Everyone knows somebody who knows somebody who has a horror story about microblading. Tales about botched applications of the popular semi-permanent tattooing technique — in which a blade deposits pigment under skin to mimic strands of hair — are beauty legend. (While there are certainly many happy customers, do not google microblading fails. Trust.) So even though I’m the type of girl who fills in her brows before she goes to the gym and am also a regular brow tinter, I was still afraid to try it. I wasn’t even sure I liked the look of microbladed eyebrows; they can sometimes appear harsh and heavy. But then I heard about a newer technique called ombré powder brows, and that Veronica Tran, one of Toronto’s OG eyelash-and-brow queens and the owner of Pretty in the City, was offering it, so I decided it was time to break up with my monthly tinting appointment.
The biggest difference between microblading and ombré powder brows is the tool. Instead of a blade, a handheld needle (similar to the one a tattoo artist would use) deposits pigment in hundreds of tiny dots, layering the colour gradually to achieve your dream shade. “It’s like picking up a paintbrush and putting in colour only where you need it,” Tran tells me during my almost three-hour visit to her downtown studio. Powder is a good technique for peeps who have sparse brows to begin with (thank you, overzealous 1990s plucking) or for people like me who just want more colour so their brows look done without having to apply makeup. The results can last up to three years and fade slowly, unlike microblading, which can fade unevenly, leaving you with weird squiggles.
That’s not to say it can’t still go wrong. Because anybody can get “certified” to do ombré — all it takes is a two-day course; there’s no industry standard — you can end up with someone whose premises or equipment aren’t sterilized properly, who doesn’t have a good eye for the shape or shade that fits your face, or who just doesn’t have a steady hand. “Everybody and their dog is doing it now,” says Tran, who has been doing permanent makeup since 2005. Her facilities have been approved for micro-pigmentation services by the City of Toronto BodySafe program, which ensures that everything's up to code. (Municipalities will all have their own certification process, so check with your local department of health to make sure your salon has passed.) Other than that, it’s the tried-and-true methods of finding a good spot or technician — word-of-mouth, reading online reviews and perusing a spa’s Insta to make sure they do the kind of look you like. (FYI, we’ve heard good things about Studio Eli Ross Inc in Montreal and Killen Ink Beauty in Vancouver.)
When it comes to technique, “I start conservative,” Tran tells me, even though I’m pushing for a heavy brownish-black to go with my dyed black hair. I’m actually a brunette and I’m very fair so she’s not sure that will look right. But she assures me we can always go darker at my touch-up appointment eight weeks later, which is included in the $625 price tag. First, Tran hand-draws an outline, showing me where she’s going to apply the pigment. (Some spas will use stencils for this part.) Because I already have decent bushiness, she basically outlines my natural shape. She applies a topical numbing cream that has to soak in for about half an hour, and then it’s down to business.
I have a couple tattoos on my body, and those babies stung, but thanks to the numbing cream and the fact that permanent makeup pigment isn’t applied as deeply into the skin as a body tattoo, this barely hurts at all; it feels like someone is scribbling on me with a particularly sharp pen. Afterwards I’m red and a bit sore, and a thin, flat scab — it’s not really noticeable to anyone looking at me — starts to form that night. Like any tattoo, it’s basically an open wound, so I have to apply an ointment daily and make sure I keep my brows clean and makeup-free until the scab falls off (no picking!!). I also have to avoid heavy exercise (so sad) or anything that causes too much sweating for 14 days because that can affect how well the colour takes.
And it takes beautifully, if I do say so myself. After two weeks I have a permanent, natural-looking, filled-in brow. I still want it be a bit darker though, so I’m counting the days until appointment number two.