It was April of last year, and I was working on a beauty story about a popular lip trend called My Lips But Better, or MLBB. A type of lip blushing (i.e., tattooed, semi-permanent makeup on your mouth), MLBB gives your lips a subtle rosy tint using a cosmetic tattoo gun (on a low setting) and water-based inks. I happily volunteered to test out the trend in the name of research. After all, I’m not afraid of needles, and permanence was never a notion that scared or bothered me. With enough time (or money), anything is reversible, right? At least, that’s what I thought.
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Before the treatment, I did a ton of research—I read blogs, medical journals, and editor reviews, and I consulted with friends who had tried lip blushing themselves. Dozens of women online reported ultra-subtle results, and my friends all said the same thing: “It’s like a cute tint, but barely noticeable!” The treatment itself also seemed benign and straightforward: a little lidocaine to numb my lips, a few passes of a cosmetic tattoo gun, and only three days of downtime. Easy.
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I made an appointment with a permanent makeup artist who was kinda ~known~ in the beauty sphere—she had impressive online coverage, lovely looking before-and-after photos, and her studio was brightly lit, lofty, and beautiful. Everything just felt right. She handed me a mirror and explained that she would first numb me up with topical lidocaine for 45 minutes, then lightly trace over the entire surface area of my lips, including the borders, and—most importantly—that it wouldn’t hurt a bit.
Usually, at this point in the appointment, your permanent makeup artist would discuss shade preferences with you—some people want lip blushing to fully change their natural lip color, while others want it to lightly define their lip shape or fill in some faded areas. But I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know to bring reference photos, or to show her my favorite lipstick or lip liner, or to discuss what I didn’t want at the beginning of the appointment, because she never told me to (and, sadly, this cautionary article didn’t exist). So when she blended her own “go-to shade” without my input, I trusted her. And that was the part that now makes me cringe most about the whole procedure—even more than the pain.
Despite everything I had read and heard (“it feels like little scratches!” and “it’s not bad at all!”), my treatment hurt—a lot. For reference, I have an unusually high pain threshold: I open beer bottles with my front teeth, and I’ve had surgery on my ear while I was awake and watching. But during the lip-blushing session, my eyes were watering like an unruly tap. “If she goes over the right side of my upper lip again, I might actually die,” I thought to myself. At that moment, I realized I hadn’t cleared my Chrome history. Only the adrenaline from thinking about someone discovering how often I Google “alpacas after a haircut” kept me going.
I learned later that feeling such intense pain was, like most of my lip-blushing experience, completely abnormal. “Lips are considered a sensitive area, but most of my clients don’t complain about pain at all,” says LA-based permanent makeup artist and educator Stella Fixman, who noted that pain was the first red flag. “The technique itself works on the outermost layer of the dermis, so if you’re experiencing pain, it’s a sign that the artist is likely pressing too hard and going too deep.” At most, she says, lip blushing “should only feel like light scratching of the skin.” I, however, was in so much pain, even after lidocaine, that I was contemplating tapping out while my limbs were still mobile.
“You’ll be restaurant ready by the end of the session!” the permanent makeup artist declared almost two hours (!) into my treatment. And that, according to Fixman, was the second red flag. “I never work on a client—as in, needles-on-skin work—for more than one hour,” she says. “Everyone’s skin is different, but what I’ve learned from years of experience is that most lips start to swell at the one-hour mark, and it creates too much trauma.”
By the end of my appointment, I was so swollen on the right side of my top lip that it looked like I was having a severe allergic reaction. The heat and stinging sensation was unlike any tattoo, lip injection, or bee sting I’d ever had. I worried that my lip tissue may have been scarred, but the permanent makeup artist assured me everything was normal, so I took an Advil and tried not to panic. She assured me the healing phase would last only one week and sent me home with a custom ointment that would help with any dryness and shedding over the next few days.
During the recovery, I expected to look like I had just gone a little heavy-handed with my lip liner. Instead, my lips were more inflamed than a cherry-red Rosso Corsa. Fixman says that, on average, the initial lip-blushing pigment should start to fade by the third or fourth day (which is why the downtime for the treatment is usually so minimal), but my lips stayed red for ten full days, until the pigment started to fade off in uneven patches.
“It’s not supposed to look like that,” said a friend who had gotten lip blushing the year prior. She pulled up photos of her healing process; it looked nothing like mine. I called my permanent makeup artist in a panic. She assured me everything was normal, but to come back for a touch-up in six weeks. And that, my friends, was the third red flag.
Though some artists do require follow-up appointments to check on the healing process (which is fine and good), Fixman says that secondary treatments—as in adding another layer of ink to your lips—is typically not necessary. “When you’re trying to achieve a natural look, a touch-up is not needed,” she says. “The lips take pigment very well, and unless a client wants a bolder look, I don’t require second appointments.” In fact, even if a client does want a bolder look, Fixman advises against it. “It’s permanent makeup,” she says. “You can always add lipstick, but you can’t take off a tattoo.”
But, once again, I didn’t know any of this at the time. So when the artist swore that adding more pigment would correct all my problems, I believed her—and I was desperate. The treatment didn’t hurt nearly as much as the first time, but my lips were race-car red again, and after another ten days of peeling, they somehow looked even more discolored, uneven, and patchy than before. I was furious. I scoured the internet for photos of other patchy lip work. Nothing. Why was I the only unlucky soul with bad blushing?
The makeup artist asked that I return for a third time to fix the work she didn’t believe was bad in the first place. This time, I reached out to Jonathan Cabin, MD, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon that I know and trust, who told me to steer clear of adding even more pigment. “One strong recommendation is not to chase lip blush that you don’t like with additional tattooing,” he said. “It’s bound to make the problem worse and more difficult to treat.” I listened to his advice. Plus, going back for a third time would just be Stockholm Syndrome; why would I knowingly return to my lip abuser?
Still, I wasn’t about to live with these nightmare lips—I needed a solution. I began looking for tattoo-removal lasers that were safe enough to be used on the lips. And, fun fact, there really aren’t any. “Laser tattoo removal anywhere on the body is typically a challenging, multi-treatment process, and one must proceed with particular caution in such a cosmetically sensitive area as the lips,” says Dr. Cabin, warning that your lips run the risk of getting even darker after treatment—or even black.
That’s not to say all laser removal is off the table when it comes to your lips, though. Since lip-blushing techniques and pigments can drastically differ from person to person, you may be able to successfully remove your blushing—but only a dermatologist or plastic surgeon can tell you for certain. And for me, it wasn’t an option. Instead, the only other solution I had was my old frenemy, Father Time. “These tattoos are generally not 100 percent permanent,” says Dr. Cabin. “They can fade over a 2-5 year period, so in most cases, it’s best to just wait it out.”
And that’s where I am today—waiting for the patches of pigment to fully fade from my lips. Looking back, I’m not mad at myself for deciding to do lip blushing; it’s my job to try treatments and report on them (and besides, I’d never betray my former self). But it’s now more than a year later, and I still have blotchy lips. I wear lip liner every day so that the unevenness and shading isn’t as noticeable.
If I could go back in time, I would insist on picking my own lip color, and I would have also asked the practitioner to stop the service the moment I started feeling the intolerable level of pain that I was in (seriously, be your own advocate; if something feels wrong, say something). Even though I’ve come to terms with my solution-less reality, I’m still holding out hope for the approval of a new laser or some magical stem-cell treatment. Or, you know, the keys to a DeLorean going 88mph—whichever comes first.
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