Hair Tattoo: Procedure, Costs and Risks
Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Geoffrey Whittaker
If there’s one thing you should know about hair tattoos, it’s that they aren't like regular tattoos — they’re not supposed to be seen.
You aren’t camouflaging your receding hairline by plastering Sailor Jerry across your scalp. Hair tattoos also have nothing to do with picking the right style for your ~*vibe*~.
A hair tattoo is a cosmetic medical procedure people use to help bolster the appearance of their hair — this stuff is supposed to blend in.
Referred to as scalp micropigmentation (SMP), this procedure is an alternative to other hair loss treatments, such as finasteride, minoxidil or hair transplant surgery — one that doesn’t restore any hair, but will give you the look of someone who never lost it.
Below, we’ve explained how hair tattoo procedures work, as well as the type of results you can expect from this approach to treating hair loss.
We’ve also discussed the other options that are available for treating hair loss, from medication to surgical procedures that permanently restore lost hair.
What Are Hair Tattoos?
If you’ve looked into treatments for hair loss, you may have come across these “hair tattoos” that hide hair loss and create the appearance of a full, buzz cut-styled, head of hair. Here’s the thing: they’re relatively new.
Chances are, your grandparents never even had the option to tattoo hair on their heads. The first bald spot tattoo was done only about 20 years ago, and before that, the typical tattoo on a bald head was an anchor or (if the person was creative) a pair of eyes on the back of their head (we kind of want that one now).
Hair tattoos, or scalp tattoos, are exactly what they sound like — tattoos that are used to cover up hair loss and create the appearance of a full head of hair using a technique called scalp micropigmentation.
The technique involves tattooing the scalp with thousands of tiny, layered dots to mimic the appearance of natural hair follicles.
When performed by a skilled professional, it can create the appearance of a full head of short, buzzed hair. In areas of the scalp with thinning, it can also be used to make the hair look thicker and dense.
How Hair Tattoos Work
Unlike regular tattoos, the hair replacement ones are something you tend to get later in life, sober and without a group of friends egging you on.
After all, hair loss affects men of all ages and backgrounds — research has found that upwards of 50 percent of men experience moderate to extensive hair loss by the end of their forties.
The hair tattoo process is also different from getting a regular tattoo — scalp micropigmentation uses extremely fine needles that allow for small dots of pigment to be placed in the skin.
These needles cycle at a rate of 100 to 150 times per second, and as each needle comes into contact with the upper dermis, it applies a micro-droplet of pigment to the skin, creating a natural, follicle-like pattern on the scalp.
To mimic the appearance of real, natural hair cut close to the scalp, a skilled operator will microneedle pigments as close to the surface of the skin as possible and use a range of different dot sizes and pigments.
Because the ink is applied close to the surface layer of the skin, SMP creates the appearance of fine, tiny dots, rather than the smoother texture of a conventional tattoo. This can disguise thinning hair or a receding hairline.
Sometimes, SMP is used only to make hair in a specific part of the scalp appear denser — for example, a hairline tattoo to cover up recession, or a hair tattoo near the back of the head to cover up scarring from hair transplant surgery.
Often, however, tens of thousands of tiny dots need to be applied to the scalp in several sessions. For this reason, the scalp micropigmentation process can vary in duration, depending on the extent of your hair loss and the number of dots that need to be created.
Hair Tattoo Costs
In our opinion, one of the biggest side effects of a SMP procedure is the sudden loss of money.
After your free consultation (which some providers offer), the cost of tattooed hair can reach well into the thousands at the highest levels.
Like building a home, locking down a specific cost for SMP is difficult, even if you know how many square inches of real estate you need to fill. Some internet sources put the price tag between $2,000 and $5,000 for substantial tattooing.
Not all tattoo artists are the same, and depending on where you live, the experience level of your micropigment specialist and other factors, your cost may surprise even the experts.
And then there’s the square footage question. Obviously, if you’re just touching up a small bald spot, you’ll have significantly less work than someone who has gone fully bald, but the truth is that hairlines continue to recede, so a quick procedure this week might need touch-ups within the next year.
Advantages of Hair Tattoos
As much as price tags and risks may play into your decision-making, we know that most people really just want to know if it’s convincing.
Hair and scalp tattoo procedures have several advantages, especially when compared to other procedures used to treat hair loss. These include:
The appearance of a full head of hair. A scalp tattoo creates the appearance of a full head of hair unaffected by male pattern baldness.
Improvements in perceived density. Although scalp tattoos are usually used to give the appearance of a buzz cut, they can also add perceived density to a longer haircut, especially in thinning areas such as the vertex scalp.
Long-lasting results. Unlike hairpieces, which need to be replaced and refitted every few months, hair tattoos offer long-lasting results. A typical hair tattoo will maintain its appearance for several years.
A relatively tolerable procedure. Although scalp micropigmentation is performed using a tattoo machine, the procedure is generally less painful than getting a traditional tattoo, as the needles only penetrate into the uppermost layers of your skin.
A short recovery period. It usually takes seven to 10 days for the scalp to heal after a hair tattooing procedure, after which results are visible. In comparison, a hair transplant may take up to six months to produce noticeable improvements in hair growth.
