This happy tattoo is really a medical sensor

U. TORONTO (CAN) — It looks like a smiley face tattoo, but a new easy-to-apply sensor can detect medical problems and help athletes fine-tune training routines.

“We wanted a design that could conceal the electrodes,” says Vinci Hung, a PhD candidate in physical and environmental sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who helped create the new sensor. “We also wanted to showcase the variety of designs that can be accomplished with this fabrication technique.”

The tattoo, which is an ion-selective electrode (ISE), is made using standard screen printing technique and commercially available transfer tattoo paper—the same kind of paper that usually carries tattoos of Spiderman or Disney princesses.


In the case of the sensor, the “eyes” function as the working and reference electrodes, and the “ears” are contacts for a measurement device to connect to.

Hung contributed to the work while in the lab of Joseph Wang, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. The sensor she helped make can detect changes in the skin’s pH levels in response to metabolic stress from exertion.

Similar devices are already used by medical researchers and athletic trainers. They can give clues to underlying metabolic diseases such as Addison’s disease, or simply signal whether an athlete is fatigued or dehydrated during training. The devices are also useful in the cosmetics industry for monitoring skin secretions.

But existing devices can be bulky or hard to keep adhered to sweating skin. The new tattoo-based sensor stayed in place during tests, and continued to work even when the people wearing them were exercising and sweating extensively.

The tattoos were applied in a similar way to regular transfer tattoos, right down to using a paper towel soaked in warm water to remove the base paper.

To make the sensors, Hung and colleagues used a standard screen printer to lay down consecutive layers of silver, carbon fiber-modified carbon and insulator inks, followed by electropolymerization of aniline to complete the sensing surface.

By using different sensing materials, the tattoos can also be modified to detect other components of sweat, such as sodium, potassium, or magnesium, all of which are of potential interest to researchers in medicine and cosmetology.

An article describing the work has been accepted for publication in the journal Analyst.

Source: University of Toronto