The secret truth about microblading...and how tattoos (of any type) really work.
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Oh boy...here we go. I'm taking a deep breath here, because this is a hot topic that people are very passionate about, and one that can make A LOT of money. This is MY professional opinion backed with FACTS of how tattoos actually work. I am going to be brutally honest here.
Go ahead settle in, get a glass of wine, ativan, CBD oil, etc. , a.k.a whatever you need to sit for a few minutes on this topic with me. Go ahead, I know a few of you will be yelling at the screen disagreeing, but hear me out.
I want to try to dispel some common myths that are WAY too prevalent in the permanent makeup industry.
About three years ago, I too was swept up in the romance and magical allure of the newest trend hitting the permanent makeup (PMU) market : "Microblading". Imagine that in flashing Broadway lights. Go ahead, get the ooooohhhs and awwwwwwws out of the way. Initially, I agree, it can be REALLY REALLY pretty. It's so popular now, most clients now even confuse the word "microblading" with any natural pretty brow technique, without understanding what they are referring to.
Microblading is not actually that new of a technique! It's a very old "manual / hand" method of depositing pigment, that's been renamed and revitalized for modern cosmetic purposes. It's not that hand methods are bad, don't get me wrong! There are several hand tattooing traditions around the globe which are beautiful, effective, and long lasting.
After years of watching microbladed brows heal in various skin types, touching them up, and working with scar tissue, my problem lies in the action of cutting human skin with a "blade" with no depth guards. To not mince words, cutting skin and scar tissue is actually pretty traumatic, especially if it's repeatedly done. Also consider that most practitioners recommend having a touch up every 1-2 years.
So if cutting and severing skin's fibers = creating scar tissue (even microscopic), you're looking at creating a decent amount of damage to the skin over time with repeated cutting. ( Yes, even if you've had great micro-blading! )
I'm getting ahead of myself. Lets talk about some facts first before half of you start freaking out that I'm giving microblading a hard time, and you can make up your own mind.
The skin is a magical organ! It is our first line of defense against trauma, pathogens, and external toxins. It houses, hair, nerve endings, blood vessels, provides our bodies with hydration, cools us down when needed, and humans have enjoyed decorating it for centuries!
It consists of three main layers: The Epidermis, Dermis, and Sub-cutaneous.
1. The Epidermis: Contains 5 sub-layers. It's 0.05 mm -1.5 mm thick. It's this layer that helps defend from UV radiation, creates our unique skin color by housing our melanin, AND IT SHEDS & REPLENISHES ITSELF EVERY 4-6 WEEKS!!! Magical right? AKA your epidermis doesn't stay put. So if you deposit ink ONLY into this layer, it's going to shed right off with the dead skin cells in 30 days or so.
2. The Dermis: The real action zone. This layer holds nerve endings, hair follicles, sweat glands, and small blood vessels. It's 0.6mm-3mm thick. It's made of collagen and elastin, two things needed for our skin to retain it's plump youthfulness. This layer will thin as we age, and produce less oil. This layer DOES NOT SHED OFF EVERY 4-6 weeks!! It is in this layer that the magic happens for tattoos to hold for more than 30 days!
3. The Subcutaneous: It is important to remember this layer is not actual skin, as we typically think of it, but it attaches the skin to what lies beneath. We can thank this layer for protecting our organs and bones with a layer of fatty tissue. It insulates our body and provides a source of energy. It contains fat cells and protects blood vessels. There is nothing of substance in this layer for ink to bind to.
SOOO... to make a tattoo stay cleanly, the ink it must get past the top Epidermis layers to the Dermis, but NOT the subcutaneous. This is also why THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SEMI-PERMANENT TATTOO!!!!!!! LET ME REPEAT THIS, THERE IS NOT SUCH THING AS A SEMI-PERMANENT TATTOO BECAUSE IF ITS TOO SHALLOW IT WILL JUST FLAKE OFF IN 28-40 DAYS! INK DOES NOT STAY LONG TERM IN THE EPIDERMIS LAYERS.
IF implanted into the subcutaneous layer, you will see the ink spread, or "blow out" if implanted too deep into this layer. It's very important for an artist to know how thin or thick skin is on different parts of the body. For example the wrist skin is much thinner than the thick stomach skin.
