The tattoos you’re referring to aren’t actually tattoos; there is no ink or piercing involved. Electronic tattoos have been likened to kids’ temporary fake tattoos – they are thin, flexible slivers of silicon less than 1/10th the thickness of a human hair that stick to the skin. The silicon contains tiny sensors capable of detecting, transmitting and displaying health information such as heart rate, stress levels, blood glucose and oxygen levels, brain waves, muscle movements and more. You may hear or see them described as epidermal electronics, e-skins and smart skins. They’re designed for temporary wear and someday may replace such cumbersome devices as Holter monitors, devices that are currently used by physicians to record the heart’s activity for 24 to 48 hours. Holter monitors are the size of small cameras and have wires with silver dollar sized electrodes that attach to your skin. Much better to wear an inch-long electronic tattoo instead of all that hardware! Electronic tattoos may also replace bulky devices used to monitor newborns in intensive care.
Some of the new products have tiny embedded batteries to provide power; others get their power from a nearby cellphone and transmit data back to the phone.
The first available electronic tattoo appears to be a commercial patch less than an inch square that you can place on any area of your skin to help you judge your exposure to ultraviolet light when you’re in the sun. You scan the patch with an app to find out when you’re at risk of burning. And I’ve read about a tattoo designed to alert you to your blood alcohol levels. It induces perspiration with a drug called pilocarpine and analyzes your sweat to determine your blood level of ethanol and sends the result to your smart phone.
Other versions in the works will enable you to control electronic devices, turn on music or answer the phone simply by touching a tattoo.
Electronic tattoos for health purposes aren’t ready for prime time yet, and their long-term safety is yet to be established, so don’t expect them to replace today’s medical monitoring tests in the near future. But with research and testing going on all over the world, they are sure to come to market.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Tomoyuki Yokota et al, “Ultraflexible organic photonic skin.” Science Advances, April 15, 2016, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1501856
John A. Rogers et al, “Battery-free, stretchable optoelectronic systems for wireless optical characterization of the skin.” Science Advances, August 3, 2016, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1600418