Pigments in microblading is one of the topics that has raised more questions than many others. Mainly because many people going into microblading just do not know a lot about chemistry (as many friends and now members of our team fortunately do). This, combined with the fact that people tend to be gullible when they know less about something has enabled many producers and resellers take advantage of that simply by scaring people. We believe that everything regarding pigments should be based on facts. The following may be helpful if you are an aspiring microblading artists that wants to know more fact-based information about the pigments used in the industry.
What is the basic idea of pigments?
Colours used in microblading and PMU in fact always consist of two primary parts: pigment itself (we'll come back to that later on in detail) and some sort of liquid carrier that enables to deliver the pigment into the skin. As we all do know in microblading the target is to get enough pigment molecules to Basal membrane and it is safe to say that without a carrier liquid that would be simply impossible. The pigment part of the pigment has to be sustainable enough that human body would not remove it immediately (or too fast). As those carriers are inside the substance that we call pigment, let us first talk about those.
Of course amongst the very fact that liquid carriers allow pigment molecules to enter the skin, those also have other functions. They hold the whole substance together, grant the moisture and quite often also contain solvents that allow the production of pigment. Now, let us zoom into what you might find in a typical liquid carrier.
Witch-hazel (aka Hamamelis or Hamamelis virginiana) - It is just a plant the leaves of which (and actually also fruit) are used to make a semiliquid substance that is a gentle and soft cooling agent . It is used in various cosmetic products as a totally harmless semisolid component of a very large amount of creams and cooling gels (against rashes, swelling etc). This is a part of the liquid carrier that is purely natural and safe. Still it is not a good idea to eat Which-hazel, as you most certainly understand several substances that are ok on top of or inside the skin may cause harm when swallowed.
Purified water - Quite often pigments also contain some water (H2O). Obviously this is not out ordinary drinking water, instead it is purified water- this means that it is cleaned of all sorts of contaminates. Still the chemical formula is H2O, or HOH to represent its molecular shape more accurately. Water can be purified through osmosis, filtration and distillation - thus, let us just say it is absolutely pure - no smell, no taste. Also safe, as you may well assume.
ALCOHOLS - Now alcohol as a whole is totally different kind of beast when it comes to chemistry and let us just say it is quite impossible to tell as a whole whether it is safe or not because there are so many kinds of different alcohols in chemical sense. I.e. a class of wine would most probably have a positive effect on your day, whereas a class of methanol would cause some rather interesting reactions in your body that can well end your life due to formaldehydes (or at least make you blind). When it comes to pigments we highly suggest you go into detail and zoom into the exact formula - and it pays off to be very exact, small changes in details may mean totally other kind of substance with different effects. Here are some alcohols that you might find in pigments (or rather in the liquid carrier of those).
Glycerine (C3H8O3) - aka glycerol or sugar alcohol. Also totally natural odourless, colourless liquid substance. It has a sweet taste and is also used as a sweetener in food industry. What is the main idea of Glycerol (or glycerine) in pigments? It just keeps the liquid moist and does not let some other components of the pigment just evaporate. Glycerine is generally produced from animal sources, soya bean or palm. Different alcohols are used to get glycerol as a result of reaction from triglycerides that those substances contain. It can be said that glycerine is totally safe.
Propylene glycol (C3H8O2) -It is a fine sample of a substance that gets people really scared. Why? Because it is also found (or actually makes up a large part) of the antifreeze used to cool car engines. At first, you would think you did not want to insert that into humans face. And you would be wrong. As with so many other substances used in cosmetics and food industry - whilst propylene glycol can be produced synthetically as a byproduct that you get from oil refining or natural gas processing, it can also be found in nature, i.e. as a byproduct of simple fermentation. Although in antifreeze the substance may have a bit sweet taste, in pigments propylene glycol (that is also sometimes called 1,2-propanediol) is totally odourless, colourless and tasteless substance. Although in various databases you may find that it is listed among carcinogens, FDA (Federal Drug Administration) has also issued a statement proving propylene glycol to be relatively safe. However, let us not get carried away, much of the discussion on the internet is related to eating this substance. When it comes to using it in cosmetic products and pigments its purpose and the quantity in which it is used is hugely smaller. In pigments it is just used to maintain moisture. Although SharpBrows pigments do not contain propylene glycol, you should not be afraid of it. Here it should also be noted that one should never get carried away by just reading the label and making quick conclusions. Chemistry is a bit more complicated and you should always zoom into more details than just the headlines. I.e. we all know that Arsenic is one of the most effective poisons of all time, however it is necessary to human functioning to a certain extent. Everything must be put into context and in the context of pigments, taking into account the way propylene glycol is used and in which amounts, it is safe.