Disadvantages of Hair Tattoos
Despite their unique advantages, hair tattoos also have several disadvantages, ranging from the lack of actual improvements in hair growth to possible safety issues. These include:
No real improvements in hair growth. While hair micropigmentation can improve the perceived density of your hair, this type of procedure has no impact on your actual hair growth and isn’t truly a “treatment” for male pattern baldness.
Up close, the results may not look totally natural. Up close, people may be able to see that your hair’s texture isn’t totally natural. When a person touches your scalp, they’ll also be able to feel the difference between real, short hair and the appearance of a buzz cut provided by that hair tattoo on your head.
Lack of affordability, especially compared to other procedures. A scalp tattoo is typically priced depending on the extent of the procedure, the number of treatments that need to be performed for optimal results, the skill of the person doing it, location and other factors. However, it’s certainly not the most budget-friendly procedure for treating hair loss.
Although rare, complications can occur. Possible complications of scalp pigmentation include skin infections — or other serious infections like hepatitis C — caused by contaminated packaging, tattoo ink, or needles, as well as reactions to ingredients used in artificial pigments. In some cases, the metals used in tattoo pigments may cause complications in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures.
Long-term safety research is limited. Since scalp micropigmentation is a new type of procedure, there’s limited research on its long-term safety. Research has found that some pigments used in scalp tattoo procedures can migrate to other areas of the body, including the lymph nodes. Limited information is available on the carcinogenic potential of the pigments used for this type of procedure.
The procedure can be time-consuming. Most people need several sessions to reach their desired level of density and coverage. On average, each session takes four to five hours, making the process quite time-consuming.
Despite being long-lasting, the results aren’t permanent. Although tattooed hair can last for several years, the procedure needs to be repeated for natural-looking results. Over the long term, the costs of repeating this type of procedure can add up.
Hair tattoo removal can be costly. While scalp tattoos may fade over time, it’s not always the case that you can rely on fading to make them disappear if you change your mind, leading to expensive (and painful) procedures. You can read more on scalp micropigmentation regrets in our blog.
Hims has helped thousands of men regrow their hair
Alternatives to Scalp Tattoos for Hair Loss
Okay, real talk: some people are also just scared of needles. While your biker buddy may question your manhood, those of us not dressed like extras from Wild Hogs know there’s nothing wrong with saying no to ink.
While tattooing yourself a new hairline offers certain advantages, it’s definitely not the only option that’s available for treating hair loss.
If you’re starting to lose your hair, there are several other methods that you can use to stop hair loss and even restore hair in areas of your scalp with noticeable thinning.
Hair Loss Medication
Medication is king when it comes to hair health. Currently, the FDA has approved two medications to treat hair loss: the prescription medication finasteride and the over-the-counter medication minoxidil.
Finasteride reduces your production of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a hormone that can miniaturize hair follicles and cause male pattern baldness.
Used together, these medications can slow down and stop the effects of male pattern baldness on your hair — they can even stimulate regrowth in the areas of your scalp with visible hair loss.
Hair Transplant Surgery
Unlike scalp micropigmentation, which creates the appearance of hair follicles, a hair transplant actually moves hair follicles from one part of your scalp to another, allowing you to restore your hair and improve density and thickness.
You may have an image of someone getting scalped for your transplant in an adjacent operating room, but modern hair transplant techniques involve moving just a few hairs at a time (your own hairs), allowing for a more convincing, natural-looking result than the hair plugs of a few decades ago.
For a hair transplant to be an effective treatment option, you’ll need to have enough donor hair, as well as healthy skin in the areas of your scalp affected by hair loss.
You’ll also need to pay for the surgical fees, which can often reach thousands of dollars.
Despite the significant costs, undergoing a hair transplant could be an option worth considering if you’re looking for a long-term solution for hair loss.
You can learn more about the advantages of disadvantages of hair transplant surgery in our full guide to hair transplants.
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No matter the treatment plan, the best place to start is somewhere. Early action is the best hair loss prevention.
Is a Hair Tattoo Right for You?
Before you get ready to ink up, it’s important to look at the big picture — and not just one that can cover your blank canvas of a bald spot.
Tattoo nerds will tell you that their body art can become addictive, but for a person getting hair tattooed onto their head, it’s less about transformation and more about the continuing hair loss problem.
Here are some important takeaways for those of you considering SMP:
Tattooing is effective. SMP procedures can give you the appearance of real hair when performed by an expert.
It’s an easier alternative to transplants. Hair tattoo treatment may give you the appearance of a full head of hair without the pain, cost or lengthy recovery of hair transplant surgery.
It might be prohibitively expensive. Hair tattoos are a big cost in the short term, and need substantial touch-ups over the course of your life.
Hair tattoos don’t affect your follicles. You don’t have to worry that SMP will make your hair loss worse. Anyone with an arm or leg tattoo can tell you that tattooing doesn’t stop hair from growing. As long as your hair follicles are capable of growing back in, a tattoo won’t somehow prevent that.
This procedure merely disguises hair loss, rather than actually treating it, so at the end of the day, you are still in fact bald.
If you’re going bald, options such as finasteride and minoxidil can help you maintain the hair you still have and even potentially regrow hair in areas of your scalp affected by hair loss.
You can get some sick ink elsewhere in the meantime.