Permanent makeup can be a great option for those who wear cosmetics every day. But many of us don’t know a lot of people who have it—or, rather, we don’t realize when someone has it. That lack of widespread knowledge leaves the curious with a lot of questions about this form of cosmetic tattooing.
So we sat down for a chat with Maureen Donlan, owner of Chicago’s Amazing Faces, who’s been tattooing faces for over a decade. In that time, she’s seen a lot of technological developments—as well as some advances that, in her opinion, aren’t so great. With Maureen’s help, we’ll tell you what to expect, as well as how to prepare and care for permanent pigment.
Before You Go
Ask: Is it for me?
There are many reasons to consider permanent makeup. Allergies or contact-lens sensitivities, for example, can limit the types of traditional makeup that can be worn. Some older clients opt for permanent makeup when unsteady hands make daily application a hassle. Others use it to disguise over-plucked brows, alopecia, or scarring. In fact, many permanent-makeup artists specialize in what’s called medical tattooing, which helps camouflage certain conditions and restore the appearance of areolae for mastectomy patients.
Of course, many people simply like the look of permanent makeup and enjoy the day-to-day ease.
While Maureen goes for a natural look, she also acknowledges the makeup has a particular appearance that clients should be prepared for. In a nutshell, she said, “Some people are just too picky to get permanent makeup.”
Others, meanwhile, aren’t prepared for the permanence.
"As soon as somebody says that they’re a perfectionist, it’s like, 'bye-bye.'"
Her work is precise and artful, but if you’re the type who questions things just because they’re set in stone, you probably won’t be satisfied with anyone’s cosmetic tattoo work. Mona Lisa, for instance, didn’t even trust Leonardo da Vinci with her eyebrows.
If you’re worried about the pain, don’t be. Maybe. “Most people do not take any painkillers,” Maureen said, adding that while she uses a topical numbing solution, pain is often less of a deterrent than nerves. (If you do take painkillers, make sure it’s not aspirin, which thins the blood.)
The one exception? Microblading, an eyebrow method described below that was too painful even for Maureen.
Clip pics and snap selfies to set expectations
Show, don’t tell. When you get a haircut, you bring in magazines, pull up Pinterest on your phone, or chisel a quick marble bust to show the stylist what you want. So why not do the same for the permanent ink destined for your face?
Brow shapes, for instance, are as individual as their faces, so consider wearing your normal look into the studio. “I prefer them to draw in their eyebrows, so I can see what they want,” Maureen said.
Same goes with lip liner and eyeliner. Along with wearing it the day of, some self-portraits taken in a well-lit area can help show the artist what you like.
Read up on inking methods
The more familiar you are with artists’ techniques, and with your own preferences, the more empowered you are to get the look you want. Below, we outline a few of the more popular methods:
First, of course, there’s the matter of shape, which the makeup artist will help you determine during the consultation.
Depending on the artist’s tools and specialties, you may pick from up to three types of brow strokes, each of which imparts a different visual texture. Maureen, for her part, doesn’t distinguish between these methods, simply blending and customizing as necessary. But if you know these terms, you’ll be able to ask for anything.
The hair-stroke method is exactly what it sounds like, with lightly applied lines mimicking the appearance of natural hairs.
Microblading, also known as microstroking or eyebrow embroidery, provides an even more natural appearance thanks to the use of a super-fine blade. The look is very natural, but take heed: Maureen said this method was too painful even for her to experience, and she has a high tolerance for pain.
The powder-fill technique involves thousands of tiny dots. Many choose to layer this method with one of the other techniques for an especially lush look. Some find that, on its own, a powder fill can look less natural due the resulting definition and opacity. However, this technique deposits ink more deeply than the other methods, which offers two advantages: powder-filled brows can go longer between touchups, and they’ll last longer on older clients, whose skin generally loses pigment more easily.
Maureen recommends going for subtle over dramatic, perhaps getting just a thin swipe of ink on your upper lash line. (Only line your lower lid if you regularly wear eyeliner there.)
When our beauty editor got permanent liner, she found she needs only a little bit of mascara each day for her eye makeup to look done—no applying and reapplying liner only for it to get smudged! For special events or trendier looks, she simply adds traditional eyeliner over the cosmetic tattoo for a thicker line or cat-eye flick.
