Microneedle tattoo technique could make tattooing painless and fast

Scientists at Georgia Tech say press-on innovation opens opportunities for medical and cosmetic use

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

The technique, which can be self-administered, uses microneedles to imprint a design into the skin without causing pain or bleeding. Initial applications are likely to be medical – but the team behind the innovation hope that it could also be used in tattoo parlours 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 administration,” said Prof Mark Prausnitz, who led the work at Georgia Institute of Technology. “While some people are willing to accept the pain and time required for a tattoo, we thought others might prefer a tattoo that is simply pressed on to the skin and does not hurt.”

Mark Prausnitz at Georgia Tech holds a microneedle patch.
Mark Prausnitz at Georgia Tech displays a microneedle patch. Photograph: Georgia Institute of Technology

Prausnitz’s lab has been researching the use of microneedles for administering vaccines and realised the work could be applied to tattoos.

Tattoos typically use large needles to puncture the skin between 50 and 3,000 times a minute to deposit ink below the surface, a time-consuming and painful process. The Georgia Tech team has developed microneedles made of tattoo ink encased in a dissolvable matrix. By arranging the microneedles in a specific pattern, each one acts like a pixel to create a tattoo image in any shape or pattern, and a variety of colours can be used.

Microneedle tattoo designs and their imprints of a medical-alert cross in a circle, and of a heart.
Microneedle tattoo designs of a medical alert (top left) and a heart (top right), with their imprints (below). Photograph: Song Li, Georgia Institute of Technology

In a medical setting, tattoos are sometimes used to cover up scars, guide repeated cancer radiation treatments or restore nipples after breast surgery. Tattoos also can be used instead of bracelets to communicate serious medical conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy or allergies.

The study showed the tattoos could last for at least a year and were likely to be permanent, which also made them a viable cosmetic option. Microneedles could alternatively be loaded with temporary tattoo ink.

“The goal isn’t to replace all tattoos, which are often works of beauty created by tattoo artists,” Prausnitz said. “Our goal is to create new opportunities for patients, pets, and people who want a painless tattoo that can be easily administered.”


Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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