Permanent Makeup Ultimate Guide | Painful Pleasures Community

Permanent Makeup Ultimate Guide

Permanent makeup has gone mainstream. From microblading to the newest PMU trends, here's our in-depth guide to the growing world of permanent makeup.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: January 27, 2023

Permanent makeup has gone mainstream. Under a decade ago, most people probably thought tattooed eyebrows were something better left in ancient Egypt. These days, the natural-looking results of modern permanent makeup techniques have convinced even the most hesitant. In fact, it seems like everyone is flocking to their local PMU artist to get that perfectly sculpted brow… and often returning for even more procedures. From the ever-popular microblading to the newest PMU trends, here’s our in-depth guide to the growing world of permanent makeup!

What is permanent makeup? 

As you can probably gather from the name, permanent makeup — also known as PMU or micropigmentation — involves specialized tattooing techniques that mimic the look of makeup like eyeliner, lipstick, blush, foundation, and, of course, filled brows. PMU artists use tools, pigments, and techniques specifically created for the PMU industry. Unlike traditional tattoos, micropigmentation blends seamlessly with the skin for a subtle, natural effect. 

Also, unlike traditional tattoos, permanent makeup is only placed into the dermis instead of deeper into the skin. This placement allows the pigments to look more natural and to fade gradually, usually over the course of 1–3 years, depending on the treatment. Most people with permanent makeup will revisit their PMU artist for a touchup as their look fades.

Permanent makeup also includes other types of cosmetic tattooing that aren’t quite makeup-related. Scar camouflage, nipple tattooing, scalp micropigmentation, and freckle tattoos also fall under the PMU umbrella.

A brief history of permanent makeup

Permanent makeup isn’t exactly new. In fact, mummies and other archaeological records suggest that cosmetic tattooing dates back to the ancient Egyptians. In the more modern era, most sources point to Sutherland Macdonald, London’s first tattoo artist, as the first documented case of tattooed permanent makeup. He advertised an “all-year-round delicate pink complexion.” The trend made its way to the U.S. in the 1920 and 30s, along with “complexion treatments” that, in reality, were tattoos made with vegetable dyes. 

Permanent makeup became more well-known around the 1970s but was still mostly only available in tattoo shops. In the 1980s, permanent makeup began to emerge as its own profession, separate from traditional tattooing. This was when the first dedicated permanent makeup salons and PMU training programs began cropping up. As the techniques improved, the popularity of permanent makeup increased throughout the 90s and early 2000s. For the most part, though, people still considered PMU to be pretty daring. It wasn’t until the 2010s that permanent makeup truly exploded into the mainstream. The popularity of microblading has helped make all PMU techniques a little less taboo and mysterious, leading to the current boom of the permanent makeup industry.

Types of Permanent Makeup

So you know all about the brows…but what else can you have done at your local PMU studio? The options might surprise you — permanent foundation? That’s a thing now. Full heads of “hair”? PMU can do that, too… kind of. We dive into all of the most popular PMU treatments below, including the best candidates, risks, and costs.

Of course, keep in mind that, as with tattooing, costs vary widely depending on the location and the individual artist. You’ll typically pay more in an urban area with an experienced PMU provider. Risks can also vary according to procedure and the individual. You can avoid some of the most common risks, like pigment migration or unappealing final results, by working with an experienced, reputable provider. When in doubt, ask your doctor and a trusted PMU provider if a procedure is right for you.

Microblading and Microshading

PMU client getting a microblading procedure

What is it?

Microblading and shading are both techniques that fill in the eyebrows for a fuller, more defined look. The difference between the two lies in the technique. Microshading, also called ombre powder brows, is done with an electric PMU pen that leaves pinpoint dots of pigment, mimicking the look of a filled-in or “powdered” eyebrow.

Microblading, on the other hand, is done with a small manual tool. The “blade” is actually a group of 10–18 very small needles that leave hairlike strokes of pigment. 

How long does it last? 

Microshading tends to last longer than microblading. The latter usually lasts between a year and eighteen months before a touch-up is needed, while microshading can last between two and five years. 

Who should get it? 

Almost anyone who fills their eyebrows could benefit from microblading or microshading. The choice between the two depends on a few factors. If you want a more natural brow, you’ll likely prefer the hairlike strokes of microblading to the filled-in look of microshading. Moreover, if you have very oily skin, microshading is usually the better choice as microblading tends to fade quickly or even smudge on oily skin. Additionally, if pain tolerance and healing are a concern, microshading is the winner again as it tends to leave less damage to the skin and heals more quickly. 

Many PMU artists also offer combo brows – a combination of both techniques that gives you the best of both worlds – natural, hairlike strokes, and a polished filled-in finish.

