Move over microblading, now the latest long-lasting makeup treatment is lip blush. The results can be surprisingly natural if you know who to see
Dr Sarah Tonks is a cosmetic doctor who’s done plenty of lip filler treatments, so when I clocked her recently with particularly good-looking, but seemingly entirely natural lips, I had to ask her what kind of filler technique she’d been subjected to (or subjected herself to – yes, some doctors do jab their own faces!).
“That’s not filler,” came the answer. “That’s lip tattooing.”
I was mesmerised. I’ve seen some horrid tattooed lip liner in my time, but Tonks’ lips were a gentle, very real-looking pink all over, with the beautifully crisp and defined outline that most of us naturally have in our teens and twenties. They looked naturally full as well, despite this superficial tattoo technique obviously not adding any volume the way fillers do.
“Making the lip line look crisper has a transformative, age-reversing effect, and so does adding colour that flatters your skin tone,” says Tonks.
Frankly, I much preferred her look over the majority of lip filler jobs I see, which are so rarely as ‘natural’ as people seem to think they are.
Because it can look so natural, more people are having the treatment. Campaigner Katie Piper and nutritional health coach Madeleine Shaw (known for her almost makeup-free look) have both had the procedure at Tracie Giles.
Yet, according to research by saveface.co.uk and justmylook.com, lip blushing, which unlike actual tattooing is a semi-permanent procedure, is the fourth most concern-causing beauty treatment in the UK, with almost 2,500 searches a month regarding botched lip blushing (the preferred term for the practice) treatments, after lip fillers, thread lifts and toxin injections such as Botox.
So how safe, and how good, is it really, and what are the need-to-knows before you go ahead? We spoke to specialists and fans.
What is lip blushing?
It’s a form of semi-permanent makeup (SPMU) using a more superficial tattoo device; pigments designed to fade over time are needled just underneath the very top layer of the lip surface, with the technician drawing the lip line and colouring the lip surface using tiny mechanised needles.
“It’s a very slow and precise work,” says SPMU artist Nez Hasan, whose salon Tonks visited to have her lips done. “We use 1, 3 and 5 needle point sizes to define the lips then shade them in softly.”
The colour has to be built: “Rather like nail vanish, where multiple coats give an increasingly opaque result, we layer pigments for intensity,” says SPMU artist and aesthetician Suzanne Martin, who offers her ‘Couture Lip’ to the moneyed visitors of London’s Lanesborough hotel and spa, where she has a permanent residency. “This is why you need to have more than one treatment.”
What happens during a lip blush treatment?
“I spend a lot of time perfecting (or ‘pre-drawing’) the lips with makeup before I begin treatment,” says Martin, who has her clients sitting up and lying down while she takes photographs and tweaks until she’s satisfied with a perfectly placed, symmetrical lip-line. After the prep work, “numbing cream is applied so you won’t feel the pain,” says Hasan. Your biggest problem should be boredom. “Due to the painstaking nature of the work - the colour must be applied slowly and smoothly in several passes or the result won’t look natural - a session can take two-and-a-half to three hours,” she says. “You will then come in for a second session to intensify the colour six to eight weeks later.” Martin says two or three two-hour sessions are usually required.
“For the most natural results, we use natural pigments that will suit you and your colouring, then match it to the tones you prefer,” says Hasan. You might want to bring pictures of yourself with the lip tone you want, or even lip colours that you love. It's good to have some idea of what you’re after, although “Your lips will be very red for a week or two before they settle into their colour,” says Tonks. “You don’t know how the process is going to turn out on you while your technician has probably seen it hundreds of times, so listen to their suggestions.”
“We use a shading technique that will give a soft ‘powder’ look rather than a block of pigment,” says Hasan. “We also change the needle on the second or third pass as we see how the lips are absorbing the pigment."
Martin explains her approach as “not just applying a permanent lip line, but rather to redefine the lip shape and then shade it into the body of the lip so the line is perfectly blended.”
What can lip blushing do for you?
Adding pigment to the lip has a remarkable range of benefits – which is perhaps not so surprising if you consider how much we rely on our lipsticks.
- Making lips look younger
“As we age, we lose pigmentation in our lips, our lip line becomes ill-defined, and our features tend to droop a little,” says Martin. “All of this can be corrected with lip tattooing.”
- Making lips look fuller
“Like lip liner, lip blushing enhances the shape, symmetry and borders of the lips, but the ‘shading’ technique a good technician will use can also create ‘3D’ definition and make lips look more voluminous,” says make-up artist and facialist Nathalie Eleni (@nathalieeleni_beauty), who’s had the procedure done for over ten years at Tracie Giles.
