Renewing one’s brows

When Bethan Cole went in search of a permanent solution to her barely there eyebrows, little did she know that the answer – a transplant – would lift her spirits as much as her face

Image: Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine our faces without those little curvilinear follicles of biomaterial we call eyebrows. So hard, in fact, that when I shaved mine off, around a year ago now, I realised I looked very strange indeed.

I have dark brown hair, yet have always had delicate and faint eyebrows. I’ve had to pencil or mascara them in since I was a teenager to create definition and this has caused me some considerable stress. In years past, I have been one of those women who gets up while their boyfriend is still sleeping to make sure their eyebrows are darkened and that they don’t look abnormal and wan.

An example of before and after treatment at Harley Street Hair Clinic
An example of before and after treatment at Harley Street Hair Clinic

I shaved them in the hope that they would grow blunter, thicker and darker – as leg hair does when it is first shaved. But they didn’t and I was left with an even greater dilemma than before. I needed to find a solution for the problem of non-existent eyebrows; thankfully, as a beauty journalist, I was aware that there were various credible options.

In the short term, there is a massive array of powders, pencils, gels and brow-growth stimulators on the market. I’ve traditionally used a Boots No 7 mascara – pretty much any one apart from volumising – in Brown/Black (from £9.50) or Laura Mercier’s Eye Brow Pencil in Brunette (£16.50) to fill in mine. Experts, however, opt for powders to define sparse brows. “I tend to use brow powder most of the time as it looks more natural,” says make-up artist Kay Montano. “I would definitely always use powder for the beginning of your brows, as a pencil can easily look hard, ageing and old-fashioned. That said, the new breed of pencils are much more sheer than they used to be.” According to Montano, the problem with most brow products is that they are too brown-hued and we should be looking for a product with more of a grey-green cast to it. She recommends Anastasia’s Brow Powder Duo (£17) and, if you prefer a pencil or pen, Suqqu’s Eyebrow Liquid Pen in Moss Green (£20). She also uses RapidBrow (£37), a product that encourages eyebrow hair growth and claims to boost eyebrows by 108 per cent in just 60 days. Mac senior artist Cher Webb says that if your hairs are not too sparse, you can groom them with a gel. “I use Mac Brow Set Clear Brow Gel [£13] every day on my own eyebrows, as well as on most clients, male and female. It’s like hair gel for brows and is the perfect tool for keeping them looking clean and groomed, while taming any unruly hairs.”

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But I needed actual hairs to groom. In search of a more permanent solution, I headed to Harley Street last November for an appointment with Debra Robson, one of the first practitioners of semi-permanent make-up in the UK and undoubtedly among the best. This procedure has boomed in the past decade, but there are a lot of unqualified and inexperienced people at it. It’s a form of tattooing that is incredibly detailed and accurate – replicating the natural brow hairs. Robson deals with many clients who have over-plucked their eyebrows, women over 50 with a thyroid problem that causes thinning hair, or those who suffer from alopecia or trichotillomania. My Brow Couture treatment (£660, plus £100 consultation) included a very thorough medical history, followed by a close examination of the face (she is really experienced at calibrating what the most flattering eyebrow shape and size is for you) and lastly, the treatment, which feels similar to a tattoo – a series of light rotating pricks in the eyebrow area, not as invasive as injections but still uncomfortable for a short period.

While semi-permanent make-up is a great medium-term solution – allowing you to ditch eyebrow pencils and mascara to draw in your brows – the drawback is that it fades over time. You may need to top it up every six to 12 months and, at a few hundred pounds a time, this can become costly. I wanted a permanent and even more lifelike remedy to this problem. So I opted to undergo an eyebrow transplant (from £3,000) at The Harley Street Hair Clinic. This clinic is renowned as the place where Wayne Rooney had his hair transplant and they treat many high‑flying executives. In 2008 they became the first clinic in the UK to offer an eyebrow-transplant treatment (which was pioneered in the 1960s in Japan, then came over from the States, and is based on hair-transplant techniques). Since then demand has been escalating. They currently treat 60 to 90 women a year. A lot of clients want to emulate the look of celebrities such as Keira Knightley, Emma Watson and Cara Delevingne. I’m aiming for something defined between Keira or Cara and Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Kiki de Montparnasse – medium thickness, elegant arcs that frame and open my eyes.

