PMU vs Traditional Tattoo: What’s the Difference in the Implementation Process?

By Emily M.| Last updated on March 29, 2022
PMU vs Traditional Tattoo: The Difference in the Implementation
⏱️ 5 min read

When you’re just getting into the PMU industry, the difference between permanent makeup and tattooing can be confusing. Both imply breaking the surface of the skin and implementing colors into it. Both are done with the purpose of creating a long-lasting effect on the skin.

So why isn’t permanent makeup just called facial tattooing?

Well, although permanent makeup and traditional tattooing share some similarities, they are different in many respects, and clients often demand to know what those differences are, looking for reassurance they won’t be stuck with a brow or eyeliner tattoo they may get bored with for the rest of their lives.

So let’s go through the differences in the implementation processes of pmu vs traditional tattoo.

Is Permanent Makeup a Tattoo?

In the last decades of the 20th century and early 2000s, people used to go to tattoo artists and ask them to create the look of makeup on their faces using the body art tattooing technique. This quickly turned out to not be such a great idea – these tattoos didn’t look like makeup, they looked like very obvious tattoos.

To make things worse, many of those clients asked for black tattoos, which turned bluish or greenish over the years, and the only way to get rid of them was to go through aggressive laser removal.

To meet the demands of clients looking to recreate the look of wearing makeup, beauty experts developed permanent makeup – a form of tattooing that was designed to fade over time and ideally become invisible. They bent over backwards to market it as something different from tattooing.

So the term semi-permanent makeup emerged to delineate the technique from body tattoos, but it turned out to be misleading. While the results of permanent makeup do become less and less visible, the pigments deposited into the skin never disappear from it 100%. Some portion of it will always be present, and it might stay visible for a lot longer than advertised.

Today, the industry is looking to weed out the term semi-permanent and give clients clear, honest information on what permanent makeup is. Yes, PMU is a form of tattooing, but no, it’s not the traditional sort used on the body. It falls under the category of cosmetic tattooing, which gives long-lasting, but not permanent results.

Is Permanent Makeup a Tattoo?Image source: Freepik

What Are the Main Differences Between Implementing PMU vs Traditional Tattoo?

Here are the main differences in the implementation of permanent makeup compared to traditional tattooing that allow PMU to fade fast and almost entirely.

The Machines

Traditional tattooing is done with a tattoo gun. Permanent makeup is done with a permanent makeup machine (or a manual blade in the case of microblading).

Tattoo machines are made primarily for tattooing the skin on the body, which varies in thickness, but it’s always thicker than the skin on the face. Therefore, tattoo machines need to have more force than a PMU machine. They have stronger engines with higher torque and saturate the skin with ink more intensely than a PMU machine does.

To put it plainly, if you held both machines against the skin for the same time, the tattoo machine would make much more punctures.

A PMU machine is used on the skin of the face: the brows, the eyelids, and the lips. All 3 areas are very thin and delicate, so the PMU machine has to be gentler. It works slower and makes fewer punctures per second than a tattoo machine does. This allows for a less intense saturation – such thin skin needs a smaller amount of color implemented to show the desired shade.

For these reasons, some tattoo machines can’t be used for PMU, but always check the specifications. Likewise, a PMU machine can’t be used to do a body art tattoo, because it won’t make enough punctures to build up the color saturation to a density body art tattoos require.

The Differences In Machines For PMU and Body Art Tattoos?Image source: Instagram @larcangela_microbladin

The Colors

Traditional tattooing uses permanent inks. Permanent makeup uses PMU pigments.

Here’s the thing: pigment is the basis for both these formulas. A pigment is a colorant in the form of powder that can be mixed with different carriers to create a liquid that can be implemented into the skin. Tattoo ink is, therefore, technically a pigment too, but they’re called differently for the purpose of differentiating between pmu vs traditional tattoo formulas.

The Differences In Pigments-Colors For PMU and Body Art Tattoos?Image source: Freepik

The Difference in Concentration

Tattoo inks contain very high doses of pigment, and they are mixed with many ingredients that ensure color stability and prevent fading. Apart from pigments (colorants insoluble in water), they can contain dyes, too (colorants soluble in water). They can contain many different colors mixed together for a desired shade.

With tattoo inks, it’s desirable to achieve a color as opaque, bright and vivid as possible. You want the results to stand out on the skin, not blend into it. With PMU, you want the opposite. The color is supposed to melt into the skin and give a more blended look.

That’s why PMU pigments are less concentrated. The colors used in PMU are mostly shades of brown and red and rosy tones (used for lips), so the palette is largely created by mixing fewer colors. The formulas are simpler than those of tattoo inks, as there is no need for components that will prevent the color from fading.

The Difference in Particle Size

The biggest difference between the formulas, however, is the size of the particles. Molecules of tattoo inks are larger than those of PMU pigments. This is the main reason why PMU can fade away so much faster than traditional tattoos. The body can break down and absorb the molecules of PMU pigments (although not all the components), while tattoo inks stay put.

For more information on PMU pigment formulas, check out this article. For information on recent ink and pigment regulations, head over here.

A Note on Longevity

As a result of the differences in the implementation of traditional tattoos and permanent makeup, there’s a significant difference in the longevity of the results.

Body art tattoos last for decades. While they do fade to some extent and need to be refreshed to keep the colors bright and vivid, they can potentially last a lifetime. And that’s the point – if you get a body tattoo, you want it to last as long as possible and you’re cool with having it for the rest of your life.

But with PMU, you don’t want the results to last forever. Cosmetic tattoos fade within 1-3 years in general, although it can vary depending on your body chemistry and other factors. While some residues will stay in the skin longer, the results won’t be prominent after a few years.

This is a huge advantage, because it allows clients to change up the look from time to time in accordance with changing trends and personal preferences.

Cover image source: Freepik



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