Tattoos that are both aesthetic and functional? Sign us up!
When we think about tattoos, we mostly associate them with self-expression, markers of important milestones, permanence and maybe even healing—but perhaps almost never with doctors, scientists and medicine. However, tattoos and medicine are not exactly strangers to each other. Enter medical tattoo.
The history of medical tattooing
Tattooing is an ancient art form used to mark the skin with pigment deposited into the topmost layers of the skin. Many civilizations across the world have used tattooing to serve various purposes, both aesthetic and ceremonial. In fact, one of the oldest human bodies we know of today has tattoos too!
Affectionately dubbed Ötzi the Iceman, the nearly 5,300-year-old natural mummy from the Oetztal Alps is also the owner of the oldest known tattoos in the world. With a grand total of 61 individual markings on 19 parts of his body, Ötzi is quite heavily tattooed. You can assume the process was too time-consuming and painful to have been purely cosmetic. The markings consist of simple lines and crosses done by poking pigment made from soot into the skin with shallow incisions. Due to the clustering of these markings near Ötzi’s joints and lower back, which are places on Ötzi’s body that show deterioration, researchers believe that the tattoos may have been some sort of primitive orthopedic or acupuncture treatment. In short, the earliest tattoos that we know of are very likely to be medical tattoos!
Tattoos in modern medicine
The use of tattoos in medicine is not actually as uncommon as you might think. Some medical procedures, like colonoscopies and radiation treatments, use small, freckle-like tattoos to mark spots for treatment or indicate abnormalities that might need further investigation. These tattoos assist in long-term treatments by ensuring accuracy and preventing markings from wearing off over time.
Another form of medical tattooing gaining prominence is paramedical or restorative tattooing, which is a highly specialized and advanced form of permanent makeup. While this procedure is mostly cosmetic, it can go a long way in helping patients recover mentally and socially from treatments, illnesses and other circumstances that have left their appearance physically distorted or disfigured. With the improvement in tattooing tools and techniques, paramedical tattoo artists can restore a healthy appearance to delicate skin and scar tissue, making it look seamless with the rest of the body.
The treatment can be performed on vitiligo, burn scars, top surgery scars, breasts post-mastectomy, hair loss, cleft lips and even three-dimensional reproductions of nails and nipples.
Electronic tattoos—how tattoos can transform MedTech
Medical tattoos as we know them today are quite simple and nothing special in and of themselves. However, the materials that they’re made of can make a world of difference to the future of medical technology (MedTech).
Carson J. Bruns, nanotechnologist and Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Colorado, is directing research around engineering special tattoo inks that can be used to turn tattoos into intradermal indicators for various health aspects. In his Ted Talk, Bruns demonstrated how the color-changing inks they developed can pick up on bodily changes (like sugar levels, temperature, UV exposure etc.) and provide a sort of naked-eye indicator integrated into one’s own skin. He also talked about research into developing tattoos that can conduct electricity with tattooed conductive patches or wires. These could be the next big leap of integrating technology into the human body, making it possible to more efficiently maintain and manage electronic biomedical devices, like insulin pumps or recharging the batteries of a pacemaker (which would otherwise have to be replaced every five to ten years with an invasive procedure).
In August this year, scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul have developed an electronic tattoo ink made of liquid metal and carbon nanotubes with 3D printing and circuit printing technology. The researchers are planning to integrate the e-ink into a wireless chip that will be attached to the body in order to track vital biomarkers, like blood pressure, heart rate, hydration and blood glucose level. Unlike regular tattoos, these electronic tattoos will only stay on the body for a few days and have to be applied to the skin damp. One of the major advantages of this technology over traditional medical devices is its flexibility. As they are made of lightweight materials without batteries, you can bend, fold and twist them to fit onto your body.
The technology involved in making modern medical tattoos an internet of things (IoT) device is still in its infancy and as such not yet commercially available. However, breakthroughs and ongoing research can assure us of an inevitable future where tattoos are not just works of art prized for their form and aesthetic, but they are also functional tools to improve how we interact with healthcare.
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