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Permanent Makeup Has Come a Long Way Since Its '90s Heyday

Cosmetic tattoos aren't what they used to be.
Photo: @amyjeancouture/Instagram

Photo: @amyjeancouture/Instagram

Let me paint you a word picture: You're sitting at a restaurant with an Older Relative (you know the one) doing the mental math of how much you can reasonably drink without A) saying something you regret or B) getting told you drink too much. A server comes over to take your order, smiling politely, the edges of a tattoo partially hidden behind the collar of her shirt. You mentally add one additional drink to your equation — you're probably going to need it. "Did you see that? She's going to regret that one day when she's trying to get a real job," Older Relative says. "Just think what that's going to look like when she's my age." Of course, you know better; Your friends have tattoos, your boss has tattoos, even you have tattoos (which you're totally not bringing up at this dinner.) In a world where nearly 40 percent of millennials and Gen Xers have tattoos, the stigma just isn't what it used to be. And maybe that's part of the reason why an entirely different class of inking has been on the rise in recent years.

If you spend much time in beauty circles, you're bound to have caught the microblading trend that hit big a year or two ago. Unlike traditional tattoos, this semi-permanent process used artfully mixed pigments and very fine abrasions to grant the long-lasting illusion of naturally fuller, darker, more defined brows. The procedure's popularity exploded practically overnight — RealSelf, a site that hosts reviews and research on various cosmetic procedures, says that demand for information on the procedure rose so sharply that they had to break out microblading as its own separate topic last year. In the nine months since, the technique has been researched by more than half a million users on the site.

Of course, microblading may be ruling the roost at the moment, but it's by no means the alpha and omega of permanent makeup. In fact, the process has been around in one form or another for decades. 

While it's impossible to say for sure how long permanent body art in general has been around (the oldest verified tattoos belong to the mummified remains of Iceman Otzi, a European Tyrolean Iceman who died sometime around 3250 BC but the practice itself is likely much older) it has a long and varied history of use across the globe. For women of the West, the love affair began in the 19th century, when body art became a fashion statement among the socialite set. (Winston Churchill's mom reportedly had a snake tattoo on her wrist, and if that doesn't immediately make you want to know more about Winston Churchill's mom, I don't think we can be friends.) 

While tattoos themselves have waxed and waned in their popularity, the use of them for facial cosmetic purposes didn't really begin to take off in the West until the 1980s. At that time, doctors began searching for ways to help their patients cope with the symptoms of conditions like alopecia, a type of full-body hair loss that occurs when the immune system decides to attack the body's own hair follicles. Though wigs were able to sub in for natural hair, alopecia sufferers also frequently lose their facial hair, eyebrows very much included. Drawing on a full set of natural looking brows everyday required time and skill, and maintaining them was no doubt a huge pain, so it only made sense for patients to begin turning to more permanent methods of staying 'browed. 

Cosmetic tattoos — which at this point began picking up more professional-sounding names like "permanent makeup" and "micropigmentation" — were an obvious answer, and not just for alopecia sufferers either. For patients with issues like arthritis or Parkinson's disease, which could make holding makeup tools or applying products in straight, neat strokes difficult, permanent makeup offered an opportunity to maintain their makeup routines without the added time and frustration, and in turn, to maintain that power over their bodies and that part of their sense of self. From there, it was only natural for women who wanted to save time on their makeup application to pick up on the trick.

Throughout the '80s, '90s and early '00s, permanent makeup remained very much a tattoo-like process. It was largely applied using the same tools and inks that were used on the rest of the body, generally performed in standard tattoo parlors, or in some cases hospital- or home-visits. Though some artists were able to achieve light, natural looking results, most of us associate permanent makeup from this era with harsh colors and fuzzy-edged lines for a reason. 

See, tattoo equipment is designed to create art that stands out and stays in place — exactly what you want from your cool new helix tat. The ink is formulated with the intention of creating opaque contrast, while the machines drive the ink into the deeper layers of skin, where the sloughing process of surface skin cells won't degrade it. However, the mechanism that helps tattoo ink last (the ink particles are continuously consumed and encapsulated by microphages and fibroblasts, cells that the body releases to fight foreign invaders) also contributes to it fading over time, which is why older tattoos often look soft-edged and hazy. Annoying when it's your artfully applied sugar skull melting, arguably worse when it's your makeup. 

As you've probably guessed. things didn't stay that way. The modern era has brought technological innovation with it, as well as a whole new set of consumers looking for long-term makeup solution. 