Isopropyl alcohol (C3H8O) - aka isopropanol is the actually the simplest antiseptic that many artists use. Or at list it is one of the main components of that. Now, when it comes to safety of isopropanol inside the liquid carrier of pigments, one might also get a bit carried away by the fact that in large quantities (although used for acne treatment) isopropanol dries the skin (when rubbed on the skin). From there some people have drawn the conclusion that also inside the liquid carrier isopropanol would start drying the skin. It is really far fetched at best, in reality taking into account the quantity and even more importantly the function of isopropanol as solvent int the process of mixing the pigment substances together, it is safe. The only actual influence of isopropanol in such substances is related to pigment drying a bit faster (that affects the application process).
Propylethylen glycol (C2nH4n+2On+1) - aka PEG is a chemical substance that is usually just used to retain the moisture of the pigment and liquidity. Basically, in chemical sense one can produce PEG by having ethylene oxide react with water or ethylene glycol. It is used medically in many laxatives as well as in a very large number of cosmetic products. Although in some very rare cases there has been some sort of allergic reaction to PEG, and claims that it affects liver and kidneys, in pigments it is safe. In addition to pigments it is used in many products that can be (at least partially) digested (as i.e toothpaste) and thus if a person is allergic to PEG components it is most certain that she gets it in much larger quantities from other sources (mostly food). Please never misinterpret propylethylen glycol for ethylen glycol that indeed can be quite toxic and is never used in pigment liquid carriers. Although pigments used by SharpBrows do not contain PEG elements, it is safe to say that inside the liquid carrier of the pigment those are harmless.
Rosin (C15H20O6) - It is a substance that is made from resin taken from the palm trees. It is sometimes produced as a byproduct when making paper and other products trees are used for. Rosin is used often to make several products thicker and more solid - as a glazing agent when it comes to several medications or even chewing gum. As well as rosin substances are used in the role of an emulsifiers in soft drinks. When it comes to pigments the purpose of rosin is to give the substance a better, more solid and thicker form. Sometimes people concerned with their health are very worried about glycerol ester of rosin i.e. in soft drinks such as Gatorade. However, once again as it is with so many other substances the attention should be drawn to the actual quantity of the product. In pigments it is safe.
Isopropyl palmitate (C19H38O2) - Used with similar purpose as the rosin, it is a substance from palms (palm oil) and coconut oil. The purpose of using isopropyl palmitate in pigment liquid carrier is to make the pigment thicker, unite different substances and also to give the pigment clearer shinier, softer and smoother state. Although some people highly concerned with cosmetic products side-effects may claim isopropyl palmitate to cause acne, blackheads, whiteheads and clogged pores, it is highly exaggerated when it comes to pigments. In reality it is just an odourless, colourless, clear substance that helps to maintain the viscosity of the pigment and does not harm the client.
That subs up about everything that is most commonly used in liquid containers in nowadays pigments. In the past (and nowadays also in some cheaper and a bit older products) also ethanol (C3H8O3) and listerine (C30H52O3) were used. However, at the moment the liquid carrier can be made without those as the cons of latter often out-weighted their pros.
Now, let us look into the colour itself. As we all do know we need three different colours in microblading pigments: Black, Red and Yellow. And that is exactly how we are going to explain the chemical substance side of the pigments. In addition to that, of course some white colour is used and that will also be explained in the end of this section. First, let us start with black.