- Making lips look more symmetrical and defined
“There are a lot of people who suffer from uneven lips due to cold sores, which leave scarring and discolouration,” says Hasan. “The lip blush treatment helps recover the original lip shape and definition.”
- Evening out lip colour
“We have many clients with brown lips, especially around the border,” says Hasan. “So we do a ‘lip neutraliser’ where we use a pigment to make the lips all one colour and give them a fresh, rosy look.”
- Giving a non-surgical lip lift
“Lip blushing can be a great option to slightly shorten the nose to lip radio, giving the lip a ‘lifted’ look and the face a more youthful appearance,” says Eleni.
- Making your face look fresher
“The ‘blush’ technique used to fill the lip can help you regain the colour you had 20 years ago, complimenting your skin tone and so adding vibrancy to your face,” says Eleni.
- Saving time
“Many of my clients love the idea they can wake up with their lips already sorted” says Hasan. Tonks remarks that, as a doctor who has to wear face masks a lot, it’s great to know her lipstick won’t rub off and she looks pulled-together at all times, while others love looking permanently selfie-ready.
Is lip blushing an alternative for fillers?
It is in some ways, but it’s certainly not the same thing. “A lot of people who have this treatment do it instead of lip filler as the 3D shading definition gives the illusion of fuller lips – but of course the treatment doesn’t add actual volume,” says Hasan.
“You can also go bigger – but we would never advise placing pigment beyond the lip line by more than 1mm,” she says. Normally, technicians precisely redefine the existing lip line and that in itself gives the illusion of youthful volume.
Can you have both lip fillers and lip blush?
You can, says Tonks, who’s had both. “Tattooing doesn't give volume or treat the wrinkling of the lips. Equally, fillers don't improve their colour, while I think vermilion border (lip line) enhancement can be more successfully achieved with tattooing. So a combination is better!"
Most specialists advise having lip filler before lip blushing and not the other way around (leave at least four weeks between treatments). “We have noticed that lip blush results work extremely well and are more fresh-looking on clients who’ve had fillers,” says Hasan.
This may have something to do with the added hydration in the lip. Martin, however, recommends trying lip blushing first as you might not need filler. “quite often my clients refrain from the idea of fillers as the permanent makeup gives them the desired results.”
How painful is lip blushing and what is lip blushing downtime?
“It was actually not painful at all,” confirms Tonks. With numbing cream, you should feel some scratches at most. Any serious pain means something is amiss and the therapist could be pushing the pigments too deep, which shouldn’t happen.
Expect seven to ten days’ downtime. “Lips can be swollen for up to three days,” says Hasan. “You will scab a bit and peel, and the lip colour will be very high. Things will look relatively normal after two weeks but the colour will come and go for five to six weeks as the healing takes that long.” But it’s worth it, says Tonks: “I was surprised how natural it looked after the settling-in period. It was even better than I’d hoped.”
How long does lip blush last?
The pigments will fade naturally over time but fortunately, says Hasan, they don’t change colour as can happen with eyebrow microblading. How quickly they fade depends on lifestyle (sunlight, smoking and exfoliants will speed up the process) and genetics. An annual top-up treatment is common, although Martin says her work “often lasts up to four years.”
What are the risks and downsides of lip blushing?
A technician who places the pigments too deep can cause damage such as asymmetry and discolouration, that can last several years. Infections and allergies are other risks. Being prone to cold sores doesn’t have to be a problem, though: “We advise taking medication five days before and five days after the treatment to prevent cold sores and protect the lip blush as it’s healing,” says Hasan.
How do you find a reputable lip blush technician?
Eleni advises to not just check out their work on Instagram (“those pics can be tweaked”) but to go for a face-to-face consultation where you can ask to look at previous work. “Before the treatment, ask the therapist to mock up the intended shape and colour so you know what you’re in for,” she says. “Also, always have a patch test first and don’t do it too close to a special occasion.”
Also check that your technician has a substantial number of years’ experience as a SPMU artist. You are, however, taking somewhat of a leap of faith, cautions Tonks. “In Japan, lip tattooing is a medical procedure usually carried out by nurses under supervision of a doctor. In the UK, all anyone needs is a license from the council.”
What does lip blushing cost?
It varies, but we don’t advise looking for a cheap deal as you want an experienced therapist and a safe environment.
Hasan charges a total of £600 for the treatment and the ‘refresh’/follow-up six weeks later, with yearly top-ups starting from £350.
Martin’s Couture Lip is £1,400 for two treatments, and £2,200 if you need a third one to complete the process.