A nanoengineer teamed up with Rihanna’s tattoo artist to make smarter ink

The ink is made of particles of dye, encased in beads of plexiglass — the same material in dermal fillers.

BOULDER, COLORADO — Carson Bruns, a nanoengineer, has a lot of mad scientist moments. He tested his latest invention on his own arm a few months ago in his lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder and asked a colleague for assistance.

“We were like, ‘OK, we’ll tattoo ourselves.'” “Can you assist us today?” he asked.

The tattoo resembles a freckle, a small blue dot. He can, however, turn it on and off. This tattoo changes color with light, similar to how a mood ring changes color with temperature: To turn it on, use ultraviolet light, and to turn it off, use daylight (or even a flashlight).

“You can turn it off in court and then turn it back on at the party.” “And then go to Grandma’s house and turn it off,” said Bruns, who works with the university’s ATLAS Institute, which promotes unconventional thinking.

Bruns co-founded a company with celebrity tattoo artist Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy and a former doctoral student. They intend to release their first product, Magic Ink, to a select group of artists early next year. The business partners have long-term hopes for smart tattoos with health benefits, but cosmetics are less expensive and easier to distribute to consumers than medical devices. So that’s where they’re beginning.

The new ink will enter a market where cosmetics regulation is in flux. If an ink causes a bacterial outbreak, the FDA steps in to urge a recall, but it has traditionally not exercised its regulatory authority over tattoo ink products as it does with other products that enter the body. (Tattoo inks aren’t even required to be sterile.) However, the FDA’s authority over tattoo manufacturers is expanding as a result of the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022. The agency is now accepting feedback on draft guidelines for tattoo ink preparation.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think either the FDA or the tattoo ink industry really knows what that’s going to look like,” said John Swierk, a chemist at the State University of New York-Binghamton. However, he stated that the law means “the FDA has a new charge to really ensure that labeling is correct and good manufacturing practices are being followed.”

According to Bruns, Magic Ink is made of dye particles encased in plexiglass beads — the same polymethyl methacrylate material found in dermal fillers used to plump the lips. Dermal fillers are FDA-approved, whereas tattoo ink can be a mystery.

Swierk stated that many of the tattoo pigments in use today have been around for a long time, providing some users with a base level of comfort about their safety. However, new materials bring with them new unknowns.

“If someone is going to get Magic Ink tattooed, they have to accept a degree of uncertainty about what the future holds with that ink,” Swierk said.

Bruns recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate which size and type of nanoparticles are less likely to irritate the immune system and more likely to remain where they are placed. The immune system has been known to transport tattoo ink to the lymph nodes, where it dyes them blue and green.

While Magic Ink is a fun party trick, Bruns and his colleagues have created other inks that support their larger goal of making tattoos useful.

Bruns and his colleagues created one that changes color when exposed to gamma radiation, with the hope that it will someday function as a built-in exposure meter. When it’s time to apply sunscreen, another ink appears. He created yet another ink that would function as a permanent sunscreen. None of these are currently available to consumers, though the permanent sunscreen is the most advanced. That ink has been tested on mice, while the others have been tested on pigskin.

Bruns founded Hyprskn a few years ago after Bang Bang saw his work and suggested they collaborate.

Bang Bang’s name may not be familiar, but the tattoos he’s created are: they’re cascading down Rihanna, scattered across Miley Cyrus, and peering out from LeBron James, among others. Bang Bang apparently enjoys technology.

“I’d like to wave my hand and pay with my American Express, or walk up to my car and it recognizes me,” he explained. Or, he continued, perhaps there could be health applications, such as alerting him if his blood sugar is high or low based on the color of his tattoos.

That is still a long way off in terms of science. If tattoo ink were to make the transition from cosmetics to medicine, it would have to clear a slew of regulatory hurdles.

“There are many steps between where we are now and getting a functional tattoo that tells you something about your health,” Swierk explained. “A lot of steps.”

However, Bang Bang believes that the product they are taking preorders for is the first step toward building a consumer base that is open to tattooable technology.

Magic Ink is the first product they’re offering to customers. It’s similar to the blue freckle on Bruns’ arm, but it’s red. For the time being, that is the only color available for purchase.

“That’s how you excite people,” Bang Bang explained. “It’s almost like a Trojan horse into that new goal of how do we bridge the gap between tattoo and technology.”

A half-ounce bottle costs $100. That’s a lot more than standard ink. If the product is successful, the University of Colorado-Boulder will benefit as well because it owns the intellectual property.

Bang Bang is one of a few dozen people, many of whom are tattoo artists, who already have the ink on their skin.

Tattoo artist Selina Medina has been in the industry for over 20 years and previously worked for an ink manufacturer. She devotes a significant amount of time to advocating for tattoo safety, volunteering with several national and international organizations dedicated to the cause.

“I’d probably wait a year in the market before buying it.” But it looks really interesting,” said Medina, a member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists’ board of directors.

Medina hopes that this ink is not like the UV inks that appeared in the 2000s and glowed under a black light.

“It seemed like an awesome idea at first, but then we noticed that it faded really quickly,” she explained. “It would simply vanish.” We had no idea what it did. We had no idea where it had gone. “And I was just like, ‘What the hell is this stuff?'”

She anticipates that her customers will be clamoring for Magic Ink long before she is able to purchase it.

Looking further afield, some companies are already investing in skin-implanted technology. Injectable thermometers are manufactured by DSruptive, a European company. The devices have been installed in approximately 5,000 people, primarily in Sweden, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, according to the company. Diabetes, according to Ali Yetisen, an engineer at Imperial College London, is a major focus for companies looking to embed technology in the skin.

“That’s where the cash is.” “The majority of companies invest in this area,” Yetisen said. He hopes to develop something similar to a tattoo that can measure blood sugar in real time and be long-lasting.

“That’s the holy grail of all medical diagnostics,” he declared.

While Bruns’ inventions detect external factors such as light and radiation, manufacturers seeking to develop in-body technology that reacts to blood face additional scientific challenges. The immune system creates small shells around foreign bodies, effectively forming a barrier between a sensor and the blood.

According to Yetisen, no one has really figured out a way around this yet, but a lot of people are trying.

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