Harvard Tattoo Process May Ease a Change of Heart

Scientists at Harvard University have invented a tattoo ink that challenges the nature of the tattoo as something permanent. The inventors say the new ink, due on the market early next year, is safe and that the color is completely removable.

"I see a lot of people who've made a mistake with the tattoo," says Rox Anderson, a professor of dermatology at Harvard who helped pioneer laser tattoo removal at Massachusetts General Hospital. "And I also see people who simply got some bad artwork, and it's very hard to remove at times."

That's partly because doctors don't know exactly what they're trying to remove. Tattoo ink makers keep secrets. They're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so the inks can have just about anything in them, including carcinogens.

Anderson says the inks may contain lead, zinc and other heavy metals.

It's that long list of drawbacks that led Anderson and his colleagues to develop a new ink that changes the very idea of tattoo as a permanent mark.

The ink is a combination of dyes and a polymer already approved by the FDA. The polymer is a plastic that can't be absorbed by the body. The dyes can; they're biodegradable. As long as the dyes are bound to the polymer, the ink is permanent, like regular tattoo ink. But with a single laser treatment the bond to the polymer is destroyed. The tattoo disappears as the dyes break down and are absorbed by the body.

Anderson says removal is much faster, easier, and less painful than for a normal tattoo. That's because removing a normal tattoo requires several laser treatments, at least one for each color.

Martin Schmieg, president and chief executive officer of Freedom-2, the company that's bringing the technology to market, says the company's goal is to "provide a level of safety that has previously not existed in the tattoo market, and a freedom for tattoo wearers to change their mind."

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