Cosmetic Tattooing: All Your Questions About Permanent and Semi-Permanent Makeup, Answered

An esthetician microblades a client's eyebrows.

Sean Locke / Stocksy

The world of makeup is a fascinating one that has a long, storied history. There is archeological evidence to suggest that usage of makeup for self-expression dates back to the Stone Age, 5000 B.C. There have been countless innovations and trends over the centuries, some becoming more of a distant memory than an everyday look. However, newer options like permanent makeup also referred to as cosmetic tattooing, have taken center stage.

Indeed, the cosmetic tattoo craze is at an all-time high these days. From microblading to permanent eyeliner, the catalog of cosmetic tattoos is ever expanding and becoming more commonplace. And, whether you’ve just recently become aware of the craze and your interest has been piqued, or you’ve had a few procedures and are considering another, there’s a fair amount to think about before getting something with the word “permanent” in its name.

So, to give us all a better understanding of permanent and semi-permanent makeup, we reached out to three skincare experts for a rundown on everything we need to know before saying “yes” to a cosmetic tattoo procedure.

Read on for everything you need to know about permanent makeup and semi-permanent makeup and what to expect during a cosmetic tattoo procedure.

Meet the Expert

Permanent Makeup vs. Semi-Permanent Makeup

"Permanent makeup, semi-permanent makeup, cosmetic tattooing, and micropigmentation are all names for the same thing, which is implementing pigment into the papillary layer of the dermis," explains Bray. When it comes to differentiating permanent makeup from semi-permanent makeup, Bray believes it's important to know that many artists use different names for the same procedures due to cultural differences, artistic expression, and marketing. This can get confusing. "[Cosmetic tattoo] regulations in the U.S. vary from state to state, and, of course, regulations vary from country to country," explains Bray. "Technically, in the United States, all treatments are considered permanent from a health department standpoint."

Swain says that ultimately the difference between permanent and semi-permanent makeup lies in the technique in which the pigment is applied—whether it is done using digital equipment or by hand. “Permanent makeup is the implantation of pigment into the dermal layer of the skin, which [is] a deeper level than just a topical or superficial layer. The process mainly uses digital equipment,” explains Swain. “Semi-permanent makeup implants pigment into the superficial layer of the skin, and the process mainly uses manual application.”

Because the ink is applied by hand, the length of time that semi-permanent makeup lasts depends on how heavy- or light-handed your technician was in the pigment application. “When someone is implanting pigment by hand, there is no guard on the end of the device to help guide the depth of the implantation,” says Swain. “This can be viewed as a disadvantage because the technician has less control on how deep the implanted pigment reaches.”

Common Permanent Makeup Procedures

“Popular procedures are eyeliners, lip colors, areola tattoos for cancer survivors, and lash enhancements, which involves placing pigment between the lash lines as opposed to a line above the lash lines like a traditional liner,” says Bray. "In recent years, microblading has grown in popularity rather quickly—perfectly timed with the trend of fuller brows and ‘no-makeup makeup,’ many have sought out the treatment.”

Microblading is a cosmetic treatment for the semi-permanent application of pigment for the eyebrows. “It is applied with a blade instead of a non-controlled digital needle device [that’s] typically used in permanent makeup applications,” says Swain. “The results are only as permanent as the depth that is reached, and since it is performed without machines, the depths may vary from client to client.”

Swain says there’s a safer and more permanent alternative to microblading. “Unknown to many, you can achieve a comparable look of microblading by using a nano-needle as used with digital equipment,” shares Swain, who says this can be seen as a safer option because digital equipment has guards. “Guards help reduce the possibility of permanently damaging hair follicles, and the same hairline strokes performed in microblading can be achieved without the trauma,” she explains.

Benefits of Permanent and Semi-Permanent Makeup

There are plenty of benefits to undergoing a cosmetic tattoo procedure. "Many clients turn to permanent makeup so they can decrease their morning routine, while others turn to it as a solution if they're uncomfortable doing their own makeup,” explains Bray. “Some like the idea of perfecting their base look with permanent makeup and then building with topical makeup for a more glamorous look. Clients with allergies to many topical makeup ingredients turn to permanent makeup as a solution from reactions. Lastly, numerous medical conditions cause clients to seek solutions." Swain adds, “For those with an active lifestyle, it increases the longevity of the makeup and reduces the need for makeup reapplication.”

Miramontes also shares the unique benefits of each. “Semi-permanent makeup is great for people who are new to it and don't want to commit too much—they can change the look later, depending on current trends or if they don't end up liking it. For lips, it's great that it doesn't last as long, so that you can change the color as you age or your preference changes,” she says. “Permanent makeup is for people who want a one-and-done procedure and already know how they like their look to be and aren't likely to change.”

Drawbacks of Permanent and Semi-Permanent Makeup

The permanency of the makeup, while typically a benefit, can be a double-edged sword if you aren’t happy with the look. Miramontes says that semi-permanent makeup “may only hold a couple of months, either because of sun exposure, exfoliation, or having more oily skin.”

Advancements in Permanent Makeup

Our experts say that though the trend is changing, the pigments injected with permanent makeup tattoos used to have iron oxide. According to Miramontes, “The pigment could change to a green or reddish color over time, depending on the product that was used and how your skin reacts to it.” Swain shares another concern with iron oxide pigments. “They can migrate during an MRI because the dye has metal in it. The metal is attracted to a magnet [in the MRI machine] and can expand the makeup,” warns Swain. “The wrong pigment can also explode the tattoo during certain laser treatments and can cause scarring.”

