Valentine's Day may prompt some people to consider etching their loved one's name permanently on their bodies, but what happens if you break up?

A researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax may not have a magic potion to repair the relationship, but he might be able to help get rid of that tattoo. 

Alec Falkenham, a 27-year-old PhD student in the university's pathology department, is developing a topical cream that he says will make tattoo ink eventually fade away.

"When comparing it to laser-based tattoo removal, in which you see the burns, the scarring, the blisters, in this case, we've designed a drug that doesn't really have much off-target effect," he said.

"We're not targeting any of the normal skin cells, so you won't see a lot of inflammation. In fact, based on the process that we're actually using, we don't think there will be any inflammation at all and it would actually be anti-inflammatory."

How it works

During tattooing, ink is injected into the skin. The ink initiates an immune response, and cells called "macrophages" move into the area and "eat up" the ink.

The macrophages carry some of the ink to the body's lymph nodes. But some of those macrophages that are filled with ink stay put, embedded in the skin. That's what makes the tattoo visible under the skin.

Falkenham's topical cream works by targeting the macrophages that have remained at the site of the tattoo. New macrophages move in to consume the previously pigment-filled macrophages and then migrate to the lymph nodes, eventually taking all the dye with them.

There's no injection and no inflammation, and Falkenham says the tattoo should fade away.

Falkenham is working with the university's Industry Liaison and Innovation office to patent his technology. He and the ILI office have secured funding through Springboard Atlantic and Innovacorp Early Stage Commercialization Fund for his research.

"Alec is a trail blazer in tattoo removal. He came to ILI with an idea, tangentially related to his graduate research, that had real-life applicability," said Andrea McCormick, manager, health and life sciences at ILI in a news release.

"His initial research has shown great results and his next stage of research will build on those results, developing his technology into a product that can eventually be brought to market."

He doesn't yet know how many applications will be required to completely fade a tattoo. He's testing the cream on tattooed pig's ears.

Falkenham says it will be much safer than laser tattoo removal.

He's not sure when the cream will be available commercially.

Falkenham estimates a tattoo removal treatment will cost four cents per square centimetre — a 10-by-10-centimetre area would cost approximately $4.50 per treatment. The cream will work best on tattoos that are more than two years old, he adds.