'Smart-Tattoos': How They Could End Up Saving Your Life

The latest iteration of stick-on smart tattoos can detect medical problems before they surface.

smart tattoos
Temporary smart tattoos the size of this one are the latest frontier in medical science. (Photo: Robert Manella/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

So they’re not exactly cute, but if you came of age during the 90s, chances are you have at least one regrettable tattoo anyway. (Raise your hand if that same tattoo is in the shape of a butterfly!)   But the latest temporary smart tattoos do much more than serve as a symbol of misspent youth; they can read a body’s internal processes and alert the user of potential dangers like a dip in blood sugar or a drop in kidney function− all without having to draw any blood.

A recent collaboration between researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Toronto created a lightweight and stick-on “smart tattoo.” Embedded in its fibers are a set of “ion-selective electrodes” which is a cooler way of saying “sensors that detect the pH or salt levels of the skin, as well minerals like potassium, and even blood oxidation."

In other words, it can monitor athletic performance at a granular level, but without any of the bulk or wiring of older sensors. It also means that for the first time, detailed athletic response testing would no longer be limited to the walls of a sports clinic, but could be done daily by the athlete herself. And because the stick-ons are both quick and cheap to produce, it seems a natural fit with a mass market roll-out. Researchers are hoping they’ve designed the next big thing in sports training and expect it to hit shelves within the next twelve months.

MORE: One in Ten Adults Will Be Diabetic in 20 Years

But this athletic testing sensor is only the latest iteration of a variety of body-reading smart tattoos set to hit the market in the coming year.

Sano Intelligence is in the testing phase of a smart tattoo that reads a wearer’s blood markers. The application would be particularly useful for diabetics, who need to keep strict control over their blood sugar levels and often have to resort to finger-prick tests to determine if those levels are within normal range. The Sano patch would not only allow them to forgo the pain of finger-pricks, but the constant hassle of dragging around testing devices and interrupting daily activities to draw their own blood.

And Boston-based MC10 announced earlier this year that it would soon release its own “stretchable electronics” patch, that can be applied internally to human organs, or externally to human skin, or clothing, depending on what needed to be monitored.  The stick-on’s ability to remain flexible while reading vital signs means that it could effectively gauge the function of specific organs, track brain processes, and monitor more mainstream functions like heart rate, blood oxidation and body hydration. 

What's going to make the biggest difference in our daily lives as a result of this technology isn't even the technology itself- it's that for the first time, we as patients will be able to maintain our mobility and independence as we're being monitored. This presumably could mean it would be easier to catch oncoming deficiencies before they manifest any symptoms, and the distance between the patient and her specialist would no longer be a hinderance to treatment.

Do you think this kind of technology would be useful in your own life, or do you think that a sensor monitoring your vital signs is just too "sci-fi" for your taste?

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