Last updated January 2022.
An important factor that determines the longevity, color, and overall attractiveness of PMU results are the pigments used. That’s why it’s extremely important for both potential clients and artists to be thoroughly informed about the different types of pigments, their ingredients, how they heal, and so on.
Here’s a simple yet comprehensive guide through permanent makeup pigments, reflecting on the difference between tattoo ink and PMU pigments, their development and perfection through the years, different types based on their origin and composition, and the latest regulations.
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What Are Permanent Makeup Pigments?
PMU treatments are done by depositing pigments into the skin to achieve various effects: eyebrow reconstruction and modification, lip and cheek blushing, micropigmentation for scarring and discoloration cover up, etc.
The term pigment is wide and it refers to both the fine powder that gives color to cosmetic products such as regular makeup, as well as the solution made by adding these powders to a binder used in permanent makeup.
PMU pigments are colored liquids that the skin retains for a period of time, and the body eventually breaks down and absorbs. This is the main difference between permanent makeup pigments and tattoo ink; ink cannot be broken down, so it remains in the skin forever, although its color might change.
For a complete overview of the differences between tattooing and PMU, check out this article.
The History of PMU Pigments
We all remember the color-block eyebrows and the cartoonish lip liner tattoos of the 90’s. These trends were the very beginning of modern-day permanent makeup, although tattooing for cosmetic purposes can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt.
The modern day pigment, however, can be perceived as a spinoff on tattoo ink. That’s why they’re sometimes called permanent makeup inks, too. They were developed by pioneer PMU artists who had the opportunity to test the formulas over and over, perfecting them along the way. The result is a variety of pigments that are hypo-allergenic, safe, and come in a wide range of colors and shades that can be further mixed and modified to suit the client’s needs.
The 3 Basic Types of Pigments
The most general classification of permanent makeup pigments is into 3 groups based on the origin of their basic ingredients: iron oxide based, inorganic ones, and organic ones.
The choice of pigment type depends on the artist’s preference, the treatment, and the type of the client’s skin, although lately, the go-to choice has been the formula made up of both organic and inorganic pigments. In fact, over 95% of PMU pigment available on the market contain both organic and inorganic elements.
This way, the artists get the best of all types.
A widely used group of pigments in permanent makeup. They are obtained from ferric oxides, like stone dust and rust, to which water, glycerine, witch hazel and other chemicals are added as binders.
They are most often used for lip tattoos and pigments in skin-toned shades used for BB glow or scar and stretch mark camouflage. This is due to the fact that the color range of iron oxides is very wide.
It can be divided into three groups – yellow iron oxide, red colcothar and black iron oxide – basic microblading pigments. By mixing these basic colors in different ratios virtually any shade needed for eyebrow correction can be made. For this reason, they are also commonly used for scalp micropigmentation.
Their greatest advantage is the fact they provide almost total opacity.
There’s also the very low chance of allergic reactions.
Iron oxides have been considered the most stable option for a while, but time has shown that pure, unmixed iron oxides are actually quite prone to color changes, uneven fading, and pigment migration. This is especially problematic for beginners, as experienced artists have tricks to avoid color migration and can closely predict how the pigments will behave once injected.
The issue with pigments that contain high amounts of iron oxides is the fact that they can turn quite cool as they’re fading.
Because of these tendencies, the popularity of purely iron oxide based pigments has dropped. They could also potentially cause inconvenience in case of an MRI.
Inorganic pigments are made by adding iron oxide elements to more derivates. They are called inorganic as they are synthetically produced from metals (titanium oxide, manganese violet, ultramarines, but also the mineral kaolinite AKA china clay).
Technically, iron oxides also belong to this group, but their wide use distinguishes them from the rest of inorganic pigments.
The purpose of adding iron oxides is to provide solid color and opacity, as well as widen the shade range. Titanium dioxide prevails in lighter shades, while iron oxides prevails in darker shades.
They are non-toxic, unaffected by light and insoluble, which is important for the prevention of color migration.
Again, very low chance of allergic reactions.
Titanium dioxide is a notoriously problematic ingredient. It’s essentially a white pigment, and as such, it’s common in lighter brow pigments, but almost inevitable in lip pigments, scar micropigmentation pigments, and BB glow serums. It stays in the skin a very long time, and it’s also known to fade into a yellowish or even greenish.
What makes things even worse is the fact that it can’t be removed with a laser, since it darkens into a gray or black when hit by a laser beam.
Relatively few companies produce purely organic pigments, although there is still a wide range available.
Carbon is the basis of organic chemistry in general, so these are basically carbon derivates. In the past, they were called coal tar or anilines and were obtained from plant and animal organisms: brown pigment from nuts, green pigment from kiwi, blue or red pigment from berries. This is not the safest option, as vegetable dyes can cause severe allergic reactions.
Nowadays, all available colors are made in the lab by combining carbon with different substances, most often nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. By changing the ratios, the colors are modified.
Another common ingredient of organic pigments for permanent makeup is the hydroxide of alumina. This substance is not soluble, which helps color retention and makes the pigment heavier so it can set into the skin better.
