Permanent Makeup Pigments Guide: the Story Behind Pigments

By Katarina V.| Last updated on July 11, 2023
permanent makeup pigments
⏱️ 7 min read

Last updated May 2023.

An important factor that determines the longevity, color, and overall attractiveness of PMU results are the pigments used.

That’s why it’s important for both potential clients and artists to be 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, medical 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 carrier suitable for permanent makeup.

PMU pigments are colored liquids that the skin retains for a certain period of time, and the body eventually breaks down and absorbs.

The main difference between permanent makeup pigments and tattoo ink is the pace at which these colors are broken down; tattoo ink is broken down at a slower pace since it’s usually more concentrated.

That’s one of the reasons a tattoo can stay visible potentially forever, although its color might change, while PMU loses opacity faster and to a higher degree.

For a complete overview of the differences between tattooing and PMU, check out this article.


Image source: Freepik

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 colorants: organic, inorganic, and hybrid.

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 – hybrids.

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 both types.

Inorganic Pigments (Mostly Iron Oxides)

A widely used group of pigments in permanent makeup. They are obtained from ferric oxides, to which water, glycerin, witch hazel and other chemicals are added as carriers.

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.

These pigments are mixed to achieve different shades. By mixing basic colors in different ratios virtually any shade needed for permanent makeup can be made.

Plus, titanium dioxide, the most common white pigment the majority of PMU formulas contain, falls into this category. For this reason, inorganic colorant are found in almost all formulas, no matter how they’re labeled.

Pros

Wide color range.

Faster fading, which is perfect for PMU.

Low chance of allergic reactions.

Cons

Pure iron oxide formulas are prone to color changes over time, and they’re known to fade into reddish tones. 


Image source: Freepik

Organic Pigments

Organic pigments consist of carbon-derived powder and carriers. These pigments have vivid, richer colors compared to inorganic ones, and are common in permanent makeup inks.

However, they’re very rarely used on their own, without adding some inorganic colorants.

In general, they stay visible in the skin longer, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the expectations of your client, and you skill-level.

Pros

More vivid colors.

Small particle size, which means faster saturation and better retention.

Low chance of allergic reactions.

Cons

Not great for beginners, as it’s easy to oversaturate when using organic pigments.

Little room for error.

Known to fade to ashy, cool tones.


Image source: Freepik

Hybrid Pigments

Nowadays, most of what’s available on the market are hybrid pigments – blends that contain both inorganic and organic colorants, mixed in different ratios to achieve different effects.

By mixing these 2 categories together, their individual shortcomings are balanced out, and advantages boosted.

For example, since organic colorants have more vivid colors, they are used in larger quantities in lip pigments, but because they’re more sheer, titanium dioxide is often added to give more opacity.

Another factor that’s addresses by mixing is the behavior of color over time. A well-balanced formula should ensure neutral fading. In practice, this depends on numerous factors, not all of which are related to the pigment formula itself, but having a well-mixed formula is the first prerequisite.

Depending on the amount of either group, hybrid pigments are either carbon-based, or iron oxide-based.

This is an indicator of how they can be expected to perform and behave over time.

Pros

Widely available.

They provide the best of both categories.

Cons

Not all formulas are equally well balanced, so you need to be careful about what brand and line you’re using.

What Other Ingredients Are Found in Permanent Makeup Pigments?

As we mentioned, the organic/inorganic debate only concerns the colorants in a pigment formula.

To get the final product – a liquid that can be implemented into the skin – many other ingredients are added to the powders.

These include: 

  • Solvents or carriers – substances that carry the pigment powder, making it into a liquid. Most common: distilled water, ethyl alcohol, glycerin
  • Binders – substances that hold the formula together and make it heterogenous. Most common: rosin, copolymers
  • Preservatives – substances that prevent contamination of the formula and keep it microorganism-free. Most common: isopropyl alcohol
  • Other additives which serve various purposes. For example, witch hazel is common in PMU pigments due to its antiseptic and soothing properties.

The overall quality of a pigment formula depends on the quality of all these ingredients, too, not just colorant. While it’s not a rule, you can expect more renowned, established brands to use higher-quality ingredients.


Image source: Freepik

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 depends on the manufacturer, and changes once the bottle has been 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?

The cosmetic tattooing industry, including the supplies it uses, isn’t standardized globally, and regulations vary. 

Let’s see what they are in the EU and the US.

In Europe

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. 

You can read more about the regulations in this article, and about the Save the Pigments initiative in this article.

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 have started 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, they are harmonizing their formulas, or launching new, parallel lines.

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.

Final Note

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.

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