BLACK - When you want to produce black colour in a pigment for microblading or semi-permanent makeup you basically have three most common ways you can choose. Each of those have their pros and cons.
Longwood (C16H14O6 or C16H12O6) aka Campeachy wood. This is a purely natural way of getting the black colour for the pigment. The wood can be boiled and the chemical substances extracted from it. Although the pigment or dye that can be extracted from Longwood is natural one should not make an immediate conclusion that it is entirely safe. Very much depends on the concrete producer because in the chemical sense the compound itself would be quite quickly dissolved (in water). To make it stable additional insoluble carriers must be used and some of those may be less safe. Quite often Aluminium Hydroxide or Barium Sulfate is used for that purpose - this way the colour remains the same once inserted into skin. As you can see the black colour from the Longwood tree is organic (containing carbon) and it is also natural. There are artists that have claimed having problems inserting that sort of pigment inside the skin because of its lightness as well as sometimes that sort of black has been less stable. However, that is one way to get the black. SharpBrows has used a lot of pigments that contained Black made this way.
Iron oxide - CI 77499- (Fe3O4). This is iron oxide that can actually be found in nature (thus it is mineral). As it contains no carbon it is purely inorganic. This substance can actually be extracted from iron ore in nature as black powder (which might lead you to think that it is mineral when it comes to pigments). However, nowadays there is no sense to start extracting Fe3O4 from iron ore because there is a hight risk that then the end-substance would also contain several heavy metals. Nowadays it is synthesised in the laboratory as it allows better control over the purity of the end result. This process allows to produce Black colour by the colour index 77499 (CI 77499). We have used this way of gaining black. It is completely safe (i.e. EWG's Skin Deep database hazard score 2 - link) and accepted by even the most critical cosmetology experts. Although, in modern times it has never became an actual issue because clients do not wait a year to come for retouch, sometimes human body may be able to break down this black over time before Fe2O3. What has caused some excitement and fuzz is the fact that Fe3O4 has magnetic features, making magnet stick to the pigment bottle and thus causing people to think that such pigments may be harmful (or may contain heavy metals - concepts that are absolutely irrational to anyone familiar with chemistry and production of pigments). Although in large quantities Fe3O4 can affect magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) it has never had practical effects with the amounts inserted into skin with microblading. In though must be added that in ancient past actual iron ore was used to make Fe3O4 - CI 77499 colour and then depending on the source of mining and a concrete batch the end result may have contained other metals. However, nowadays this component is obviously synthesised which means making such claims (that it would be impossible to control the amount of heavy metals impossible in this substance) misleading and false.
Carbon - CI 77266.- (C). Many pigments nowadays contain pure (over 97%) carbon for their black colour. Basically it is the same substance that can be found in ash or soot, however when it comes to pigment industry it is used also in nano-form. This allows the carbon particles to be really small (giving it a variety of advantages). The Colour Index code of this black is CI 77266. Several tests on animals have proven that it causes no irritation (when applied for 24h onto the skin of New Zealand white rabbit under patches that prevented air to get in contact with the substance, no cutaneous reactions were produced, when inserted into the eyes of rabbits also it was found that it is not irritating). Although the substance itself CI 77266 is more toxic than Iron oxide based black (CI 77499) as it's EWG's Skin Deep Database hazard score is 6 - link ) it has been proven with a large amount of other inhalation, mutation and tumour tests on animals (rats, mice, hamsters, etc) that the toxicity level stay below the EU max norms. Thus it can be used. Leaving aside extensive animal testing, the substance itself is good and stable. It stays in the skin longer compared to Fe3O4 or Longwood based blacks. It's superiority when using long time has lead also SharpBrows to include it into one range of pigments.
That was the information about the blacks. When it comes to other colours, such as red and yellow the situation and choices are somewhat more simplex.
