Are These Invisible Ink Tattoos the Future of Medical Record-Keeping?

invisible ink tattoos
Credit: MIT / Second Bay Studios

The idea of getting an invisible tattoo might seem a bit odd. Tattoos are a visual art form and a method of self-expression—they can be reminders of lost loved ones, markers of our identity, expressions of self-love, and even political statements. So what’s the point of making them invisible? According to a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it’s because invisible ink tattoos could lead to better medical care. 

Traditional medical record-keeping is prone to error, but these can help

If you were born before the mid-2000s, you likely remember a time when doctors kept handwritten medical records. In fact, depending on where you live, it’s possible that your doctor still keeps physical records. But paper records are easily lost, and they’re often confusing and illegible (doctors have notoriously bad handwriting). And when someone’s medical records are incomplete, it becomes difficult for health professionals to give them the best possible care. The team at MIT believes that invisible ink tattoos could solve this problem by making a patient’s body its own record-keeper.

According to a report published last month in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the invisible ink tattoos—like any other tattoos—would be embedded into the patient’s skin. Each tattoo would have a slightly different pattern, indicating a specific medical treatment. However, unlike traditional tattoos, these pieces would be administered using a micro-needle patch made up of 1.5-millimeter spikes. Once inserted into the skin, these spikes would deposit invisible nanoparticles; particles that would only become visible under infrared light. 

For now, the technology is focused on recording patients’ vaccination histories. “In areas where paper vaccination cards are often lost or do not exist at all, and electronic databases are unheard of, this technology could enable the rapid and anonymous detection of patient vaccination history to ensure that every child is vaccinated,” Kevin McHugh, one of the lead authors of the report, said in a statement to MIT News.

Invisible ink tattoos can be applied in as little as two minutes

The process of embedding the ink takes no longer than two minutes. “The nanoparticles diffuse from within the microneedles to a shallow layer of skin, where they’re deposited in simple patterns of dots, each smaller than your garden-variety freckle,” an article about the technology from Smithsonian explains. “The patch is then removed, leaving behind a subtle mark” that can still be seen using infrared light. Unique patterns of dots will denote different vaccinations, and will allow physicians to determine whether or not a patient has been vaccinated simply by shining a light on their arm.

Although the MIT team has not yet completed human trials, their experiments on rats suggest the invisible tattoo technology is safe and long-lasting. “It’s possible someday that this ‘invisible’ approach could create new possibilities for data storage, biosensing, and vaccine applications that could improve how medical care is provided, particularly in the developing world,” Robert Langer, a senior author of the paper, told MIT News.

Don’t expect these microneedle tattoos to hit the market anytime soon, though. The product—which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—requires a lot more testing to determine its viability. Nonetheless, it’s a great example of the potential tattoos (or, in this case, tattoo-inspired technology) have to transform the world around us. 

If you liked our post about using Invisible Ink Tattoos for Medical Record-Keeping, be sure to check out our story on These Amazing Electronic Tattoos That Could Transform Healthcare.

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