Permanent Makeup Is Back — And It Looks Nothing Like It Did 20 Years Ago


When I told my parents last year that I was getting my eyebrows microbladed, they barely reacted. "OK, what's that?" they asked.

"It's basically tattooing tiny lines on my face that look like a perfectly sculpted eyebrow," I answered.

And then they started to panic a bit. For my parents, and most people, the idea of tattooing makeup on your face immediately conjures images of '90s and early '00s permanent and semi-permanent makeup. But what this type of procedure was 20, and even just 10, years ago is not what it is today. Still, make no mistake — this type of makeup is back, and it isn't going away any time soon.

When it comes to tattooing makeup on your face, the misconceptions that stem from what permanent and semi-permanent makeup was in the past are understandably hard to let go of. The tattoo guns and paper-thin eyebrow tattoos that existed in the past have now been (mostly) replaced with microblading — a semi-permanent procedure that involves a tiny, tiny, tiny blade digging into your skin so that ink can fill the tiny cut and tattoo you. The result is a completely natural-looking eyebrow when it's done correctly.

Kaitlin DiDominica is a microblading expert at New York's Boom Boom Brow Bar, where she has been an semi-permanent makeup expert for two years and an medical esthetician and makeup artist for 10 years.

"I think some people are scared to have microblading done because they do associate it with tattooed eyebrows," DiDominica tells Bustle. "They don't realize that it is a two- to three-time procedure where [the ink] is matched to a client's natural eyebrow color as closely as possible. It's not like permanent make up of the past that would fade and unfortunately turn green."

According to the New York Times, permanent and semi-permanent makeup has been around since the early 1980s, and was first used as a way for those with alopecia to have something that looked like eyebrows where there was no hair.

Since then, permanent makeup has evolved to include not just eyebrow shaping and lining, but lash line enhancement and eyeliner, and lip lining and pigment as well. While eyebrows are one of the most common permanent makeup procedures, this doesn't mean that you can simply walk into any salon and expect your eyebrows to come out perfectly.

Piret Aava, who has been microblading brows for four years, tells Bustle that the popularity of microblading in particular has risen, especially in the past two years — and with that comes many people who think they can go anywhere and achieve flawless results.

"I think a lot of people want to [be trained to perform microblading] because they think it’s fast money and an easy course but really, perfecting it takes so much practice," Aava says. "It’s much harder than it looks, and I’ve seen a lot of ruined eyebrows on people who went to someone who was less expensive and had an immediate open appointment."

Aava, known simply as "Eyebrow Doctor" on most social platforms, is one of the best-known microbladers in the business, with a celebrity clientele and following of more than 34,000 on Instagram. It takes over a year on a waiting list to get an appointment with Aava, but she tells Bustle that people are better off waiting than taking a risk. While today's microblading is nothing like microblading of the past, it is still an expensive and somewhat permanent commitment.

"Lots of people think it’s like an old-school tattoo that will turn blue or orange. A lot of people think it’s a lifetime commitment," Aava explains, when in fact most microblading only lasts about six to eight months before needing to be touched up, and will fade completely in a year or two. This is due to the fact that modern pigments are made specifically for the face and to fade over time, and (unlike past practices) aren't the same used in regular tattooing, which is meant to be permanent.

"People have the right to fear, though, because if they go to someone who isn’t properly trained, they can over-stroke you and make you look like you have these crazy, solid brows," Aava says.

When it comes to understanding the semi-permanent and permanent makeup of today, and exactly what it is, it's important to look at its actual definition, Kendra Bray of Better Brows & Beauty tells Bustle.

"Permanent makeup, semi-permanent makeup, cosmetic tattooing, [and] micropigmentation are all names for the same thing — implementing pigment into the papillary layer of the dermis (skin)," Bray says. "The confusion comes into play when artists use different names for essentially the same treatments. Regulations [for these type of procedures] in the U.S. vary from state to state and, of course, regulations vary from country to country."

According to Les Nouvelles Esthetiques & Spa magazine, a trade publication for estheticians and spa owners, traditional training for micropigmentation or permanent makeup (this includes microblading) generally should include at least 100 hours of curriculum and procedures taught by certified instructor from either the American Academy of Micropigmentation (AAM) or the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals (SPCP). Instructors should require students to have a state-approved BloodBorne Pathogen certificate.

When it comes to specific state regulations, though, the details vary. For example, in New York there was no statewide regulation for permanent makeup as of January 2017, according to the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals, although the New York Department of Health website does list a permanent makeup fact sheet and guide to resources on its website. In San Francisco, California, however, the Department of Public Health states that one must obtain a Boy Art license if they are offering services of tattoo, body piercing, and/or permanent cosmetics.

According to Bray, the lack of consistent rules leads to more and more people offering services of microblading with very little regulation, echoing some of the problems that Aava mentioned. Bray says that in the two years since she's opened her business, she has seen both positive and negative changes in the industry, but the lack of regulations and trained technicians is certainly an issue.

"Technically, in the U.S., all treatments are considered permanent from a health department standpoint," Bray says, explaining that because the treatments cannot be washed off and require opening the skin, permanent or semi-permanent makeup is often lumped in with tattooing or piercing standards, rather than having its own set of rules or requirements.

While the permanent makeup craze may have started from people's desire to have makeup that lasted forever, Bray explains that this simply isn't ideal for any consumer — and that's why it's important for people to know that almost all "permanent" makeup applications done today aren't exactly permanent — at least not how they were in the past.

"In the years past traditional carbon-based tattoo ink was used for permanent makeup. It lasted much longer and usually aged to a very unflattering color," Bray explains, noting how not only have pigments advanced a great deal today, but there are specific pigments made for the permanent makeup industry — and specifically for the face as well. In the past, carbon-based ink was used on the face for permanent cosmetics, according to Bray, which is what lead to the eventual green tint of some tattoos.

This paired with the fact that most popular permanent makeup today is formulated to allow the skin to change over time. What works on your 25-year-old skin is probably not what works on your 50-year-old skin. The use of new pigments that still last for months and years at a time but ultimately do fade, has led to a results that look much softer and natural than in the past. And, as Bray importantly notes, it's also something that can be tweaked as years go on.

This flexibility is something that the permanent makeup industry simply hasn't been able to offer before, and a huge reason why the popularity of the industry is on the rise — and, as Bray explained, exactly why inexperienced technicians are easier to find than the opposite. So, while permanent and semi-permanent makeup isn't exactly as scary or, in fact, permanent as it may have been in the past, a healthy level of caution when it comes to your brows, lashes, and lips is probably still called for.

As Aava says, your eyebrows are in the middle of your face — you should probably be a little scared, or at least cautious. But, if you do your research and find someone qualified, it doesn’t have to be scary. "Just don’t try to cut corners on pricing or settle for someone unless they are qualified," she says.