Creating Biomedical Technologies to Improve Health


Science Highlight: October 17, 2016

Wearable tattoo sends alcohol levels to your cell phone

Engineers funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) have developed a small monitoring device, worn on the skin, that detects alcohol levels in perspiration. It was designed as a convenient method for individuals to monitor their alcohol intake, which could help reduce unsafe drinking that can lead to vehicle crashes, violence, and the degeneration of the health of heavy drinkers.

A collaboration of nanoengineers and electrical and computing engineers at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla combined their expertise to create the small device that detects alcohol levels and transmits that information to a cell phone or other monitoring station. Their work is reported in the July issue of the journal ACS Sensors.

diagram of alcohol sensing patch sending levels to smartphone

The wearable sensor uses a method called iontophoresis to induce perspiration. The unit then measures the alcohol content and sends it to the user’s cell phone. Source: American Chemical Society1

Seila Selimovic, Ph.D., director of the NIBIB Program in Tissue Chips, explains the new technology. “It resembles a temporary tattoo, but is actually a biosensor patch that is embedded with several flexible wireless components. One component releases a chemical that stimulates perspiration on the skin below the patch. Another component senses changes in the electrical current flowing through the generated sweat, which measures alcohol levels and sends them to the user’s cell phone.”

Approximately 88,000 people in the U.S. die from alcohol-related causes including driving fatalities, which accounted for nearly 10,000 deaths in 2014.This significant problem has been addressed by the use of blood tests or breathalyzers by law enforcement. The new wearable monitor has the advantage of being non-invasive and unseen by others, for example, in a bar— features that could make its use more attractive to individuals. Given these features, the researchers believe the device has great potential for people to self-monitor their alcohol intake and avoid driving if they have had too much to drink.

Patrick Mercier, Ph.D. at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering and co-senior author elaborates on the advantages of their technology design. “Measuring alcohol in sweat has been attempted before, but those technologies took 2-3 hours to measure alcohol levels. Our patch sends alcohol levels to your smartphone in just 8 minutes, making real-time alcohol monitoring possible, practical, and personal."

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering grant # EB019698. Additional funding was provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the UCSD Center of Wearable Sensors, and the Thai Development and Promotion of Science and Technology Talents.

1. Noninvasive Alcohol Monitoring Using a Wearable Tattoo-Based Iontophoretic-Biosensing System. Jayoung Kim, Itthipon Jeerapan, Somayeh Imani, Thomas N. Cho, Amay Bandodkar, Stefano Cinti, Patrick P. Mercier, and Joseph Wang. ACS Sens., 2016, 1 (8), pp 1011–1019

2. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2015, November). 2014 Crash Data Key Findings (Traffic Safety Facts Crash Stats. Report No. DOT HS 812 219). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Available at:

Program Area: 
Health Terms: 
Liver Disease,
Medical Devices