Generally, pigments used for lip PMU, as well as areola tattooing, contain a lot of organic components.
Today’s formulation of organic pigments is hypo-allergenic, also due to the alumina hydroxide, which “shrouds” the pigment molecules and prevents it from reacting with the tissue directly. They are also called lakes, or lake pigments.
Organic pigmets are affected by sunlight exposure more than the inorganic type – they fade quicker. Chemicals from skincare products can also do more damage to this type, so it’s advisable to switch to natural skincare. The problem of accelerated fading is easily solved by adding titanium dioxide, but then the formula is no longer purely organic, plus it can’t be touched by lasers – ever.
Generally, the quality of lighter shades is better than that of dark ones.
The molecules of elemental carbon are the smallest of all ingredients used in PMU. It gives the formula pitch-black, opaque color, so it’s often used for permanent eyeliner. However, it is not advisable for inexperienced artists to use carbon-based pigments for permanent eyeliner because the risk of color migration is great, precisely due to small particle size.
Water Based Pigments
As a relatively new addition, water-based pigments have emerged on the market. What distinguishes them from the mentioned types of pigments is the fact they contain around 45% of water and their origin is reportedly purely botanic, without any iron oxides. They are generally applied with the machine, not manually.
Some PMU artists claim that this is the best option for oily skin, which generally doesn’t retain pigments very well and usually needs regular touch ups.
Other Facts to Consider
- Vegan pigments
All respectable brands have switched to producing cruelty-free, vegan-friendly pigments.
- Shelf life
The shelf life of a bottle of permanent makeup pigment is 3 years closed, 1 year after being opened. It’s very important never to use expired pigments.
- Low quality pigments
The use of low quality pigments isn’t worth it. It results in uneven fading, fading into an unattractive color like orange or bluish/gray, and color migration. Don’t try and save money on this.
How Are PMU Pigments Regulated?
Until very recently, EU didn’t have any specific union-wide legislation in place. Certain member-states had “developed their own laws based on the 2008 Council of Europe resolution on the safety of tattoos and permanent make-up or its 2003 predecessor. Apart from that, tattoo inks [were] covered by the General Product Safety Directive in terms of the manufacturers’ obligation not to provide an unsafe product”, states ECHA (European Chemicals Agency).
However, in a joined effort to make the tattooing and PMU market as safe as possible, new regulations have been implemented starting January 2022.
The use of over 4000 substances in manufacturing tattoo inks and PMU pigments on European Union and EEA territories has been limited or forbidden in order to prevent the use of substances that are carcinogenic, toxic, harmful to reproductive health, sensitizing, or irritating in the formulas.
This is the widest-reaching PMU pigment (and tattoo ink) legislation in the EU to this day, but it has triggered a serious outcry from the tattoo community.
The issue lies in the fact that 2 components the legislation forbids are Blue 15 and Green 7, two pigments widely used in tattoo ink mixtures, and not uncommon in PMU formulas. Tattoo artists claim that there is no substantial evidence to back the claim that these components are unsafe, yet there are no viable alternatives, and the industry will suffer a huge loss if they are banned.
So artists got together under the Save the Pigments Initiative in an effort to encourage ECHA to review the ban on these 2 component.
For more information on ECHA, check out their page dedicated to tattoo ink and PMU pigments.
In the US
In the USA, the institution in charge of PMU pigment regulation is the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA lists PMU pigments under the category of tattoo ink, since both have a similar function. So much like tattoo ink, the PMU pigment industry in the US is largely unregulated:
“Because of other competing public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety problems specifically associated with these pigments, FDA traditionally has not exercised regulatory authority for color additives on the pigments used in tattoo inks.”
They go on to say that “when [they] identify a safety problem associated with a cosmetic, including a tattoo ink, [they] investigate and take action, as appropriate, to prevent consumer illness or injury.” Basically, they will only look into the formulas used for PMU if an adverse reaction is reported. In the meantime, “the actual practice of tattooing is regulated by local jurisdictions.”
So artists, beware. Should you come across pigments labelled “FDA approved”, this is a definite red flag and perhaps it’s best to steer clear from them, since no PMU pigment is technically FDA approved, although specific ingredients they contain may be.
However, the EU regulations are expected to reflect on the US industry, too. Since many brands of pigments imported are manufactured in the EU, and since many brands manufactured in the US are exported to EU states, there will likely be a harmonization across the markets. So US artists can expect to notice a change in their formulas soon.
For more official information on US regulations check out FDA’s Tattoos & Permanent Makeup: Fact Sheet. For information about previous cases of FDA interventions check out their Cosmetics Recalls & Alerts.
Authorities have finally recognized the importance of stricter regulation of PMU pigments – after all, they go directly into the skin. The 2022 regulations are bound to make the market safer, although they are not without their problems.
As an artist, you should be extra careful about the supplies you’re using. Only buy from trustable, legitimate suppliers. Otherwise, you are putting your clients’ health and safety in danger, as well as your image. It’s always a good idea to look for reviews before purchasing pigments.