New Tattoo Ink Will Allow Easy Removal

Hesitating over getting that Veritas tattoo?

The decision to get or remove a tattoo will soon become much easier, thanks to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Brown University.

Richard R. Anderson, a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at MGH, was instrumental in the development and testing of a newly invented tattoo ink that is fully removable and completely safe.

“The tattoo consists of these little submicron particles that are designed so that they carry the pigment permanently, but can be cracked open and then the pigment is released,” Anderson explained. Unlike the ink currently used to make tattoos, Anderson said the new ink is the first that was specifically designed for tattoos and is made from safe, Food and Drug Administration-approved materials.

Until now, Anderson said, tattoo ink has contained a number of potentially unsafe and non-sterile materials, and often causes allergies or other problems.

Older types of inks are also much more difficult to remove. “The inks that are out there now need about four to twelve [laser] treatments to be removed,” says Anderson, who specializes in scarless laser tattoo removal. “Right now if you have a multicolored tattoo, you may need separate treatments to remove each color.”

In contrast, the ink that Anderson and his colleagues have developed can be removed with only one or two treatments because all of the colors can be eliminated at once.

There is still some development that needs to be done on the ink, which Anderson created with Brown University’s Professor of Medical Science Edith Mathiowitz and tested at MGH with Harvard Medical School associate professor of dermatology Thomas J. Flotte.

But Anderson said the ink should be available for public use within one or two years.

He said he was inspired to work on this project mainly for the “safety and convenience” of people getting tattoos.

However, this project was slightly outside Anderson’s usual research interests, who described the ink research as a sort of hobby for him. “The tattoo thing is kind of a sideshow,” he said.

“What we really do [at the Wellman Center] is work on cancer, disease, and immune systems,” he explained. “I’m not a professor of tattoo-ology, I’m a professor of dermatology.”

—Staff writer Ashton R. Lattimore can be reached at arlattim@fas.harvard.edu.