Designing Smart Tattoos To Help Monitor Your Health


If you have a tattoo, what does it say about you? Does it say that you are a rebel? Or maybe that you belong to a particular group? How about that your blood sugar is high?

Two postdoctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School, Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang, are working along with the MIT’s Media Lab on a project called “Dermal Abyss”. No, “Dermal Abyss” is not the sinking feeling that you get when you discover a large pimple right before your big date or prom. Instead, this project is aiming to develop “smart” tattoo ink that can help monitor what’s going on inside your body. Here’s a video from Harvard on the project:

Perhaps you’ve heard about “wearables,” sensor devices like fitness trackers, smartwatches, and even smart underwear that you can put on your body in an attempt to track certain body measurements. Well, the “Dermal Abyss” is trying to create “in-the-skin-ables” or “tattoo-ables”, injecting into the skin ink that is designed to change color when the chemistry of the surrounding body tissue changes. The thought is that tattoo ink can get closer to the action than wearables, which remain outside the body. The video gives several examples of how ink color may change with varying levels of sodium, glucose, or acidity (i.e., pH).

This idea looks quite interesting but seems still a bit far from prime time. The developers will have to get past a number of technical hurdles such as:

  • What’s in the surrounding tissue doesn’t always mirror what’s in the blood or deeper in the body. So, tattoo ink may not always be able to tell you what you are really interested in such as sodium or glucose levels in the blood.
  • The ink needs to accurately reflect the actual chemistry in the body. As Karen Weintraub described for USA Today, studies have questioned the accuracy of wearables. Such inaccuracy can really get under your skin too. Also, tattoo colors may be even more difficult to read and interpret.
  • The ink has to be stable enough and remain in one place over time, sweat, friction, sun exposure, beer exposure, bathing, and all the other things that you may do to your skin.
  • Researchers will need to determine what else may accidentally make the ink change color. Otherwise, the tattoo may give false results.
  • Testing will need to determine how the ink may appear with different tattoo sizes, designs, and locations and how various skin colors and textures may affect the appearance and interpretation of the colors.

Additionally, while wearables are easily removable, tattoos are not. (Although researchers may design tattoos that remain for only a period of time.) If your tattoo is visible to others, you may be faced with everyone, including random strangers on the street, saying “hey, your blood sugar doesn’t good, better get it checked out.” In other words, your health information may be as public as your tattoo is.

Nonetheless, the idea of talking tattoos is intriguing and opens up a whole set of future possibilities, ranging from your doctor also being your tattoo artist to having bar codes on your body. One day, instead of people asking you about your tattoo, they may ask your tattoo about you.