Fortunately, pigments have advanced a great deal in recent years. "Now pigments are made especially for the permanent makeup industry and specifically for the face. The skin on the face is very different than the rest of the body,” says Bray. “The combination of advancements in pigments and the fading process allows for a beautiful cosmetic solution that won't simply be washed off but can be tweaked as years go on."

Pigment Types and Longevity

Our experts say that both permanent and semi-permanent makeup can be performed on all skin tones and types, as your practitioner will have an array of pigments to match your skin tone and coloring preferences. 

Swain says that the success of your results is very much contingent upon having a skilled technician. “For manual application, which would be with a process like microblading, if it is not done properly, it can damage the root of the hair follicle with the blade,” she explains. “Improper application by an unskilled technician [with] either technique can result in scarring and unwanted results in an appearance that one could be stuck with. If applied improperly, you may qualify as a candidate for removal, depending on your skin type.”

In terms of the longevity of your cosmetic tattoo, Miramontes says, “Semi-permanent makeup, like microblading and lip tattoos, fade in about six months to a year and a half, and permanent makeup like eyeliner and powdered and ombre brows can last from 1.5 years to two years with proper care.” With that said, Bray points out that the pigments used in a procedure affect the longevity of the work. "If the pigment is iron oxide-based, it will fade over time,” explains Bray. “If the pigment is carbon-based, it will last much longer, but it'll still fade in color.” And, you can preserve the longevity of your cosmetic tattoo by minimizing sun exposure and certain products. Because the sun may fade the pigments faster, you should avoid direct sunlight on any cosmetic tattoo. If you do anticipate unavoidable sun exposure, use a waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher. "Any exfoliating skin care products [that] contain acids like glycolic, salicylic, or alpha hydroxy will fade the work faster. Lastly, stay away from all retinoids, as they will fade your work very quickly,” warns Bray. “Any treatments that are done to the skin like lasers, chemical peels, and waxing need to stay away from the area."

Precautions to Take Before Your Treatment

“Before your appointment, stay away from anything that over-sensitizes your skin, such as retinoids, glycolic or alpha hydroxy acids, Accutane, and sun exposure,” advises Miramontes.

What to Expect With a Permanent Makeup Treatment

A cosmetic tattoo procedure is much like getting a regular tattoo. Though the experience will vary somewhat between different facilities, Swain’s studio has a fairly standard experience. “You can expect a 30-minute consultation, where we review before and after photos, we discuss goals, design, facial morphology, measurements, medical history, and allergies,” she explains. Fees are also discussed and collected. She says your actual procedure occurs in two stages. “The first appointment is about two hours and consists of the first hour choosing colors, grafting, and numbing, and the second hour is working on the client and performing the micropigmentation application,” she shares. “At the end of treatment, we ice the area and go over post-procedure instructions.” It’s normal to have some discomfort during the procedure, but the numbing products should prevent any significant pain. She says the second stage is the follow-up appointment, where any concerns are addressed to meet the client’s goals.

You should expect a change in the intensity and shade of the pigmentation over the first couple of weeks. “Upon the initial application, the area treated is twice as dark [as it will eventually be], and it lightens over two weeks because a veil of skin heals over the treated area and then peels off,” explains Swain. “The peeling results in a more muted effect and natural color tone.”


Swain says it’s normal to have some swelling, redness, and tenderness at the treatment site. “Immediately following a procedure, we have clients apply ice to the treated area for 10-30 minutes [to] help reduce swelling and aid in healing,” she says.

Miramontes says it’s important to stave off potential infection by keeping the area clean. “You want to clean the area with distilled water and a clean pad to remove any dirt and debris. Allow the area to dry, and then add some grapeseed oil or other topicals your cosmetic artist gives you,” she says. Swain recommends a cleansing routine involving a mild antibacterial soap and a light coating of Vaseline or Aquaphor twice a day for seven days following the treatment.   

Miramontes says there are a few other precautions during the first week: “Make sure you don't apply any makeup or other products around the area, keep it as sterile as possible, and avoid physical activity that causes you to sweat for about seven to 10 days since it could repel the pigment from your skin.”

Perhaps most importantly, Swain says it’s important not to scratch or pick your scab as it heals. “If the dry skin that forms after the treatment is peeled off, then underneath where the pigment was applied peels off and it takes the pigment with it,” she explains. “This is very similar to the result that one would get if they picked off a scab—if the scab is picked off prematurely, then everything comes off, and the healing process starts over again. With pigment, if the skin becomes too dry, you pick off the pigment.” She says that if the treated area heals in an adequately moist environment, the pigment will hold better.

“After the scabs fall off in about 14-21 days, the pigment may disappear, but don't be alarmed; it will return in three to five weeks,” Miramontes notes, adding that you should be fully healed in six weeks.

The Final Takeaway

Permanent makeup can be a great time- and money-saving solution for habitual makeup wearers. As Bray says, “If performed properly and in a flattering, natural way, [permanent makeup] should give the illusion of 'born with it' beauty.” But, Swain says it’s important to do your research before deciding which procedure to have and which provider you’ll choose. “This is your face, this is a long-lasting result, and it is a serious decision. The procedure can accomplish amazing results, but it can also produce results that could be damaging if not in the hands of a good technician,” she says. And, this isn’t the sort of situation where you should look for the best deal; it usually pays to spend a bit more and work with someone highly qualified and experienced. You’re worth it.

Article Sources
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