I'M NOT SURE when it was that women started fixating on their eyelashes.

It began years ago for Hollywood celebrities and runway models and perhaps the last two years or so for the rest of us. But 2009 feels like the year of the eyelash.

After commercial strips became saturated with hair and nail salons, it was inevitable that beauty technicians would turn their attention elsewhere. And what was left? Eyelash enhancement is the lash straw in American beauty.

It's hard not to get at least a little caught up. The ubiquitous Brooke Shields advertisements for Latisse, the prescription drug that promises to grow eyelashes, are regular reminders of what the possibilities are - full, dark and lush like Shields'.

Meanwhile, lash studios, shops that do nothing but apply false lashes, have been popping up. Germantown's M&J Eyelashes 4 U is run by twin brothers who charge $20 to apply a full set of flare-type, individual lashes that last about a week.

The business "has been building for a couple of years and it's still building," said Mike Sydney, co-owner of M&J's. After a career as a barber, he and his brother Joe opened their lash studio in 2005. "We were, like, the original ones to start it," Sydney said.

Newer on the scene are operations such as DeneenMarcel Lashes in Northern Liberties that apply eyelash extensions that can last for a month and cost upward of $250.

"There are so many people in the city doing it now," Sydney said. "I have a number of clients that come in and don't have their hair done . . . the lashes make them feel good, like their hair has been serviced already. It's the icing on the cake."

Long and short on Latisse

Doctors noticed that patients who used Latisse (formerly called Lumigan), which was originally prescribed to treat glaucoma, grew longer, more lush lashes. Late last year, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved Latisse for cosmetic use. Sales are expected to reach $70 million this year.

Although the drug comes with some scary-sounding potential side effects such as darkening of the eye, itchiness and irritation, for some women the lure of having more beautiful eyes overcomes their fears. Kristina Gonzalez, 31, an investigator for the department of corrections, started using Latisse a year ago after an unfortunate incident with false lashes left her natural ones sparse.

"It's awesome. It's the only way to describe it," raved Gonzalez, who lives in Burlington, N.J. "I noticed in about three weeks that they had started getting a little full. In six weeks, they were even longer.

"When I open my eyes, the tip of my lashes brush against my brow bone, they are so long," she added. "People have actually asked me if I have fake eyelashes on."

Yeah, but you only get one set of eyeballs, which makes me leery about letting sharp objects or newfangled concoctions get too close to mine. I mentioned my apprehension to Dr. Nadia Chaudhry, who treated Gonzalez at the Hope Medical & Holistic Health Center in Marlton, N.J. "It's amazing how many things scare people," she responded. "It's usually not based on valid science."

But what about that eye discoloration warning?

"A blue-eyed patient doesn't have pigment that can change," she said, adding that brown eyes already are brown.

People most at risk for discoloration have hazel eyes, Chaudhry said.

"Remember, we are not putting this product in the eyes," Chaudhry explained. "The benefits far outweigh the risk when it's used appropriately, sweetie."

The doctor recently prescribed it for an 87-year-old woman.

"It's amazing to me. I've been blown away by this. It's nice it works on a 20-year-old but for it to work on an 80-year-old, that's amazing," she added.

Eyelash extensions 

A quicker way to have really long lashes doesn't involve booking a doctor's appointment but having tiny, synthetic hair extensions attached directly onto your own lashes. Unlike eyelash strips or the individual lashes available in drugstores that are worn for shorter time periods, these new lash extensions are designed to last up to a month, depending on hair growth. Black is the most popular color, but you can get them in different shades. Some people even splurge and spend $300 for mink extensions.

"I put on one strand of hair at a time. It takes about 2 1/2 hours," explained Deneen Marcel, who began her career as a hair stylist and a makeup artist for M.A.C.

These lashes by Novalash have staying power. "Most clients come back once a month. You can swim. You can get in a sauna. You can perspire," said Marcel, whose studio is located at 219 W. Girard Ave. "It's safe. The only people who I don't recommend it to are people who have seasonal allergies."

Marcel got hooked on applying lashes during a visit to Los Angeles when she noticed models and actresses on the West Coast wearing them. After taking her first class back in 2005, she freelanced for a couple of years doing lashes at Bubbles in Center City before heading back west. By 2008, she was back in Philadelphia caring for her ailing mother. She decided to open her own lash studio in the basement of her sister's Homebody home goods and resale clothing boutique.

Clients lie on a padded table where Marcel tapes their lower lids shut, which takes a bit of getting used to. She asks clients to close their upper eyelids. Then begins the slow process of having tiny synthetic hairs attached with a medical-grade glue onto the lashes. An hour session costs $125 and includes about 20 lashes per eye. For two hours, you get the full treatment and it will cost $250 for 60 to 80 lashes per eye. Cat-eye lashes, the ones that go only on the corners of your eyes, cost $75.

"It's the final thing on the canvas," said Kevin Gatto of eyelash extensions. He is the co-founder of the Verde salon in Collingswood, N.J., where Marcel will conduct a special eyelash event on Thursday from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. "It's just another way to accent everything," Gatto said.

After I had lashes applied at Marcel's shop, I was surprised at how natural they looked and felt. The only telltale sign I was wearing anything came when I turned sideways and then it was hard not to notice the extra length. They also look fuller even without mascara or eyeliner.

Mostly, though, they go unnoticed unless I call attention to them. I'm due for my first touch-up in a couple of weeks. Will I go back? I haven't really decided. Marcel charges as little as $75 or as much as $125 to fill in where lashes have dropped off. But I could buy a whole box of mascara for $75, enough to last me for years to come.