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Tech Tattoos Could Make Getting Inked Good For Your Health

Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
Using UV-sensitive dyes and nanotechnology, Carson Bruns developed tattoo inks that can appear or disappear based on changes in body chemistry.

University of Colorado-Boulder chemistry professor Carson Bruns has had a love affair with tattoos ever since first getting inked at the age of 19.

“Despite being a scientist, I’ve always loved art,” Bruns said. “Making it, contemplating it -- so when I started my career here at CU Boulder, I was trying to think of new ideas to work on and I kept coming back to tattooing because I knew that, as a technology, tattoos hadn’t been updated in a really long time.”

Until now.

Bruns has developed tattoos that have the potential to save your life, featuring “smart inks” that can appear -- or disappear -- depending on shifts in physiology.

Credit Glenn Asakawa / University of Colorado
University of Colorado
The 'solar freckles' tattoo is designed to alert the wearer when sunscreen has worn off by appearing when exposed to sunlight.

Bruns and graduate student Jesse Butterfield created the “tech tattoos” by first encasing dyes in plastic microcapsules that are several times smaller than the width of a human hair. The capsules prevent the dyes from being broken down while allowing them to sense and respond to changes in the body.

Prototypes include UV-sensitive dyes that only appear in sunlight and could alert the wearer when sunscreen has worn off, as well as thermochromic inks that vanish when a person’s body temperature rises to a certain degree.

Eventually Bruns hopes to develop tattoos that can alert the wearer to other things, including insulin spikes and blood-alcohol levels. In the future, there might even be tattoos that can be altered using magnetic or electrical fields, potentially ending the dreaded tattoo regret, he said.

“So if you don’t like your tattoo anymore, you could just turn it off,” Bruns said. “Or you could change it, or you could write a new tattoo in -- like an Etch A Sketch.”

An amateur tattoo artist, Bruns did a very limited human trial of the process. He gave himself a “solar freckle” tattoo -- the two blue dots on his forearm show up when exposed to sunlight. Unlike traditional tattoos which are permanent, Bruns said this one faded away in about six months.

But don’t expect to see them at the local tattoo studio anytime soon, he cautioned.

Credit Glenn Asakawa / University of Colorado
University of Colorado
Bruns said he hopes future applications will include tattoos that sense glucose and blood-alcohol levels.

“We don’t know a lot about the safety of these tattoo pigments yet,” Bruns said, adding that he’s gotten multiple offers from “volunteers” hoping to try them out.

Lab testing has not yet begun, he said, and will likely take at least several years.

Bruns recently spoke about his work at the TEDxMileHigh: Reset speaker series in Denver in the hope of inspiring other scientists.

“I want more people to get into this field and do creative things and make tattoos work for us,” he said.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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