During your consultation, you’ll decide on tone and color. You’ll talk shape, too: while many artists don’t go past the natural border, Maureen goes just slightly beyond for a subtle boost of volume.
If you’re going with lip color and also have a history of cold sores, your artist may advise you to start taking medication a few weeks beforehand. Permanent makeup can have glam results, but the process involves abrading the skin, which can encourage outbreaks.
In the treatment room
Schedule enough time
First, Maureen said, be prepared for at least two visits, for which she she pencils in a solid two hours each. This includes the actual service, as well as aftercare instructions and a pre-treatment consultation. Speaking of which …
Make the most of your consultation
Now is the time to scour the artist’s portfolio, ask questions, and talk about what you like. Be very specific and very honest about what you’re looking for.
The makeup artist will help you find your color during the consultation, but it’s good to have a handle on what colors work best beforehand. Then, the artist will custom-blend a color combo just for you. Keep in mind that lighter, more natural-looking lip color tends to fade faster than darker hues.
Even with the numbing ointment, it might hurt. And needles, on their own, can be an alarming sight. Relax as best you can so the procedure can take place as smoothly and quickly as possible. “I don’t mind if people bring their earbuds in,” said Maureen, who lauds the quietness of her new machine as compared to the din of her old one. Consider listening to something serene: soft music, white noise, an audiobook on the history of oatmeal.
If relaxing is impossible—if, for instance, you have an immutable needle phobia—then you might consider sticking with traditional makeup.
Skip the trends
Fads fade more quickly than ink does. No one is more of aware of this than Maureen. While bushy brows are in, she won’t get past the natural brow border because “that’s definitely going to be a look that changes.” And when she’s lining lids, she avoids cat eyes in case tastes change in the future.
One woman, she said, came to Amazing Faces looking to disguise a warped cat eye, which had risen too high due to an eye lift. It simply couldn’t be done, so Maureen had to turn her away.
Trust the artist
Just as the glint of the needle might scare a shyer client, so too does pigment produce some apprehension. Lip color, for instance, can take on a jarring red hue in the ink well—but it goes on more naturally and fades due to eating and talking. Maureen knows the brightness sometimes spooks skittish lip clients, but she doesn’t mince words: “I will tell them right off the bat: if I go too light, you’re just wasting your time and your money.”
Appreciate how far the field has come
Maureen is constantly updating her gear, checking in with what’s new, and taking courses that advance her certifications. Although techniques don’t make it into her repertoire merely because they’re new and shiny, Maureen lauds most of the advancements she’s seen over the years.
“The machines that I use are completely different from the machines that I started with,” which were much, much louder. The pigments are better, too. In olden times, they “would turn into browns or greens or blues,” but today they stay at a stable brown or black.
After your appointment
Follow aftercare instructions to the letter
Post-treatment protocol can vary, so we’ll let your artist explain the specifics. In general, you’ll likely have to keep the area moist with a petroleum or antibiotic ointment while it heals. Try to avoid picking scabs, too, since premature flaking can cause patchy color dropout.
Know that your reflection will change
Your skin might be swollen immediately afterward. Pigment will initially look darker than you expected, but it will soften over the first one to two weeks.
Prepare for itching—but no other real downtime drama
Permanent makeup tends to have minimal or no downtime. In fact, after a half-hour rest, many eyeliner clients even drive themselves home. That said, the skin has been through a lot, so give it time. Brows and lips have a longer healing and scabbing time than eyeliner does.
Go back for touchups
Permanent-makeup ink is thicker than tattoo ink, which means it fades more quickly. Maureen’s clients usually return for a touchup every two years, while other artists say the ink exfoliates out of the skin in about 12–18 months. The various types fade differently, too. Lip color, as we mentioned, fades faster due to all the talking, eating, and spitball-shooting we do on a daily basis. Your artist will help you design a touchup plan and might even discount future visits to keep your makeup looking fresh.
Show. It. Off.
Enjoy it! You’ve done your research, you’ve withstood the needle, and you’ve even refrained from fidgeting with it as it healed. Now it’s time to spring out of bed, leave the makeup brushes in their case, and show your new mug to the world.
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