Ephemeral’s biodegradable tattoo ink disappears in 9–15 months
US start-up Ephemeral has developed what it describes as one of the first systematic innovations in tattooing in hundreds of years: a way to make tattoos disappear naturally rather than requiring laser surgery.
The company was founded in 2014 by two chemical engineers. Brennal Pierre came to New York from St Vincent and the Grenadines, while Vandan Shah moved from India. The pair met while completing their PhDs at New York University. Both men wanted to express their individuality with physical tattoos, but traditional familial values held them back, so they began looking for a less-permanent solution.
The initial spark for Ephemeral came from a student’s enquiry. ‘I had finished my PhD and was teaching,’ recalls Pierre. ‘One of my students asked a really good question: “Can we remove a tattoo with an enzyme?” And I thought, well, that probably won’t work for tattoos as they currently are, but we could actually make our own tattoo ink that can essentially disappear.’ The concept for the company was born in that moment, but it would take many years to become reality.
Together with a third co-founder, Joshua Sakhai, Pierre and Shah worked for about six years to develop a tattoo ink using biodegradable polymers that naturally break down over time. In July 2021, the company raised $20 million (£18 million) from investors. It now has five employees with engineering degrees focused on R&D, and a total workforce of about 75 – including tattoo artists and customer service representatives – in its five studios across the US.
Traditional tattoo inks usually have metal components, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and pigments. After the ink is placed in the dermis (the second from outermost layer of the skin) it aggregates into clusters of larger particles that are too big to be immediately removed by the immune system. Initially, Ephemeral’s ink behaves the same way, but because it is composed of bioabsorbable polymers, it breaks down over time into particles small enough to be eliminated by the body’s immune system.
But to create tattoos, the ink also needs colour additives, which are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority. Earlier this year, the EU effectively banned certain hazardous substances in tattoo inks that are used to create colour in these products. Restrictions on particular blue and green pigments are slated to go into effect in Europe in January 2023 because of their links to bladder cancer. Meanwhile, in the US the FDA regulates some tattoo ink ingredients but not the inks themselves. Instead, local jurisdictions in the US oversee the practice of tattooing.
Pre-approved pigments and polymers
Given these regulatory variations between countries and safety questions, Ephemeral has elected to use colour additives that are already approved for use in medical devices, foods, cosmetics and medicines. The polymers in the company’s inks are also approved for use in drug delivery systems and implanted medical devices.
‘We spent the first two or three years just looking for safe components, since we knew that the European Union was working really hard on determining what types of colour additives can be used in tattoos and so forth,’ Pierre recounts. ‘We were aware of this when we started developing our tattoos.’
The company’s earliest ink formulations in 2018 could only make simple lines and dots, and the first version only lasted in the skin a few days. The next iteration stayed intact for a couple of months. Further testing led to formulations capable of fine lines and complex shading, and the company opened its first tattoo studio in Brooklyn, New York, in March 2021. ‘Currently we only offer black, but we are working on other colours,’ Pierre says.
‘When we deliver any product to the customer it has to meet a certain level of quality – the vibrance and the longevity of the tattoo,’ he continues. ‘We would love to have great colours, but if we can’t find any safe components to make these great colours then we won’t make them – that’s the bottom line.’
A person’s initial inflammatory and healing reaction to the process of being tattooed is broadly the same with Ephemeral’s ink and more traditional tattoo inks – although its duration and severity varies considerably for tattoos at different sites on the body and according to people’s unique biological differences. Likewise, the longevity of Ephemeral tattoos depends on each person’s unique physiology. ‘The tattoo is a foreign body, and someone might have a really aggressive immune system that removes lots of ink quickly, whereas someone else may not,’ Pierre explains.
He recommends that people who are immune suppressed or compromised seek medical advice before getting any tattoo, including an Ephemeral one. But because the company’s ink is made of biocompatible material used in other products and generally known to be well tolerated, its tattoos are especially unlikely to elicit an out-of-control immune response, Pierre says.
Date of founding: 2014
Location: Office in Connecticut, US; studios in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston, with another opening in Miami
Number of employees: 75
Origin: Independent start-up
Funding to date: Over $26 million