You might have come across a Facebook post earlier this year that raised more than a few eyebrows. It was put up by Kanyarat Dew Chaichan, a Thai woman who had wanted fuller brows through eyebrow tattooing but instead, received semi-circle tattoos on her face.
Fortunately, a beauty therapist saw Kanyarat's post and gave her free corrective work as she could not afford the 50,000 baht (S$2,000) treatment fee.
Kanyarat's story might have been an extreme example of eyebrow tattoos gone horribly wrong, but there are similar beauty crimes committed on women that are just as heinous – especially if the eyebrow tattoos were done decades ago.
You can still spot bad brows on the street occasionally, or even on your mum if hers were inked 40 years ago: Thin, Pamela Anderson-inspired arches, or Angry Bird-like eyebrows that look like thick, harsh lines. To make things worse, they would’ve turned grey, blue or green over the years.
These were probably the first generation of brow enhancements, when machines with singular needles were used to embed ink deep in the skin, according to a Browhaus Academy trainer. The effect was unfortunately stark, making brows look like they were drawn on with a marker. Furthermore, just like body tattoos, the black ink oxidises and turns green over time, said Dr Joyce Lim of Joyce Lim Skin and Laser Clinic.
Fast forward to the present age of eyebrow embroidery. Instead of tattoo needles, a sharp microblade (hence its other moniker, microblading) is used to make very fine incisions in the top layer of the skin before the ink is applied. The fine strokes mimic brow hairs and can create tone gradation, resulting in a more natural-looking effect.
But even with advancements in brow enhancement technology, there are still a handful of cases that do raise eyebrows.
HOW COMMON ARE BAD EYEBROW TATTOOS?
Dr Eileen Tan, a dermatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, corrects up to eight eyebrow tattoo cases a year; predominantly on women in their 50s and above. Meanwhile, while Dr Lim did not mention how many such cases she sees in a year, she noted that her patients tend to be female "as males tend to go for the microblading technique".
Over at Browhaus Academy, one in every 100 customers goes to them to correct eyebrow tattoos that have turned green. "They are usually older women who have undergone the first generation of eyebrow tattooing," said the trainer, who declined to be named.
"What’s more common are women with red eyebrows caused by the ink used in eyebrow embroidery. We see about one in every 20 customers."
CAN BAD EYEBROW TATTOOS BE REMOVED?
Unlike eyebrow embroidery, which usually fades off after a year or two, eyebrow tattoos require laser to remove them. “The treatment varies from patient to patient and depends on the age, size, and type of the tattoo (amateur or professional)," said Dr Tan. “The colour of the patient's skin, as well as the depth to which the tattoo pigment extends, will also affect the removal technique.”
She added that age does not matter when it comes to assessing a patient's suitability for laser removal. However, existing medical problems, such as diabetes, or medications, such as blood thinners to manage stroke risks, play a part. "It may affect the healing process and there is an increased risk of skin infection," she said.
WHAT DOES THE LASER TREATMENT INVOLVE?
When laser is applied to the tattoo, the heat energy is absorbed by the tattoo pigment before fragmenting into particles small enough for your body's immune system to remove.
The doctor has to determine which laser to use as different pigment absorbs different laser wavelengths, said Dr Tan. Green pigments are more challenging to treat than blacks and blues as they react to a narrower range of laser wavelengths than the darker pigments, she explained.
As for the pain? It has been compared to being splattered by hot oil when you're frying fish. Or a thin rubber band snapping at your skin.
"The level of pain is dependent on how much green ink we are removing," said Dr Lim. "The more ink there is, the more heat is absorbed and the higher the pain."
Not that you'll be required to grin and bear the discomfort without painkiller. "Patients will be given some form of local anaesthesia, either as a topical application or injection," said Dr Tan.
WHAT ABOUT EYEBROW EMBROIDERY? DOES IT HELP?
If laser removal doesn't sound appealing to you, toning down the green in your eyebrow tattoos with other pigments is another option. To cover green or red brows, a modifier shade may be added to the pigment mix before it is applied to counteract and reduce the discolouration, said the Browhaus Academy trainer. Before the microblading takes place, a topical anaesthetic is applied to numb the treated area.
But what are the odds of the corrected brows turning colour again? This largely depends on your skin type and how strong the previous pigments are, said the trainer.
"For extreme cases, it may take multiple sessions to correct the colour as the previous pigments might surface again. Taking care of your brow post-treatment will also help to speed up the healing process."
ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES OR LIMITATIONS?
Thanks to newer technology, laser tattoo removal has become more effective. However, there is a chance that the tattoo pigment may not be completely removed, and there is a slight risk that the treatment can leave you with a permanent scar, said Dr Tan.
She added that you may also risk hypo-pigmentation, where the treated skin becomes paler than the surrounding skin, or hyper-pigmentation, where the opposite happens. If a red or flesh-tone pigment was used in the tattoo, there is a chance that the tattoo may actually darken after the laser treatment.
"The darkening is believed to result from the reduction of ferric oxide in the red pigment to ferrous oxide (turning from rust colour to black). Hence, extreme caution should be taken when considering laser treatment of cosmetic tattoos, especially those with red or flesh-tone tattoos," said Dr Tan.
What's worse is that the darkened tattoo is more difficult to remove, which may result in you requiring either repeated laser treatments or excision of the lesion, she said.
HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST?
Eyebrow laser tattoo removal is approximately S$500 to S$700 per session. You may need two to four visits for the tattoos to be removed, said Dr Tan.