’t spend twenty minutes on it every day. The advantages of this magnification strength are:

  • You can see the ‘full picture’ while applying makeup
  • Does not overly magnify pores and texture
  • Minimal distortion
  • Your guy can use it as a shaving mirror (Hmm… a disadvantage perhaps)

However, there are a few downsides, including:

  • May be inadequate for precise application
  • Not enough magnification for women with poor eyesight

5x Magnification

The most common strength for a makeup magnification mirror, the 5x is a popular choice. I use this daily for my routine, some of the reasons being:

  • Allows for precise application e.g. mascara
  • Can see individual hairs
  • Great for cleaning pores

This may be overkill for some, and a 5x mirror does come with some disadvantages:

  • Shows all blemishes and inconsistencies
  • Cannot see your full face for an overall picture

10x Magnification

A 10x cosmetic mirror is hands-down the best magnifying mirror for tweezing and detailed eye makeup. This is because it is:

  • Incredibly precise
  • Used by people with good and bad vision

With a magnification of this strength, it is important to take note of some cons, though:

  • Only to be used for ‘fine work’
  • You will see every line and wrinkle
  • Without self-control, you may over-tweeze
  • High magnification produces distortion
  • Shadows from poor lighting

15x Magnification

This is for older women and/or those with poor eyesight. Such power takes a bit of getting used to, but can make a real difference to your results. These mirrors can be double sided, with a plain mirror on the reverse. And you can even try a 20x magnification, although these are usually small spot mirrors, often with suction cups.

Buying The Best Closeup Mirror

Check out my guide to the best magnifying mirrors available today, especially if your vision is not great and you’re looking for high power magnification.

What Magnifying Mirror Do I Need?

OK, so you now have a solid understanding of how magnification works and why different people choose different magnification levels. Whether you put makeup on every day or not, it is vital to apply it well when you do, and a magnifying mirror is your secret weapon.

If you can, borrow a friend’s mirror for a day to see if you like their magnification before getting one of your own. But, if you’re unable to do this, I’m sure you can make a solid, educated guess using the tables and lists I’ve provided.

Next, read my simplehuman makeup mirror review. I’ve had this magnifying sensor mirror for eight years and I love it as much as ever.

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