Credit for this article to Rose Prieto, CPCP, LE, CCE. Learn more about Rose
The common misconception is that it is a semi-permanent procedure; this is false. Microblading is a permanent pigment implant, also known as a tattoo. This treatment has recently become popularized, because of public misconception, that the hair-like strokes achieved by this technique are semi-permanent, and will only last 9-18 months.
This false claim has created a great deal of controversy within the Permanent Makeup arena, and, as a result, has propelled better education within the industry.
It is important to note that that microblading is Permanent Makeup and the manual hair-like strokes rendered from this technique, can also be successfully achieved with a tattoo machine. What appeals to consumers are the crispy simulated hair strokes created by a Tattoo Artist (also known as Technician, Practitioner, Tattooist Micro-Pigmentation Artist). These strokes are created when a hand tool known as a “Micro Blade”, grazes the skin to the Dermal layer, creating a small channel. A liquid pigment, specifically formulated for tattooing, is then introduced into the opening in the skin, and deposited directly into the incision. Over the course of a few weeks the liquid component of the pigment is eventually absorbed by the body, leaving behind its pigment particles to permanently rest within the skin, showcasing the tattoo created by the technician.
The skin is comprised of three primary layers: The Epidermis, the Dermis and the Subcutaneous tissue (also known as the Hypodermis). If you have ever seen a blue eyebrow tattoo, or unsightly tattoo blurring (known as migration), it may have been a result of pigment implants placed too deep beyond the Dermis, placing them within the Subcutaneous tissue of the skin.
As tattoo artists, our elusive “sweet spot” is the Epidermal/Dermal junction; the area where blood vessels are introduced, and sits just below the border of the Epidermis. When a pigment implant is introduced within the Dermis (known as the “live layer”), it is considered to be permanent and “of the body”.
The confusion lies with the belief that these hair-like strokes, created by a blade, will eventually disappear after a year’s time; this claim is absolutely false. The upper layers of the skin (the Epidermis) shed approximately every 28 days. The Epidermis, which is made up of six layers, is not considered living skin because it does not contain blood vessels, yet is perpetually turning over skin cells to generate new skin.
This process is continuous and the phenomenon of cell turnover can be documented after the skin is exposed to the sun for an extended period. When the skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays, it goes into defense mode and sends skin-protective Melanocyte cells to the outer surface. These Melanocytes release a tint, called Melanin, which blankets the Epidermis, with a tinted stain, to create a protective barrier. This stain, known as a suntan, is a response to an injury (the injury primarily being the harmful radiation emitted by the sun); this radiation can burn and injure the skin.
Although the bronze glow of sun-bathed skin is visually appealing, the result is (unfortunately) temporary and expected to fade within a few weeks. Have you ever seen a suntan last a year? The answer is no. This is because Melanin is sloughed away from the upper skin as cell turnover occurs, exfoliating these protective cells away. In other words, Melanin only enters the skin’s Epidermis, the upper layers, rather than the underlying Dermal layers. The Dermis is the sweet spot for a pigment implant (a tattoo), therefore, similar to a suntan being semi-permanent, if microblading wants to support its “temporary” claim to fame, it must fade within a few weeks’ time (like a suntan) to support that title, otherwise it is a permanent dermal implant like any other tattoo.
This implanted pigment may indeed fade within a years’ time, however, there will most definitely be pigment particles still present in the skin. Moreover, it is impossible to predict when and if the pigment will fade, if at all, once it has been deposited into living skin.
The histology of an individual is unique and will vary from person to person. While one individual may experience significant fading within a few months post procedure, another may have robust implants which can last years. There is absolutely no way of predicting how an individual’s body will maintain the integrity of the original implant. Every case will have healed results which will differ, based on the person’s histology, health, and their lifestyle choices. For example: repetitive exposure to the sun’s UV rays will break down pigment particles, within the skin, over time. If, however, the microbladed hair strokes completely fade away within a few weeks’ time, the answer is because the technician who performed the procedure, implanted too shallow (within the Epidermis) and failed to enter the Epidermal/Dermal junction.
What exactly is microblading?
Ultimately, it’s a tattoo. It is a semi-invasive procedure, whereby a licensed tattoo artist creates a manual incision in the skin creating a lacerated channel. Pigment is then placed within that channel and left to rest for about 10 minutes (this is known as the “pigment soak”).
During the pigment soak, the pigment-filled wound awaits Neutrophil cells before the skin is wiped clean, leaving the channel engulfed with pigment and cells (for more about the process of healing and the function of the skin cells, refer to the “WHAT WILL HAPPEN” section below). When properly placed within the Dermis, the pigment will comfortably settle into the skin during the healing process.
