New ‘smart tattoo’ senses sun rays and shows up when you need sunblock

New ‘smart tattoo’ senses sun rays and shows up when you need sunblock


New ‘smart tattoo’ that senses sun rays will tell you when it’s time to reapply sunscreen

  • A number of projects are looking to biomedically engineered tattoo ink as the future of ‘wearable’ health tech 
  • Some tattoos claim to detect cancer, others blood sugar drops 
  • The latest tattoo from the University of Colorado, Boulder tells you when you’ve been exposed to too much sun 
  • It only shows up when you’re on the verge of a burn – and disappears with sunscreen 
  • The scientists hope it could hep doctors diagnosed other illnesses some day 

Scientists have developed a permanent tattoo that can tell you when you’re in danger of sun damage. 

Dr Carson Bruns and his lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have designed a tattoo ink that is sensitive to UV light that will only appear when the skin is over-exposed to the sun’s radiations. 

Skin cancer is still the most common form of cancer, and despite constant warnings from dermatologists and health officials, many people are that they are increasing their cancer risks even on cloudy or cool days. 

The tattoo’s designers are also in the process of making additional iterations of the tattoo ink that could be a diagnostic tool to help doctors identify a sickness or shift in blood makeup. 

Scientists at the University of Colorado have created a tattoo ink that shows up when it is exposed to too much UV radiation (left) and disappears when protected from sun (right), which they tested on pig’s skin 

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The last five years have seen the steep rise of wearable tech. 

Dr Bruns and other scientists that work with ‘nanomaterials’ are taking the field further, introducing permanent wearable body decorations with practical, healthy functions. 

Some biomedical tattoos are designed to identify changes in blood calcium levels, others purport to spot cancer. 

As tattoos have become more common and socially acceptable, doctors’ warnings against them – when done in sterile environments by professionals using medical grade equipment – have subsided. 

Now, some doctors even have them, including Dr Bruns, a mechanical engineer who wanted to re-purpose the body art he loves to provide biological information.  

The tattoo can be applied using a regular tattoo ink gun, as Dr Carson Bruns demonstrates (left)

‘When you think about what a tattoo is, it’s just a bunch of particles that sit in your skin,’ he said at a TEDxMileHigh talk. 

‘Our thought is: what if we use nanotechnology to give these particles some function?’

Their most well-developed tattoo so far might help those adorned with it answer the nagging question: when is it time to reapply sunscreen? 

Remarkably, the team tweaked already commercially available UV ink. 

This kind of skin dye typically shows up only in black light, which has the longest and least harmful radiation wavelength. 

Based on this UV-sensitive dye, the CU Boulder team made smart inks that only show up when they’re exposed to too much of the more dangerous, shorter wavelength radiation from the sun and the way it changes skin temperature. 

The tattoo was inspired by commercially available ‘black light tattoos’ that only appear when exposed to long wavelength, safer ‘black light’ 

They enclosed these in microscopic beads – just a fraction as wide as a human hair so that they can sit protected in the skin for years at a time, out of reach to bodily fluids and immune responses that might break down the ink. 

These ‘solar freckles,’ as Dr Bruns calls them, appear when the sun beats down on them, but disappear as soon as sunscreen is reapplied and the skin is safe from radiation. 

It may be years before the ink is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and available in tattoo shops (or, perhaps, doctor’s offices), but ink-fan Dr Bruns went ahead and gave himself a couple of blue solar freckles on his arm, ‘to see if it works,’ he told the University of Colorado. 

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