MIT developed Color-Changing Tattoos to Monitor Your Health Condition, No Wearable Needed

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Tattooing Associated Health Risks and DermalAbyss

Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skin, ancient art, and the archaeological record. You could be the proud owner of a new tattoo in a matter of hours, but don’t let the effortlessness of the process stop you from thinking carefully about permanent body art. Before you get a tattoo, make sure you know what’s involved and how to decrease the possible risks.


A tattoo is a permanent mark or drawing made on your skin with pigments inserted through pricks into the skin’s top layer. The process, which is done without anesthetics, causes a small amount of bleeding and slight to potentially significant pain. Typically, the tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine that acts much like a sewing machine, with one or more needles piercing the skin constantly. With every puncture, the needles insert tiny ink droplets. Getting a tattoo is a scandalously painful process but that doesn’t stop all that many people from getting their skin inked. In order for a tattoo to be permanent, ink has to get into the dermis, the tissue just beneath the outer layer of your skin, called the epidermis. The sharp needle pricks the skin quickly and repeatedly, dragging the ink clinging to it down into the dermis.

[Image: Xin Liu/Katia Vega]

Tattooing and diabetes

Type of diabetes

First, it’s good to understand the difference between the two major forms of diabetes, Type 1, which is often referred to as Juvenile Diabetes, and Type 2, which used to be called “Adult Onset” Diabetes.

Type 1diabetes is an auto-immune disease, which basically means that the immune system gets baffled and accidentally starts attacking good cells instead of bad ones. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, the body attacks the islet cells of the pancreas, which are accountable for producing insulin. Without insulin, none of us can stay alive; insulin serves as a key to unlock the sugar in our body and turn it into energy.

Without insulin, a Type 1 diabetic could go into shock and die within a day or two. Too much insulin and they could go into shock and die within a few hours. Not maintaining a balance whittles away at their overall health bit by bit, finally leading to more serious problems like neuropathy, kidney failure, blindness, and loss of limbs.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2diabetes usually affects adults, because it’s typically the result of years of environmental contact, bad eating habits, weight gain, and just general aging. It’s often referred to as “Insulin Resistance” because while the pancreas creates insulin just fine, the body doesn’t process it properly. Sometimes it will act like the insulin isn’t even there (resisting), allowing the sugar to build up in the person’s system and make them feel miserable until suddenly a rush of insulin will come to the “rescue” and deposit so much at once that their blood sugar drops dramatically, leaving them feeling miserable again. Sometimes Type 2 diabetes can be prevented with good eating habits and exercise; sometimes it can also be reversed the same way after diagnosis. Treatment usually involves taking a pill that gives the body a boost to produce more insulin and process what it makes.

Maintaining a balance

Diabetics may check their blood glucose levels 8 times or more a day, because that’s the only way they can know what’s going on and correct a trouble that might be developing. Special supplies have to be packed before taking a hike or even going to the grocery store, to be sure that all possible emergencies can be averted or remedied. Regular visits to an endocrinologist or diabetes specialist (3-4 times a year) for A1C testing* are also essential.

Maintaining that happy medium between too little and too much insulin is a constant fight for every diabetic. Little things that most of us take for granted , having a cold or playing a game of one-on-one with a friend ,can send their blood glucose levels skyrocketing or dropping without forewarning.

What the artists need to know

If you’re a tattoo artist and you know a client is diabetic, I suppose the responsibility is theirs to decide if this is a wise idea or not. You can’t grill them about their A1C results, but you might want to inform them that mismanaged diabetes and tattoos don’t go well together. But in most cases, you probably won’t even know your client is diabetic. They don’t look any different unless you happen to see them checking their sugar or dialing in an insulin dosage on their pump.

Many with uncontrolled diabetes may sit in your chair and you’ll never know it unless they come back two weeks later, trying to blame you for the infection they got. I think this is just one of many reasons that every client sheet should have a medical disclaimer.

But if a client tells you that they’re diabetic and ask if it’s still okay for them to get a tattoo, that’s where this information will come in handy. You can share with them what you’ve learned here, and it never hurts to suggest that they get an official “okay” from their diabetes doctor. And I would add to their client sheet that you discussed the risks with them and they accept responsibility for their decision. It’s important that you protect yourself from liability if a client gets sick from a tattoo when they have a pre-existing condition.

Things you need to know

Getting a tattoo is a personal choice and if you decide to get a tattoo, diabetes or no diabetes, you need to make sure of the following:

The tattoo shop is accredited, licensed, up-to-date legally, and clean, The tattoo artist has good reviews not only of the quality of his or her work but the healing process, You are willing to 100% adhere to the healing procedure as directed by your artist.


The DermalAbyss project is the result of collaboration between MIT researchers Katia Vega, Xin Liu, Viirj Kan and Nick Barry and Harvard Medical School researchers Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang.

 What if tattoos weren’t just decorative, but could convey real time data about your body? That’s the vision of the MIT Media Lab researcher Katia Vega, whose project DermalAbyss  explores the possibilities of tattoos inked with biosensors instead of traditional ink. DermalAbyss is a proof-of-concept that presents a novel approach to bio-interfaces in which the body surface is rendered an interactive display. Traditional tattoo inks are replaced with biosensors whose colors change in response to variations in the interstitial fluid. It blends advances in biotechnology with traditional methods in tattoo artistry. 

This is a research project, and there are currently no plans to develop Dermal Abyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials. In collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Vega created three different types of biosensor inks that measure the shifts in interstitial fluid in your skin, changing color based on the levels of glucose, sodium, or pH in your body.

The Dermal Abyss creates a direct access to the compartments in the body and reflects inner metabolic processes in a shape of a tattoo. It could be used for applications in continuously monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body. Currently, during daily activities and alimentary habits, diabetics need to monitor their glucose levels by piercing the skin, 3 to 10 times per day.

With Dermal Abyss, we imagine the future where the painful procedure is replaced with a tattoo, of which the color from pink to purple based on the glucose levels. Thus, the user could monitor the color changes and the need of insulin.

Related article: 

Beautiful Tattoos that spread Fibro and Chronic Illness awareness

Reference: Featured Image: CGI of a colour-changing tattoo. Credit: DermalAbyss/Vimeo

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