**A note about "blow outs", they do happen from time to time, to even the best and most careful artist. Tattooing is not a "perfect" art form. Our skin's layers are not perfectly even layers, they dip and thin almost like a hilly landscape. It is common for the artist to be in the perfect layer in one moment and then the skin's layers to dip or rise without you knowing, and hello slight blow out or migration. There are a few more factors that can cause blowouts but we will cover that in a a future post.**
Now that we know the skin FACTS, we can move onto how tattoo ink stays in the Dermis. The more popular tattoos become in mainstream society, the more research is done into it's relationship to the body, modern inks, and machine evolution. Whoo-hoo! As of right now, this is what we know about how tattoos actually stay in the dermis for years:
The tattoo ink once injected into the skin, triggers the body's immune response system. Almost like a military operation, the immune system leaps to defend the body against the wound and foreign ink invaders, our body's are kick ass like that. The immune system sends in fighter cells called macrophages and phagocytes. Think of these little guy's like the body's microbiological Pac-Men, they try to eat and envelop the foreign invaders in an effort to contain the threat, in this case our tattoo ink.
Have you ever heard the phase He/She "bit off more than they could chew"? Well these little macrophages warriors have eyes bigger than their stomachs. The ink particles are too large for the pac-men to completely digest and move out of the system. The macrophages move out what little ink they can digest into the lymphatic system, but for the most part they are weighed down by the ink and stay locked into the fibers of the dermis.
The latest research out of France, led by Sandrine Henri, shows some surprising facts about the life cycle of macrophages and ink. "We think that, when tattoo pigment-laden macrophages die during the course of adult life, neighboring macrophages recapture the released pigments and insure in a dynamic manner the stable appearance and long-term persistence of tattoos". (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180306101708.htm)
That’s how the ink stays put for years, and one contributing factor to why the tattoo changes over the course of one's life.
Now, back to microblading. I find the repeated multi-laceration technique to create too much scar tissue, AND a technique that must be watched very carefully to conduct properly because THERE IS NO DEPTH GUARD in case of a slip-of-hand as on a tattoo machine. Remember us talking about blowouts? This is not a technique that can be learned and perfected in a one-two day class which is how most "techs" are learning this, without ANY previous tattoo or artistic experience. Talk about a case for disaster folks, and why experienced artists are now seeing so many cases beyond repair.
Some artists have worked tirelessly over 10+ years to perfect their technique, to minimize scaring and trauma. To be fair, I do find there are some skin types and colors that are a good fit for this technique, but in my opinion that is only a small percentage of the population. Once you implant ink into the skin, it is ALWAYS there. That line of ink will soften, fade, and SPREAD OUT A LITTLE once it heals and gets "comfortable" in the skin. Please make sure you see multiple HEALED example of an artists work before deciding "microblading" is for you.
What your microblading artist may not be telling you is: you will never have that super clean tight line ever again as you touch it up year-after-year, by going over and over that same line getting larger and larger. You will eventually have to graduate to a "powder" or "shaded" style brow.
This is why you see so many artists today moving toward a "combo","blade and shade" style, machine hair-lined, or a "ombre" brow technique. These last much longer, and are not as traumatic to the skin due to the puncturing vs. slicing action. They age much more consistently over time to due to our updated machines, inks, and tattoo knowledge.
"But my artist says his/her inks are semi-permanent": 1. We have been over this already. TATTOOS OF ANY TYPE CANNOT BE SEMI-PERMANENT. Read above again. 2. From talking to reliable ink manufacturers, permanent makeup inks and pigments are made with a slightly-smaller-than-standard-ink molecular structure so they can be broken down a little faster, allowing you to update your look over time, but they still are considered permanent. The sun, your immune system, and products you put on your skin will fade the color over time.
To wrap this all up, and if you haven't thrown your blades at the screen yet in protest:
If you are doing only microblading and getting consistent, amazing, long-term results across the board, keep rocking your badass self out! Good for you, you're a permanent makeup superstar!
If you have really struggled with this technique, I feel you and understand why. Consider really investing in this art form, learn machine work so you can truly choose the best technique for you clients individual skin type, and like traditional tattooers say "pay your dues." Tattooing is a magical life changing art form when done properly. I say this with the most love and care in my heart to all you newbies out there: Take the time to really learn and perfect your skills and knowledge before making some disastrous mistakes to earn a quick buck.
Have thoughts? Please share them (constructively please) AFTER putting down the wine glass. xoxo Louisa.