The art of microblading requires precision and skill and is a manual technique that micropigmentation artists consider to be an advanced procedure. It is easy to create an incision that is too deep or executed too aggressively, which can create scar tissue compromising the skin once it heals. Therefore, the technician must be skilled enough to understand the layers of the skin, the ideal depth to enter the skin, and the exact pressure for which to open a proper channel.
It is not lost on me, however, that this procedure can be primitively executed as well; an example of this can be seen in prison with so-called “prison tattoos”. The tattooist creates a make-shift tool and creates an incision in the skin. Material is then deposited into the incision (typically soot rendered by burning petroleum-based baby oil, melted colored plastic from chess or checker pieces), and even toothpaste. This material takes the place of tattoo pigment in an effort to achieve a desired artistic result. Although the execution rendered from a prison tattoo will obviously differ from a tattoo created by professional licensed artist, the idea is the same: create an incision in the skin, which exposes dermal tissue, add pigment to the exposed area, and allow it to heal.
It is essential that the artist have a general knowledge of skin histology and skin anatomy, in an effort to successfully implant micro strokes without causing damage to the skin. In addition, the artist must understand all aspects of skin type, skin tone and color theory in order to execute an end-result where the healed color is compatible with the client’s skin tone.
It is important to note that the skin around the eyes is the thinnest skin on the body. Certain areas of the body have a total depth of 1-4 millimeters of thickness, however, the skin around the eyes is about 1/2 to 1 millimeter in depth; this is very thin, delicate skin. Think of a paper cut on the finger. This cut can exceed 1/2 a millimeter in depth, therefore, successful implants are relatively superficial, yet targeted to live in the Dermis none the less.
The art of microblading renders similar results as machine implants (a tattoo created by a mechanical coil, rotary or pen machine); the primary difference is the modality used to create the affect. Microblading is achieved by hand, it is a manual process. The only difference between a simulated machine stroke (achieved with a needle) and a simulated manual stroke (created by a microblade), lies within the integrity of the skin. Machine strokes create implants via a series of reticulated penetrations in the skin which deposit pigment at the same time (think of the reticulated motion of a sewing machine). This technique relies on manual pressure and accuracy to properly create channels where the pigment will eventually rest and implant.
A tool is not one size fits all; it can come in a myriad of configurations, but allow me to use a “9-blade” as an example. The number 9 means there are 9 small-gauge, razor sharp pins lined up in a fence-like configuration, typically on an angle. When these pins line up, they form a blade, and from a certain distance the pin-configuration will resemble a scalpel. Depending on the number of pins, microblades can come in angled, curved, slanted and straight configurations. The configuration chosen by the technician depends on the execution of the tattoo that he/she wishes to achieve.
Like machine implants, the technician must stretch the skin properly to prevent snagging and tearing of the skin. With a small amount of pressure, the technician then enters the skin revealing an open channel awaiting the pigment soak.
Who is a candidate?
If not executed properly, any form of micropigmentation can cause scar tissue and infection. If quality, sterile tools are not used, the health of the client will be compromised.
What does this mean? It means that even a so-called “sealed” microblade can be exposed to contaminants such as bacteria and/or other harmful pathogens. It is the responsibility of the technician to ensure that the tools used, for the procedure, are of the highest quality, and are indeed sterile. Purchasing well known, trusted brands from reputable suppliers, ensure that tools live up to their quality standard.
False claims of sterilization appear on the labels of countless counterfeit tools sold across the internet. A good artist should never trust low-cost supplies purchased on some international sites.
If the client seeks permanent hair-stroke results for their eyebrows, it is the client’s responsibility to ensure that the technician is fully licensed and experienced, and has followed all of the health-related protocols pertaining to universal precautions. It is also the responsibility of the client to inspect the tattoo facility, and ask questions pertaining to the governing city’s Department of Health protocol. It’s is also the responsibility of the client that the technician has sufficient knowledge of the procedure and is properly trained and licensed.
Prior to the treatment session, the client should fill out the necessary paperwork which identifies microblading as a tattoo, and fully discusses any contraindications that may affect proper execution of the tattoo, as well as possibly ruling out the client as a prospective candidate. Microblading should be taken very seriously, as it is considered a semi-invasive procedure. Although this procedure has become a trend over the past few years, it should be taken seriously and requires research and questions on the part of the consumer. Moreover, the client must understand that the result may alter their appearance, therefore, obtaining references and perusing before and after photos is recommended.
The client should have a general understanding that the skin’s integrity will be compromised as a result of receiving a tattoo. Within a few minutes of the injury (created by either a microblade or a machine), cells known as “Neutrophil cells” are introduced to the wound.