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"Microblading is different than traditional eyebrow tattooing in that is it done using iron oxide-based pigments that is implanted more superficially in the skin, which makes it semi-permanent," says permanent makeup artist Bethany Wolosky of the more modern practice. These pigments are thicker and are said to give a softer, more powdery finish that looks more like actual makeup. Combine that with methods like microblading, which uses a "blade" made up of small needles which an artist uses to hand-apply color, and you get a "tattoo" that sits closer to the surface of the skin, making it fade out more naturally, and much faster than classic tattoos (usually within one to three years). This means more touch-ups, but also less permanent commitment in case, you know, brow trends change in the next 30 years. 

That lower degree of permanence is at least partly to thank for the recent surge in interest for micropigmentation. We've discussed before the impact that social media has had on cosmetic procedures in recent years, and the newest evolution of permanent makeup follows many of the same markers that have lead to the success of procedures like the non-surgical nose job; they're reasonably low on time commitment (most micropigmentation applications take only an hour or two), quick to show results (while there is some peeling, dryness and color fading associated, there's usually no major bruising and most people are photo ready within a few days). They're unobtrusive, and, like using hyaluronic acid to plump your lips or straighten your nose, will fade out progressively over time. 

Without a doubt, influencers have played a big role in this rising trend as well. A check on Instagram will yield more than two million images tagged #microblading, over a million on #permanentmakeup and 500,000+ on #micropigmentation. By publicly embracing the procedures, showing off their results and sharing their stories, social media users have started breaking down the taboo against cosmetic procedures as well as rehabbing the reputation of cosmetic tattooing. "I've noticed there to be much less of a stigma associated with getting permanent or semi-permanent makeup as techniques evolve and people become more educated on the process," says Wolosky, whose microblading business has also expanded with trends to offer artificial freckles.

Indeed, while brows may have captured the internet's collective attention, they're far from the only option being treated by permanent and semi-permanent pigments. Several artists have made names for themselves by covering up stretch marks, filling in sparse hairlines or helping burn victims and cancer survivors reclaim their bodies with corrective shading. With increased interest in full lips has also meant that the market for permanent lip coloring has grown of late; interest in permanent makeup is up 24 percent in the last year according to RealSelf, most of it focused on the eye and mouth area for treatments like invisible eyeliner and lip contouring. Likewise, Google searches on the subject hit an all-time high last year. 

Popularity, of course, does not mean universal positivity. You don't have to go far on the internet to find horror stories of badly applied, poorly colored permanent makeup riddled with granulomas (bumps that sometimes occur in tattooed skin when the cells react badly with the pigments in the ink). While there are regulations about who can apply tattoos and under what circumstances, these rules vary by state. With most states having no specific training requirements for cosmetic or micropigmentation application beyond what's needed to become a body tattoo artist, they leave it up to consumers to research individual artists and find reputable ones. As you might imagine, this has led to some questionably qualified practitioners and a less than stellar results rate (75 percent of RealSelf reviewers found microblading to be "worth it," while only 68 percent of general permanent makeup reviewers reported feeling the same). 

"While microblading is extremely popular, it doesn't always work for everyone," says Wolosky. Oily skin types in particular report poor rates of success, with the pigment simply not reaching deep enough into skin to counteract natural cell turnover. To solve that problem, many artists have begun adjusting techniques yet again — which means that if you thought you'd seen the last big innovation in permanent makeup, it's time to think again. "I anticipate that more people (including myself) will begin offering powder/ombré style brows, as well as some combination of the both, to give everyone more options," says Wolosky. "These are done using a tattoo machine and appear more as soft powder makeup instead of individual hair strokes." 

Technological advances are also continuing to make micropigmentation safer and more comfortable. Cosmetic tattoo artist Piret Aava, a.k.a. The Eyebrow Doctor, relies on a Nouveau Contour machine, which is designed specifically for cosmetic tattooing. It digitally monitors skin's resistance and automatically adjusts needle speed and pressure, unlike traditional tattoo machines, which typically control speed via foot pedal. The results are said to be more evenly colored and to have more staying power.

Whatever the future may hold for permanent makeup, history has shown us that the tools and techniques are bound to keep evolving, and with that evolution new markets opening up. With Millenials and Gen Zers poised to have less stigma against cosmetic changes than ever before, one thing is for sure, permanent makeup is very much — pardon the pun —here to stay. 

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