Painless, bloodless tattoos have been created by scientists who say the technique could have medical and cosmetic applications.

The do-it-yourself technique uses microneedles to imprint an image on the skin without causing pain or bleeding. The initial application is likely to be medical, but the team behind the innovation hope it can also be used in tattoo parlors to provide a more comfortable option.

“This could be a way not only to make medical tattoos more accessible, but also to create new opportunities for cosmetic tattoos because of the ease of insertion,” said Professor Mark Prausnitz, who led the work at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “While some people are willing to accept the pain and time it takes to get a tattoo, we thought others would prefer a tattoo that simply presses against the skin and doesn’t cause pain.”

Georgia Tech’s Mark Prausnitz demonstrates a patch with microneedles. Photo: Georgia Institute of Technology

Prausnica’s lab researched the use of microneedles to administer vaccines and realized that this work could be applied to tattoos.

Tattoos typically use large needles to puncture the skin 50 to 3,000 times per minute to deposit the ink beneath the surface, a time-consuming and painful process. A Georgia Tech team has developed microneedles made from tattoo ink embedded in a soluble matrix. By placing the microneedles in a specific pattern, each one acts as a pixel to create a tattoo image of any shape or pattern, and different colors can be used.

Microneedling tattoo designs and their imprints in the form of a medical cross in a circle and a heart.
Microneedle tattoo design of a medical alert (top left) and a heart (top right) with their prints (bottom). Photo: Song Lee, Georgia Institute of Technology

In medical settings, tattoos are sometimes used to hide scars, direct cancer re-radiation, or reconstruct nipples after breast surgery. Tattoos can also be used in lieu of bracelets to communicate serious medical conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy or allergies.

Research has shown that tattoos can last at least a year and are more likely to be permanent, which also makes them a viable cosmetic option. Alternatively, the microneedles can be loaded with temporary tattoo ink.

“The goal is not to replace all tattoos, which are often works of beauty created by tattoo artists,” Prawsnitz said. “Our goal is to create new opportunities for patients, pets and people who want a painless, easy-to-apply tattoo.”

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