Risks and costs

Microblading usually costs between $400 and $600 but can cost upwards of $1,000 in some areas. Microshading is usually slightly more expensive, often somewhere between $450 and $750 or higher, depending on your area and artist. 

Like any tattooing procedures, microblading and shading come with risks of infection and scarring, although these are rare with proper aftercare. 

The more common risk is ending up with a final result you don’t love. Patchy eyebrows, misaligned brow placement, and eyebrows that are too dark or full are some of the most common complaints. To ensure you get the look you’re after, only work with an experienced PMU artist with a great reputation and plenty of pictures of healed results on their website or socials. 

Lip Blushing

Client after PMU lip blush procedure

What is it?

Lip blushing is a permanent makeup technique that deposits pigment into the lips for an attractive flush of color. Typically, lip blushing is meant to lightly define the lips and create a natural pinkish hue rather than a bold red lip.

How long does it last? 

Lip blushing usually lasts between two and three years, though some people like to get a touch-up every year to maintain their preferred color. 

Who should get it? 

Anyone who wants that “just-bitten” color 24/7. 

Risks and costs.

Lip blushing usually costs around $400-500 and can go as high as $1500.

Lip blushing comes with the same slight risk of infection as any other tattooing procedure. Some swelling and peeling are normal during the healing phase and should subside within a week or two. The risk of allergic reaction is slightly higher than with many other types of PMU as the red pigments cause more reactions than the brown, black, and flesh-colored pigments used in other procedures.

Permanent eyeliner

PMU client getting eyeliner done

What is it?

Permanent eyeliner creates the illusion of thicker eyelashes. PMU artists create a line inside or above the lash line to achieve this effect. As with cosmetic eyeliner, you can opt for a subtle definition of your lashes, a thick line, or a bold cat eye. You can also achieve a subtle effect with a lash enhancement, where dots of pigment are placed within the lash line itself.

How long does it last? 

Permanent eyeliner usually begins to show signs of fading around the one-year mark but can last two to three years.

Who should get it?

Permanent eyeliner might be your dream come true if yo. If you’re not ready to commit to sporting a lined look every day, the more subtle lash enhancement might be the better option for you. Permanent eyeliner is also ideal for women who have shaky hands due to age, Parkinson’s, or tremors since applying eyeliner themselves can be next to impossible.

Risks and costs

Permanent eyeliner usually starts around $500 and can cost as much as $1,000, depending on your technician and geographic location. 

It carries the same risks of infection and scarring as other tattoos, but because it’s done on such a delicate area of the body, it comes with additional risks like eye irritation, loss of eyelashes, injury to the eyelid, and migration or “smudging” of the pigment. You’ll want to be extra careful to look into your PMU artist’s training, credentials, and experience with permanent eyeliner to minimize these risks as much as possible.

Semi-permanent foundation 

What is it?

Semi-permanent foundation, often known as BB glow, uses microneedling to deposit skin-toned pigments across the face, creating a more even complexion. It’s not uncommon for the first treatment to be a traditional microneedling treatment meant to improve the texture of the skin by stimulating collagen production and delivering moisturizing serums. During the second treatment, the artist will apply the tinted serum. Achieving your desired color usually takes anywhere from 3-5 sessions. The final result is a natural, light coverage, similar to a BB cream.

How long does it last? 

To maintain your color, most people need to return for a session every four to eight months. While that may sound like a lot, remember that microneedling is a common spa treatment that actually improves your skin and isn’t as painful or tedious as some other PMU procedures.

Who should get it? 

If you’ve always been self-conscious about redness and uneven skin tone, the BB glow is a great way to get a smoother complexion. If you’re already interested in microneedling for it’s anti-aging and skin-improving effects, opting for the full BB glow will give you two treatments in one. BB glow is not a great option for anyone with widespread, active acne. It won’t provide full coverage of blemishes and could irritate your skin or push active infections deeper into the skin. 

Risks and costs

Semi-permanent foundation is usually priced per session, with an average of $150-$250 per session. Many artists offer discounts for booking all of your sessions at once. Your total cost will depend on how many sessions you need to achieve your desired color and coverage.

Because BB glow is not as invasive as other tattooing procedures, the risks of infection and scarring are much smaller (though not non-existent). As long as you’re using a qualified provider, this procedure carries the same minimal risks as typical microneedling treatments. There is an additional small risk of allergic reaction to the pigments in the tinted serum. There is also the risk that the pigments will discolor as they fade, especially if your PMU artist used a low-quality tinted serum. Always ask for the brand name of the tinted serum, and do some research to ensure it’s from a reputable company.

Scalp micropigmentation

Client receiving PMU scalp micropigmentation procedures

What is it?