RED AND YELLOW - When it comes to red and yellow there are even less possible choices when putting together an efficient and working pigment formula in case one does not want to use toxic heavy metals. Basically the only most common substance for those is iron oxide.
Red: Iron oxide - CI 77491 - (Fe2O3) is a substance that is considered to be a safe substance to be used in various cosmetic products. In nature it is just rust. If Iron oxide is used for red colour one can be sure that this is the substance. A powder of such ferric oxide is known as red rouge or just rouge. This substance is considered safe according to the EU standards. Also it's EWG's Skin Deep Database hazard score is just 1-2. A positive thing is that red colour from iron oxide is stable and in practice there has never been problem with preserving molecules of this pigment in the skin.
Yellow: Iron oxide - CI 77492 - (Fe2O3) As you can see with the yellow the chemical formula is the same. However the difference between getting those two powders (red and yellow) lies in hydration phases: α hydration phase produces red, β hydration phase produces yellow. This substance is considered safe according to the EU standards. Also it'sEWG's Skin Deep Database hazard score is just 1. In practice we have seen that yellow colour made from iron oxide is also stable in the skin (body decomposes it before the α hydration red, however in practice long after it has any influence on the actual microblading result). Once again, when it comes to the red and yellow iron oxide those can well be found in nature - i.e. one of the most known source for natural yellow Fe2O3 is ochre (which is basically clay). However, one should not lure herself to thinking that microblading pigments are made mining clay somewhere. Nowadays the substance Fe2O3 is achieved through syntheses in large laboratory complexes.
In the past there have also been other ways to get red or yellow colors, however as those are not used so widely anymore. Largely because of restrictions of use and sales because of the laws of European Union and to some extent also FDA. Still, let us just take a quick look at those also.
Cinnabar (HgS) - The substance form it can be used in is mercury sulfide. It could be used in pigments to produce beautiful bright red colour. However, as we all do know Mercury is a toxic heavy metal. Although Cinnabar is naturally occurring material the red colour made from it still contains Mercury quite often many thousands of times more than it is allowed. Thus in this context it is rather un-necessary to consider this option further.
Cadmium (CdSO4) - The substance form it can be used in is cadmium sulfide. Although also being natural, as we all do know Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal and thus can not be used under the laws of EU. Theoretically it could also be used to produce bright beautiful yellow. However, as cadmium is a toxic heavy metal there is no idea in considering that as an option to produce red or yellow colours further.
Azo dyes (R−N=N−R′) - To achieve red (and sometimes yellow) colour in some of the tattoo inks (at least not very recently) also Azo dyes were used: R and R' in its chemical formula being aryl. There are many restrictions regarding the use of Azo dyes because those are considered to be clearly carcinogenic. When it comes to any sort of dyes however let us not forget that a synthesised dye by itself is soluble and thus there always have to be other substances that help to transport this into skin (and to preserve its state).
Curcuma Longa (C21H20O6) - It is a completely natural yellow powder that can be extracted from Turmeric plant. It has been used to die cloths, in foods and in medications. It is safe to say that this substance is harmless to body when inserted in the process of microblading. We have used pigments in which the yellow colour has been achieved that way. However, all that we have had a chance to get familiar with have shown really weak persistence in the skin.
Berries - This is not a joke. There are nature loving producers that have tried to use different berries to produce red colour in pigments. However, as all of the pigments we have had a chance to come in contact with have been really temporary and rather unstable. Obviously there may be ways to achieve more stable totally natural red colours and depending on the producer such substances may be useful and stable. Still as there is no practical reason to drop the stable and harmless Fe2O3.
This material would not be complete if we would not touch the question of heavy metals. When it comes to modern microblading pigments this is largely a question from the past. As the reader has probably understood, toxic heavy metals are not nearly as common today as those were years ago. First of all, there is the question about which metals can be considered heavy metals and according to many sources there are around 100 different definitions. It all depends wether we approach this question from the discourse of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, jurisdiction, etc. According to all of the above just lead and mercury could be considered heavy metals according to all of those.
