If you’ve ever thought about making your eyebrows look better, thicker, or just prettier somehow, the odds are you’ve heard of microblading. Virtually unheard of a couple of decades ago, microblading has become a popular procedure, especially popularized by social media. Several celebrities including the likes of Oprah, Mila Kunis, and Serena Williams have resorted to the procedure, further increasing its popularity.
But what is microblading, and is it actually safe?
Microblading is essentially a form of semi-permanent eyebrow tattoo in which pigment is deposited in the shallow layers of the skin. Microblading differs from standard eyebrow tattooing in two major ways: it’s semi-permanent (typically lasting 12-18 months, or up to 36 months maximum), and in microblading, each hair stroke is tattooed individually by hand, whereas standard eyebrow tattoos are done with a single needle bundle.
The appeal of microblading is that it creates crisper, and more hair-like results. Instead of one big brow line, it creates a bunch of small tattoos that mimic actual eyebrow hair. It’s also more short-lived, which makes it less of a commitment, and allows the person receiving the treatment to change looks more often and follow trends.
While microblading is essentially a type of semi-permanent tattoo, tattoo artists are not necessarily good at microblading. The reason is that microblading pigment is inserted into the papillary layer of the dermis (the middle layer of skin in your body), whereas permanent tattooing pigment goes into the deeper parts of the dermis. The two procedures also use different types of pigment.
In addition to being a cosmetic or aesthetic procedure, microblading has also become a popular option for people suffering from dermatological conditions, burn scars, or things like chemotherapy-induced hair loss.
But the rise in popularity has also led to a rise of untrained professionals performing the procedure, which appears to be causing a rise in the number of cases with serious side effects. In addition, regulation in most countries has struggled to keep up with the procedure, and safety standards for microblading have mostly followed those of tattooing.
When did microblading become a thing?
Tattooing has been around for thousands of years — as clearly exhibited by Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in a glacier, whose body was covered in 61 tattoos. Historically, tattoos often served a ritual purpose, but the use of permanent markings on the body dates from ancient times.
Unfortunately, permanent or semi-permanent makeup is difficult to trace throughout history; for starters, flesh disintegrates relatively quickly, and in addition, tattoos often carried a stigma, which means mentions of them are few and far between in historical records. Ancient Egyptians, who regarded beauty as a sign of holiness and ascribed spiritual meaning to cosmetics, may have used permanent cosmetic treatments — Cleopatra famously was believed to have worn permanent makeup.
The first clearly recorded use of permanent makeup, however, dates from 1902, when U.K. tattoo artist Sutherland MacDonald offered an “all-year-round delicate pink complexion” on the cheeks. MacDonald also offered color blending on skin grafts of accident victims, which bears striking similarity to some modern tattooing practices.
But none of this is quite like microblading. Microblading is much more recent. It’s not clear exactly when and how the practice came up, but most information seems to suggest the practice emerged someplace in Asia, around twenty-something years ago. Internet search results from the 1990s show only a few “microblading” results, backing this theory.
Like many modern cosmetic treatments, microblading developed mostly in the underground, in cosmetic salons, unregulated and overlooked by authorities. That has changed in the past few years — with its new surge in popularity, authorities couldn’t ignore microblading and have taken some steps to regulate the process. Now, in most places, you need special authorization and classes to perform the procedure, and the same precautions as with tattooing apply.
Is that enough safety, though? Well, that’s hard to say.
Is microblading safe?
While serious side effects are, generally speaking, very rare, they do exist, and several concerning case studies have been presented in scientific literature.
The problem is that because it’s such a new practice and so hard to monitor, we don’t have any comprehensive data on this type of procedure. For instance, we don’t know what percentage of people who undergo microblading experience minor or major side effects (even for tattooing, a much more established practice, these data are scarce). Basically, science is still struggling to catch up. However, it seems that severe side effects associated with microblading are very rare. But minor effects can appear and be uncomfortable.
The healing process, as with any tattoo, can be a bit painful. The area should be gently cleaned every few hours for the first few days, to reduce the accumulation of lymph fluid and excess oil or moisture. Swelling, scabbing, and redness are common for the first few days — but if the problem persists or is severe, you should always contact a doctor.
According to one of the very few studies on the issue, the most common issues associated with microblading are pigment migration, color change, and misapplication of the pigment. Problems with discoloration or fading also seem to be relatively common. In general, though, the risk associated with these problems can be reduced by opting for a well-trained, careful practitioner.
There are also potential allergy risks. The FDA (and other health bodies as well) has no clear regulation on the pigments used in microblading, and allergic reactions are, while unlikely, still possible. Tattoo ink and microblading ink are not the same. Cosmetic tattoo pigments, like the ones used in microblading, are typically made of smaller particles suspended in a more dilute mixture — which makes for a softer, more natural finish. Traditional tattoo inks are more concentrated. There are also chemical differences: the microblading pigment is designed to fade faster, and not be retained. In many ways, the impact of the microblading ink is lighter on the human body than that of regular tattoos, but the area is also more delicate than most tattooed areas.
But on the rare occasions when things do go wrong, they can go very wrong. A case study documented a case of preseptal cellulitis (warning, graphic images) in a woman who had done microblading — thankfully, she received immediate medical attention. The woman had sickle cell disease, but it’s unclear whether this played a role or not.
However, several studies or case studies suggest that microblading has medical recommendations. Lack of hair (especially in places like eyebrows or eyelashes) can cause lasting psychological problems. For people suffering from alopecia, scars, chemotherapy induced hair loss or other problems, microblading can be a useful resource. In one case, the procedure was recommended by doctors to a burn victim, and the researchers documenting the study wrote:
“Eyebrows are a critically important part of facial expression, which can be lost following a devastating facial burn. Initial data demonstrate the effectiveness of tattooing in recreating the appearance and function of eyebrows over scar tissue. Over time, the eyebrows maintained color without fading and shape did not change, demonstrating durability and longevity in this patient population.”
So all in all, microblading does have its uses and can be safe, but there are some precautions to follow.
How to reduce risks associated with microblading
If you are considering getting some microblading work done, the absolute most important thing to do is to make sure you’re working with a certified practitioner who pays utmost attention to cleanliness and hygiene. A careless procedure can facilitate infection and lead to a number of big problems.
But finding the right practitioner can be challenging. A 2018 study assessing the knowledge of microbladers in British Columbia found that virtually all practitioners are relatively new in the business, noting that “there is a lack of knowledge on microblading practices specifically”. A majority of the interviewed practitioners felt that more training or certification should be required and that there should be more regulations regarding microblading. The study also found that proper training seems to offer more useful skills than practical experience. So a good approach would be to look for a practitioner with the right credentials, education, and certification to show.
It’s important to avoid drinking alcohol and strong caffeine drinks on the day of the procedure (as they can affect your blood flow and cause or accentuate inflammation or bleeding). In the following few days, swimming, saunas, and intense exercise should be avoided, as should sunbathing. When peeling happens, don’t pick or scratch at the peels — apply a hydration barrier cream instead. You should make sure the brows don’t come into contact with water for at least 7 days.
Lastly, it can’t hurt to consult with a doctor. Many doctors are aware of the procedure and may even be in touch with reliable practitioners, and it could be a good place to start looking.