How to make tattoos hurt less: Scientists make painless tattoos - study

While tattoos are wanted, and sometimes needed, the agonizing pain included in the deliverance deters people from getting them.

 A microneedle patch tattoo is pressed to the skin. (photo credit: Georgia Tech)
A microneedle patch tattoo is pressed to the skin.
(photo credit: Georgia Tech)

Have you ever wanted to get a tattoo but backed out because of how painful it seems? Have you ever sat in a tattoo parlor enduring unimaginable pain as a needle is being repeatedly punctured into your skin? 

Tattoos are used in cosmetics and are also used in medicine. These tattoos may be used to cover up scars or to communicate medical conditions without wearing a medical bracelet. 

While tattoos may be wanted and sometimes needed by people, the agonizing pain included in the procedure deters them from getting tattoos.

Are painless tattoos possible?

Regents’ Professor and J. Erskine Love Jr. Chair in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Mark Prausnitz, alongside Song Li, a former Georgia Tech postdoctoral fellow, presented research in the iScience journal that suggests a solution to this problem. The research shows a painless, bloodless, and low-cost way of administering tattoos, through skin patches containing microscopic needles

“We’ve miniaturized the needle so that it’s painless, but still effectively deposits tattoo ink in the skin. 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.”

Mark Prausnitz

“We’ve miniaturized the needle so that it’s painless, but still effectively deposits tattoo ink in the skin,” said Prausnitz. “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.” 

 A microneedle patch tattoo is held by inventor, Mark Prausnitz. (credit: Georgia Tech) A microneedle patch tattoo is held by inventor, Mark Prausnitz. (credit: Georgia Tech)

While many cosmetic products are already using microneedles for anti-aging treatments, the microneedle technology hadn't yet been utilized for tattoos.

“We saw this as an opportunity to leverage our work on microneedle technology to make tattoos more accessible. 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 onto the skin and does not hurt,” explains Prausnitz. 

How are the skin patches made to administer a tattoo? 

In order to imprint a complicated design, microneedles in the microneedle patch tattoos need to be able to be arranged in a specific pattern. Once arranged in a specific pattern, each microneedle acts as a pixel which makes them able to create any tattoo image. 

The researchers begin by placing microneedles into a mold. They shape the mold into a pattern that forms an image and fill the microneedles with ink. The patch is added as a backing so that the mold can be easily handled. 

How do the skin patches work? 

As opposed to the typical large needles required to tattoo a detailed image, the microneedles developed by the researchers are smaller than a grain of salt. 

The patch only needs to be pressed into the skin once. It needs to sit on the skin for a few minutes, and as it does, the microneedles release the tattoo ink. 

Ultraviolet light tattoos

While the tattoos can come in various colors, the researchers also developed patches that are sensitive to ultraviolet light.

“Colored tattoos, and tattoos only visible with ultraviolet illumination for increased privacy, were developed,” writes Li. 

By doing so, the patient's privacy is protected. In the case where the patch is used for medical reasons instead of cosmetics and a patient doesn't want their tattoo revealed, it doesn't need to be

How long do tattoo patches last? 

The Georgia Tech team’s research showed that the tattoos are likely to be permanent, lasting for at least a year. This makes the patches a good option for those who want a tattoo without wanting to risk infection or endure pain. 

That being said, the microneedles could also host temporary ink for patients who would like a short-term tattoo.  

How else can microneedle tattoos be used?

Prausnitz has long been researching microneedles. What started out as wanting to painlessly deliver vaccines turned into realizing microneedles could be used for painless tattoo delivery as well. Before recognizing that microneedle technology could be used on people, Prausnitz’s lab began working on tattoos that could be administered to animals in order to identify if they were spayed or neutered. 

Instead of needing to painfully apply a tag to an animal, a hidden tattoo can be applied. In this way, one can indicate an animal's sterilization status without putting the animal through any pain

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