Tattoos appear to be gaining in popularity. According to Deborah Davidson, associate professor of sociology at York University, whose research includes commemorative tattoos and tattoo culture, approximately 38 percent of Millennials have at least one tattoo and 19 percent have more than one; about one in five people across all age categories have a tattoo. No doubt at least some of these inked individuals later consider their tattoos a mistake.
Enter Alec Falkenham, a PhD student in pathology at Dalhousie University who is developing a topical cream that works to eventually fade tattoos painlessly. Currently, the most popular removal method is by laser, which can come with side-effects like burning and scarring. Mr. Falkenham is currently working with Dalhousie’s Industry Liaison and Innovation Office to commercialize the cream.
Mr. Falkenham came up with the idea while working on his graduate research, which involves targeting a type of white blood cell called macrophages for cell death. After getting his first tattoo, Mr. Falkenham wondered how this drug-delivery system might work on the cells involved in making a tattoo permanent. His process targets the macrophages that hold on to the tattoo pigment, allowing them to “undergo a controlled death and release their contents (the ink),” he explains. “The ink can then be taken up by new macrophages entering the skin to clean up the dead cells … some of these cells leave the skin for the lymph nodes, in turn removing ink from the skin and fading the tattoo.”
This has prompted at least one professor to wonder about the bigger cultural picture here. People around the world have always tattooed their bodies “as deep expressions of commitment,” says Michael Atkinson, a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “In reflection of the current generation, I often pause to ask whether the rush to tattooing for some – and the later regret – signals something deeper about our own personal relationships with commitment. Commitment seems to be almost devalued in the contemporary cultural landscape, with speed, change, fluidity and impermanence the orders of the day.” While a removal cream may solve the physical and mental pain of a bad tattoo, might it also be enabling a commitment-phobic culture? For better or worse, there may soon be a cream for that.