To bring some clarity to this issue and taking into account the fact that the business of everyone should meet at least the laws of the specific country a person or a company is operating in the most comprehensive list comes from EU directives (when it comes to defining heavy metals EU is stricter than FDA and there are also good reasons for that we will not go into in more detail at the moment). According to the EU ResAP (2008)1 that has been the basis of the most restrictive legal standards the heavy metals the pigment has to be tested against are: Arsenic (As), Nickel (Ni), Barium (Ba), Lead (Pb), Cadmium (Cd), Selenium (Se), Cobalt (Co), Antimony (Sb), Chromium (Cr), Tin (Sn), Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn) and Mercury (Hg). However, one has to understand that as testing against heavy metals is just one part of the tests that have to be carried out to sell pigments in the states of EU, there is no commercial idea whatsoever to even attempt to create pigments for microblading the colours of which would come from heavy metals (or sulphides or oxides or what ever substances have you). That way the pigments just could not be sold and marketed. Thus all sorts of vendetta theories about somebody wanting to sneak in heavy metal based pigments into EU or USA is just against the nature of market forces. The producers of pigments are interested in making money and nowadays it is far easier to make money with less expenses if the pigments do not contain heavy metals. That, with no surprise whatsoever, can also be seen in various chemical studies published about different pigments by the producers of such pigments. Nowadays, at least in all basic colours there are no toxic heavy metals when it comes to decent producers.
Quite often does pigment labels and what is even more important documentation regarding pigments from the producer contains the note: "May contain traces of nickel". At first, that sort of text may rise an eyebrow and make one think that the pigment contains heavy metals. This is not true and does not by itself mean that the pigment would contain any sort of heavy metals. It is added to labels and and other descriptions about pigment because in factories where pigments are made the same large containers are used that are also used for making products that contain nickel. Therefore, it is often just considered to be a good policy to mark the fact that "Pigment may contain traces of nickel", however chemically the largest probable amount of any sort of nickel particles is insignificant and by far under the norms that would have to list nickel as ingredient of the pigment. Thus for that note, there is absolutely no need to worry.
When it comes to legal aspects (and this is somewhat connected with the topic of heavy metals) most producers have exploited the fact that everything that is not illegal is legal. And when it comes to modern market economy they should not be blamed for that. As mentioned before to some extent the use of different substances in microblading pigments (and in pigments in general) is regulated by FDA in the United States of America. However, as most producers of pigments admit, it is not hard at all to meet the standards of FDA. As mentioned earlier, there are more restrictions in the European Union. The most widely known of those is most definitely EU ResAP (2008)1 and several additions to that 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017. Still, although the list on cancerous substances as well as any sort of aromatic amines, mutagenic, reprotoxic and sensitising properties of substances, Dyestuffs, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and Benzo-a-pyrene (BaP) substances is long and scary at the first glance, when it comes to actual substances needed to make microblading pigments non of that really has too much of an effect in practice because it is either not needed nor economically viable to use such substances anyway. The member states of EU are allowed of course to set stricter regulations, however it has not been practiced too often, with the exception of Swedish fiscal officials restricting the use of formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (that have been used in the liquid carriers of some pigments).
When it comes to microblading pigments there are probably no other field of modern day cosmetics where so much resources and effort was put into sales and marketing. And it can be well understood because as mentioned in the beginning of this analyses ones we do not know too much about a certain field we tend to be gullible and easily scared. It has been proven for example that people react immediately to words that are loaded with emotional influence, such as "cancer", "animal testing", "heavy metals", "discovery", "death", "natural", "vegan" and so on and so forth. When it comes to marketing using everything that is not illegal should also be considered normal because we live in the age of the flow of never-ending marketing messages and one has to differ from the others to get the attention. However, there are two marketing strategies that should be considered rather questionable when it comes to selling pigments. Here is just a few word description about those.