Mac Brow Set Clear Brow Gel, £13. Anastasia Brow Powder Duo, £17. Suqqu Eyebrow Liquid Pen in Moss Green, £20
Mac Brow Set Clear Brow Gel, £13. Anastasia Brow Powder Duo, £17. Suqqu Eyebrow Liquid Pen in Moss Green, £20

It is not a procedure to be undertaken lightly – lasting four hours or more, with a certain amount of discomfort. You need about two weeks downtime to recover from the bleeding, swelling and bruising. I have my first appointment at the clinic a week before the transplant and they take a detailed medical history on an iPad, as well as photographing my eyebrows and examining the area on the back of my head from which the hairs will be taken.

A week later I arrive at the clinic at 9.15am on a Friday. My treatment finishes at 4pm (this includes a 20-minute lunch break and two shorter pauses for a drink of water). Before starting work, the doctor who performs my procedure gives me three pills: an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory plus an indigestion tablet to ease its adverse effect on the stomach. The first part consists of lying face down for two to three hours. An inch-wide strip is shaved from the back of my head to leave short hairs ready for “harvesting” – removing and transplanting into the eyebrow. Next, she administers about six to eight injections of local anaesthetic to numb the area ready for follicular removal; two of these feel a bit like bee stings, the others are lighter pricks, only slightly uncomfortable. After these, there is no sensation apart from the doctor lightly pressing on my head to remove the hairs.

Laura Mercier Eye Brow Pencil in Brunette, £16.50
Laura Mercier Eye Brow Pencil in Brunette, £16.50

The doctor extracts a total of 538 hairs to transplant into my eyebrow area. These will not grow back on my head, but as they form a small random pattern where they were, it will barely be noticeable. Besides, the clipped area is underneath my long hair.

After lunch, she starts work on my eyebrows. She is following the curvilinear arcs created by Debra Robson with a tattoo, but in other cases she will design the new eyebrows herself with the help of the client, collaborating on the ideal shape for the face and how thick and dense they want the finished effect to be.

RapidBrow, £37
RapidBrow, £37

The work starts again with some uncomfortable local-anaesthetic injections right into the eyebrow area. Anyone used to Botox will be aware of what these bee stings feel like, although the eyebrow area seems to be particularly sensitive to the pain, more so than the back of the head. Again, once the area is numb you feel nothing and the doctor continues to painstakingly implant the follicles of hair into tiny micro incisions created by a needle. This is highly detailed precise work and takes (in my case) over three hours. But I know it will be worth it.

The real excellence of Harley Street Hair Clinic is evident in its detailed aftercare. Be warned, your face does look a bit of a mess after this treatment and you need to don a large pair of Jackie O shades to disguise yourself adequately. I had blackened and bloodied eyebrows and swelling and bruising around my eyes that lasted for two weeks. But I left with a short course of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, some Zantac and plenty of paracetamol, all provided by the clinic. Added to this were two pages of instructions on how to care for my new eyebrows and the donor area as they were healing. These were fairly detailed – you have to spray your eyebrows with a saline solution every half an hour for the first two days and then every one to two hours for the next two days. This keeps the new follicles irrigated and, crucially, alive, as the blood flow does not start in the new area until nine days after the procedure.

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Thereafter, it takes two weeks for the area to heal. The implanted hairs drop out after a month and then new hairs grow from the implanted follicles. Thus, three to six months after treatment you are the proud owner of two dense and completely naturalistic brows. I am informed that I may need top-ups in about six to 10 months’ time when I will return for a post-procedural check-up. I will also need to trim the new brows regularly with an eyebrow comb and nail scissors, but this is the only way they differ from everyone else’s. No one will ever know.

Now, over two months on, I have lovely new eyebrows. I don’t have to do anything to them apart from clip them occasionally. No more pencilling or semi-permanent make-up. The area has healed and the hairs are starting to fall out, although new ones will grow back. I will have two well-demarcated eyebrows for the rest of my life. It has been well worth any minor discomfort and seven hours of patient repose – although it should be noted that the actual procedure is exhausting and the healing takes several weeks. For anyone else feeling despondent about their eyebrows – and clinic director Nadeem Uddin Khan tells me there are more than he could have imagined – this is the ideal solution. I am now the owner of proper luscious eyebrows that frame and uplift the face. Just one day and a cluster of injections has produced long-term results that will certainly improve the way I see myself.

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