Scalp micropigmentation, or SMP, uses small points of pigment on the scalp to create the illusion of fuller, thicker hair. Artists perform SMP all over the scalp or on a select few areas according to your preference. To achieve natural-looking results, you’ll need multiple sessions that allow your artist to layer different colors. 

How long does it last? 

SMP has one of the longest lifespans of any permanent makeup procedure, anywhere from 4-8 years. 

Who should get it? 

Anyone who is self-conscious about thinning hair or a receding hairline could benefit from SMP. Women often use it to conceal a widening area of skin at their part. Men with male pattern baldness can mask a receding hairline or get a full-scalp treatment to mimic the look of a shaved head with some stubble. SMP is also effective at concealing scars from hair transplants, other surgeries, and accidents.

Risks and costs

The cost of SMP depends on the size of the PMU site. For obvious reasons, a full scalp micropigmentation will cost significantly more than SMP on a small area to disguise a widow’s peak. Full scalp treatments often cost between $2,500 and $4,500, while treatments for smaller areas can start at around $500.

As always, there is a small risk of infection, scarring, or not liking the final results. For more info, check out our deep dive into SMP here.

Freckle tattoos

Client getting PMU faux freckle procedure done 

What is it?

Faux freckles aren’t quite as popular as other PMU techniques, but they’re on the rise. As the name suggests, freckle tattoos are small PMU tattoos that resemble natural freckles. Artists often perform faux freckles with a rotary PMU machine, but some artists prefer the stick-and-poke method.

How long does it last? 

Faux freckles can last as long as three years. However, an artist has to touch them up every year or so to maintain their original color and prominence. Some people also enjoy the look of fading faux freckles as they might appear even more natural. To avoid discolored freckles that turn greenish or grayish over time, be sure your artist uses high-quality pigments that fade evenly.

Who should get it? 

Most people who come in for freckle tattoos love the look of freckles but don’t have them naturally, or they have some but want them to be more prominent. Some people even ask their artists to arrange their faux freckles to mimic a specific constellation.

Risks and costs

As always, costs vary by location, artist, and the number of freckles you want. Just a few freckles or beauty marks might start as low as $80, while a full face of freckles could cost you around $350. 

As with most PMU techniques, you take on a small risk of infection or scarring or not enjoying the final product.

Scar camouflage 

What is it?

Scar camouflage masks the appearance of scars and make them less noticeable. It works best on light-colored scars that are lighter than the surrounding skin. It takes a very skilled, trained PMU artist to camouflage a scar effectively. Consequently, this is one type of PMU you may not find at every studio. Your artist will create a custom blend of pigment to match your skin tone as closely as possible. They’ll use it to fill in the scars, blending them into the surrounding skin.

How long does it last? 

The pigments from scar camouflage typically last between 2 to 5 years before they fade and require a touch-up.

Who should get it? 

Scar camouflage isn’t ideal for every type of scar. The scar needs to be completely healed, allowing for at least twelve months from the time the initial injury or surgery occurred. Scars that are raised or have dark edges aren’t a great match for scar camouflage treatment, as the tattooing process could raise them or darken the edges even more. Scars that are darker than the surrounding skin likely won’t be effectively concealed by scar camouflage. And, of course, anyone with keloid scars should never attempt scar camouflage or any other type of PMU. Ideal candidates for scar camouflage have fully healed scars that are light in color and flat or somewhat lower than the surrounding skin.

Risks and costs

Cost usually depends on the size of your scar and ranges from as little as $250 to multiple thousands.

There is a small risk of infection, and depending on the type of scar, there is a risk that tattooing could make the scar even larger or more noticeable. Your risk for pigment migration increases if you get tattooed before the scar has fully healed. The most common risk of scar camouflage is simply getting a poor match for your skin tone. You can minimize all of these risks by choosing a knowledgeable provider. A professional PMU artist has experience matching skin tones and screening out scars that shouldn’t be treated with camouflage.

Finding your PMU artist

With higher demand than ever and constantly improving techniques, the future of permanent makeup has truly never looked better. When you’re searching for the perfect PMU artist for your desired procedure, start with reviews and social media feeds to find someone who consistently creates the type of look you’d like to have. From there, ask them about their training and credentials and how they ensure client safety. 

For a final test, ask them what brands of pigments, PMU machines, and PMU needles they prefer to use for your chosen procedure and research those brands yourself. If they happen to be cheap brands that exist only on Amazon and have no other web presence, it’s best to steer clear and find a new artist. They’re compromising on the quality in order to cut costs. If they use any of the brands we offer in our permanent makeup section, you know that they’re choosing high-quality products that protect your safety and give you the results you’re after!

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