The technician must understand that although cosmetic tattooing is an art created to enhance the outward aesthetic of the client, the practitioner must also realize that they are indeed creating a wound once they enter the skin. After the Neutrophil cells make their appearance, the “Macrophage cells” enter the site to gobble up the debris that may be harmful to the body. I like to describe this phenomenon as the “Pac Man” effect. In the namesake video game, hundreds of yellow heads gobble up everything in site. Macrophages work similarly, except upon multiplying, their numbers will range into the thousands or higher. These waste-disposal cells will linger in the wound for a few weeks to properly manage the waste released by the healing wound. The “Platelets” which create clotting and scabbing, provide the necessary growth factors needed to sustain the Macrophages until they are no longer needed.
This is exactly why micro strokes can fade in and out, during the healing process. Clients should not assess the finality of the healed result, until several weeks have passed. Within about 2 weeks post procedure, the Macrophage (pac man) cells hold on to the pigment particles deposited in the dermis. Their job is to make sure that the body will not be harmed by this foreign entity.
Once a few weeks have passed, and the cells realize that no harm will come to the body, the Macrophages release the pigment particles which then float back up to the Epidermal/Dermal junction, and reveals itself through the surface of the skin. This sudden color surge which occurs once the macrophages complete their duty, is known as “blooming”, and is expected to happen during the healing process of a tattoo. For this reason, the client should not assess their healed result until, at least, 6-8 weeks post procedure.
Clients should also note that they may not be a suitable candidate. For example, severely oily skin may cause the pigment implants to blur upon healing, causing a less desirable affect. In addition, the client must understand that, over time, their micro-strokes will lose their crispness, and after repeated touch-ups will eventually evolve into a blurred affect, resembling a powder brow. What does this mean? It means that the more the skin is microbladed, over time, the denser the pigment will become. This is not necessarily a bad thing. “Powder Brows” simulate a penciled-in effect, and can also create a pleasant aesthetic for the client. Once the micro-strokes have accumulated, after years of touch-ups, it may be in the client’s best interest to receive manual shading or machine shading for their yearly color boost appointments.
Remember: the skin is a living organism. As tattoo artists, we are not drawing on paper, but rather creating a managed injury to the skin, which is manipulated with pigment, to render a simulated affect.
What will happen to the pigment over time?
Before I discuss what happens to the pigment after it has been microbladed into the skin, let us first go over some contraindications of the procedure.
If the client comes in with pre-existing permanent makeup in their eyebrows, then they are not a candidate for microblading. This procedure is only successful when bladed on virgin skin.
Clients who wish to correct a discolored eyebrow that was previously powder-tattooed, must understand that they only have two options: pigment removal/pigment lifting, or a color correction achieved by a machine implant or a manual shading tool.
If a microbladed hair-stroke is placed over a pink eyebrow, for example, the pink will show through between each hair-like stroke. If the technician insists on working an eyebrow in need of color correction he/she must shade over the entire eyebrows (after the micro-strokes have been placed), by using a hand-shading tool or a machine.
As professionals we must offer clients options and consider what is in their best interest. Therefore, the technician is expected to be fully educated with regard to matters of color correction and must understand that once the skin has been previously manipulated by either a microblade, a machine or a hand-shading tool, the tensile strength of the skin has been compromised.
What’s in a name?
Shakespeare wrote that a “rose by any other name smells just as sweet”, so what is indeed in a name? Microblading referenced by many names, but these names do not diminish the fact that an implant created by a blade is still a tattoo. The procedure has been referred to as “feather touch brows”, “eyebrow embroidery “, “permanent makeup”, “semi-permanent makeup”, “temporary hair strokes”, and more.
The marketing involved in creating an appeal for the procedure is targeted to the less-educated consumer and uses many gimmicks to entice the public. As a result, this procedure has grown in popularity and has appealed to the client who wishes to add beauty to their eyebrows. This rise in popularity has propelled an influx of non-licensed, ill-experienced technicians to hop on the bandwagon and are now tattooing skin without following health codes or practicing proper technique.
Unfortunately, this has created an increase in “botched work” that experienced technicians have been attempting to fix. However, when properly executed by an experienced, fully licensed trained technician, microblading can yield beautiful, long lasting results that change lives.
Although this procedure is primarily known for simulating eyebrow hair, some artists have been using this manual technique for advanced procedures, such as scalp micropigmentation. A good tattoo artist should have a general understanding of all tattooing modalities to make the appropriate choices for successful execution, and determine which modality is in the best interest of the client.