Presenting obvious facts as achievements. Many producers present obvious facts, i.e. a fact that they do not break the law, as an achievement. For example they say that their pigments meet all EU ResAP (2008)1 standards or that all heavy metals in their pigments are under limits set by EU. Well, that should be considered elementary if a producer is interested in selling their products. In addition to that there have been claims regarding the pigments not containing Azo-dyes, for example. Just as a thought exercise one should think for a second what would be the actual opposite to this claim - pigments containing azo-dyes, which in most cases would make selling and marketing those to be illegal because such colours in chemical sense can be compared to ordinary paints painting industry produces for constructors.
Making pseudo science out of creating pigments. We all know that selling pigments is a marketing play and sometimes it just needs to be explained why the profit margin of such products is over 1000%. The easiest way for that is to lead the people to believe that there has been an extensive scientific research behind creating such pigments. In case it was true, everyone that has ever functioned in the world of business knows that discoveries of that kind should most definitely be patented, thus making such proprietary. However, there is no such patents nor anything proprietary regarding such pigments. There are only so many ways to mix the components together, if one has not patented anything then it is on public domain. It is just a marketing play where scientific terminology is used to make the client think that there has been an enormous investment in the scientific production of such pigments carried out. It reminds to a large extent George Clooney promoting several medicines in doctors clothing after starring in series E.R. - it all looks good, believable and highly scientific and although it has no connection with actual reality, people will buy.
Presenting alternative truths (simply lying). When it comes to marketing it is simply not polite to make statements that can not be based with facts or that pre-suppose some god-view kind of knowledge about the numbers. I.e is not nice to say that one owns a certain percentage of the market if one does not know the market size, it is not plausible to claim to say that a certain kind of pigment stays inside the skin the longest if one does not know the overall number of procedures carried out with such pigment, a certain percentage of results of the procedures have to be corrected if one does not have factual amount of procedures carried out etc. In relation to that we also suggest to remove any sort of references that something is 100% natural because that is simply very very far fetched and when it comes to professional chemists - sounding insane. Hey, let us remind you that we ourselves have been guilty of that when we knew less about chemistry! :D
In addition to that it is more and more popular, depending on the country to stress the vegan aspect of pigments. To a certain degree that can also be considered manipulative and misleading. Whilst many animals have been smeared and killed during the process of developing the components that are used in the pigments if the final result does not contain substances derived from animals or is not additionally tested on animals when it comes to laws in force in the European Union it is safe to say the pigment is vegan and not tested on animals. It can be compared to giving allowing a movie with several devastating scenes be allowed to see by all audiences if the final cut was made by a very ethical director. That is just life in modern day market economy - all that is not illegal when it comes to marketing, is legal.
The contents of GEN3 pigments used by SharpBrows: Glycerine, Water, Which-Hazel, Isopropyl alcohol, Isopropyl palmitate, Rosin, CI 77266, CI 77491, CI 77492.
In conclusion the following ideas should be stressed.
1. There are several good pigments on the market that allow artists to produce excellent results.
2. Nowadays, top quality can be achieved both naturally and through syntheses.
3. Heavy metals should not be used in pigments.
4. Questionable marketing approaches should not be used to scare consumers.
5. No-one should feel bad.
Let us not forget that there is not too much difference what pigment the artist uses if she is not able to put the pigment into the skin. And when it comes to 2018, as we all know the market has changed to a large extent. Thus a funny actual situation can be recalled from a few days ago. One microblading artist said to another: "I don't have iron oxide in my pigments" and the other replied: "Let me tell you what else you don't have - a customer." Let us clarify - this does NOT mean that pigments with iron oxide would be superior to the ones without iron oxide or visa versa. The point of this is simple - it does not matter what sort of acceptable pigment an artist uses if she makes excellent brows and it does not matter what stock of different pigments she buys herself if she is not willing to work hard, practice and constantly develop to beat the competition and get the client.
PS. A big thank you from our friends in Stanford - Non of this would have made sense if you had not provided us with all the explanations, materials, links, test reports, etc. THANK YOU and if you need brows of any sort in the future, we are always here for you :D