In addition to the design you have chosen, another part of proudly showing off a tattoo is a reminder to others of all the pain you went through to get it. But that may not always be the case, as researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology has found a way to borrow a new medical technology to create self-applied tattoos that cause no pain at all.
What gives tattoos their durability is also what makes inked so painful. Tattoo artists use needles to inject tiny droplets of ink into the dermis layer of the skin, just below the surface, so that no matter how many layers of skin naturally peel off over time, the ink remains safely trapped beneath that self-replenishing outer layer.
Pain is a big part of the experience of getting a tattoo, but not everyone goes through that process of their own free will. Tattoos are also often used as a medical device. For example, cancer patients undergoing repeated radiation treatments are tattooed with tiny reference marks that allow the machines and radiation beams to be aimed quickly, accurately and safely every time. Tattoos can also be used to camouflage scars after surgery, or to provide permanent warnings about serious medical conditions for some patients.
That led a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology to come up with a way to use microneedling technology as an alternative tattoo technique. As the name implies, microneedles are small enough to inject drugs or drugs into the dermis layer of the skin without anyone actually feeling them pierce their epidermis, and are often grouped in large numbers and administered using patches that are simply applied to the skin.
The microneedles made by the Georgia Tech team are smaller than grains of sand and are made from real tattoo ink contained in a “soluble matrix” attached to a flexible patch. Each microneedle essentially acts like a pixel of a larger image, and when the patch is applied, pressed into the skin, and left for a few minutes, the ink dissolves and remains in the skin after the patch is removed, leaving a recognizable image but without the swelling or bleeding associated with traditional tattooing techniques.
The color of the ink used to create each microneedle can be adjusted to create full-color tattoo images, just like the pixels on your smartphone’s screen, and inks that are only visible under ultraviolet light can even be used as a way to flag patients if needed while tattooed medical information remains private.
The study and an accompanying study were: recently presented in a paper published in the iScience magazine, and it was found that the tattoos may last up to a year, but also have a shorter lifespan if temporary tattoo inks have abe reused instead. In its current form, the microneedling approach appears to be a promising alternative to traditional tattooing techniques when it comes to marking patients or even livestock (as farmers should do), but it’s not yet a complete replacement for getting inked by a talented artist. The microneedle arrays are relatively small and lack the density to produce high-fidelity images. But as technology gradually improves, the process of getting a “real” tattoo may one day be no different than that of the temporary tattoos you used apply as a child.
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