Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2020, and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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A common question that comes up when you start thinking about getting a permanent makeup treatment is what determines the quality of the results. One of the biggest factors that affects the longevity, color, and overall attractiveness of the end results are the pigments used. That’s why it’s extremely important for anyone considering permanent makeup, as well as any permanent makeup artist, beginner or experienced artist alike, to be as thoroughly informed as possible about the different types of pigments, their ingredients, choosing the right pigment color based on skin tone, and so on.
We give you a detailed guide to permanent makeup pigments used for all kinds of permanent makeup treatments, reflecting on the difference between tattoo ink and PMU pigments, their development and perfection through the years, and different types based on their origin and composition.
What are permanent makeup pigments?
Permanent makeup treatments are done by injecting pigments into the skin in order 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 liquid concoctions that the skin retains for a period of time, and the body eventually breaks down and absorbes. 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 major differences and similarities, check out our Permanent makeup vs Tattoo post.
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 current modern day permanent makeup, although tattooing for cosmetic purposes can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. And let’s not forget the long history of mehndi, an ancient Indian form of body art that uses henna. In fact, there’s a popular permanent makeup treatment today that uses henna known as henna brows.
The modern day pigment, however, can be perceived as a spinoff on a tattoo ink. That’s why they’re sometimes called permanent makeup ink, 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.
Three basic types of pigments
The most general classification of permanent makeup pigments is into three 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.
This is the most 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 recreating the effects of blush, eyeshadow and foundation (and therefore, micropigmentation anywhere on the body), but it is also used for semi permanent lip tattoos. 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.
Iron oxides have been used for quite a while in permanent makeup due to the fact that they were considered the most stable option, but PMU artists draw attention to the fact that pure, unmixed iron oxides are actually 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.
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, but the probability of an allergic reaction is extremely low.
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.
Inorganic pigments are the least likely to cause an allergic reaction, which is why they are the best choice to use on clients who’ve previously experienced them.
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.
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.
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 digital tattoo pens, or so-called permanent makeup pens, instead of rotary machines.
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.
Important 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 is of the utmost importance for artists never to use expired pigments.
- Low quality pigments
The use of low quality pigments results in uneven fading, fading into an unattractive color like orange or bluish/gray, and color migration. Overall, a sloppy result.
The problem of PMU pigment standardization and regulation
In the USA
The problem with the standardization of PMU pigments is, well, the fact that there isn’t any, so there’s no way to know for sure if all the ingredients in a PMU formula are 100% safe.
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 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.
The situation within the European Union isn’t much better either, according to European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the institution in charge of tattoo ink and PMU pigment regulation:
“There isn’t any specific EU-wide legislation in place, but seven Member States have 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 are covered by the General Product Safety Directive in terms of the manufacturers’ obligation not to provide an unsafe product; the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation in terms of labelling products that contain classified substances in excess of their classification limits; and REACH in terms of registration requirements and information provision.
As many of the hazardous substances may be present in tattoo inks or permanent make-up in small quantities, the obligations under CLP and REACH may not apply. “
However, things are improving in 2021. According to a recent article in The Brussels Times, ECHA is currently working on a union-wide bill that will tackle the use of “CMR substances: carcinogenic or causing cancer, mutagenic or affecting cell development and reprotoxic, which interfere with fertility and the reproductive system” in tattooing and PMU.
For more information, check out their page dedicated to tatoo ink and PMU pigments.
Permanent makeup is still very much a gray area when it comes to regulations in most states in the US and in most EU countries, so you should be careful when choosing a PMU artist. As a client, you have every right to inquire about the brand of pigments used and its ingredients before the procedure.
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.
Generally, the more expensive the treatment, the better the result, but this is not (always) related to pigment quality. Cheaper artists and beginners often use top quality pigment brands, too.