If your clothing could speak, what would it say? Researchers at Tufts University’s School of Engineering would like to empower wearable fabric to speak volumes about an individual’s health. The research team developed biomaterial-based inks that sense chemicals in sweat and other body fluids. Clothing screen-printed with these inks could detect and display data about a variety of molecules, biological conditions, and even pathogens carried on the surface of the skin.

The team imagines printing soft, comfortable uniforms, sports clothing, and other garments that include the bioactive inks. Unlike patches, wristbands, and other popular wearables, the inks don’t require electronics or sensor chips. They also have the potential to sense a much higher number of chemicals, providing information about concerns such as skin health, dehydration, level of fatigue, heart rate, blood glucose, and possibly exposure to infectious diseases.

The team used silk-based inks activated with “reporter” molecules that react when the skin releases sweat and other substances. Examples include pH-sensitive molecules and enzymes such as lactase oxidase, which activate biological proteins in the inks causing a change of color. Adding components such as chemically sensitive dyes, antibodies, and other enzymes would customize different inks for detecting specific conditions.

The inks also include a thickening agent called sodium alginate, and glycerol, a plasticizer. These components give the bioactive formula screen printability that’s identical to standard inks. In addition to clothing, the inks can adhere to paper, plastics, wood, and other surfaces making objects, furniture, indoor spaces, and even whole buildings biosensitive.

Privacy considerations may arise; biosensing clothing could change color visibly though interpretation of those changes might require high-resolution imaging and granular digital mapping. The inks show promise for monitoring health, exercise performance, and risk of pathogen transmission. In the case of architectural use, the inks could potentially track air quality and other environmental factors. Data collected from all types of ink applications may even prove useful in epidemiological studies.