Drinking steel and zapping urushiol
It was a night like many other nights—I transferred stock into ice cube trays for the freezer, had a friend over for coffeecake, brought some leftover rolls to my parents’ house on my way to drop my friend off, and wrote a quick terminal response to Possible Modernist on our discussion of the motivation of self-experimentation in science. “We’ve taken this as far as we can,” I wrote, “I can’t know whether Boyle was seeking fame, adrenaline, or the betterment of humankind, and in Year of our Lord 2022, nobody else can know about Boyle either.”
Little did I know, less than 36 hours later, I’d be penning a new post in the Drinking Steel series. This because I heard my own self say “next time I get poison ivy, I might try giving myself a tattoo, and then zapping it with a neodymium-doped Yttrium-Aluminum-Garnet laser.”
So, what’s going on here? I don’t want to dox myself, but I’m the opposite of Hunter S. Thompson. I’m a salary worker who always shows up early and prefers to avoid attention. I read weird books and I think a lot, but I usually think about dirt and plants, sometimes chickens and sometimes dog training. I’m averse to drugs in general, and yes that means I’m unlikely to take ibuprofen or benadryl. I’m exceedingly boring, I drink plenty of water, I’m in very good health, I go to bed at 9:30, I do my chores, and you never have to wonder where I am.
But I want to recreationally give myself a jailhouse tattoo, then zap it with a laser?
Yes. See, I get poison ivy really badly. The worst I’ve had it was in undergrad—I had an outdoor job and I shared a car with a coworker who didn’t get poison ivy, didn’t see it, so walked through it and smeared it all over the car every weekend. I figured “well, this isn’t fun,” and I’d put calamine lotion on myself and then wrap up the ooziest parts of myself with saran wrap so I wouldn’t ooze on the car seat, and I’d take oatmeal baths when I got home, and even though my job ended in October, I still had poison ivy in January when I went in for my annual checkup. “You, uh, know we can DO something about poison ivy that’s lasted 5 months, right?” asked the doctor. “Well, no, I guess I didn’t.” So the doctor gave me a prednisone prescription, and after 12 days my skin had stopped oozing.
But they were a hellish 12 days. Prednisone makes one’s heart beat too fast, one feels one’s heartbeat in one’s ears for the first several days of the dose, and one (or at least I, who am very rarely angry) winds up angry the whole time.
Now that I know there’s something I can do to surmount ‘contact dermatitis from urushiol,’ I find a nurse hotline to get me a prednisone rx as soon as I find out I’ve been exposed. When I haven’t been oozing for 5 months, a simple 7-day course of prednisone gets the job done. And the cure (pounding heartbeat and angry) is a lot more unpleasant than the disease—but the cure only lasts 7 days and the disease untreated would last months. So when I’ve had the misfortune of petting a dog that had run through poison ivy, I regretfully cancel my social engagements for the week, and take prednisone.
Up until last week, I thought my poison ivy response (and having low durability tooth enamel) were my only two medical flaws of interest. But last week I got a bee sting, and instead of the usual “10 minutes of acute pain, 40 minutes of low-grade pain, 10 minutes of itching, then you forget it ever happened,” I had acute pain that needed ice for 36 hours. I had pain from my finger to my neck, and (though I was stung in the finger), my armpit swelled up like a tennis ball. After 3 days the pain and swelling were gone everywhere except the finger itself. But at sting + 6 days, the finger still ached and was about 25% swollen.
Until! I had my friend over for coffeecake—coffeecake I had made as a thank-you for giving me a cosmetic laser treatment. About 15 minutes of laser zapping mixed with icing, and then an application of ointment, then the rest of my evening as described above. And when I woke up the next morning, my pinky was 50% more swollen again, and it finally itched! It was finally getting better!
It itched all morning and then all the swelling receded, and I finally am relieved of the pain that had been constant for a week.
Wait, why do you have a laser in the first place?
I was recently in Mexico, where I found out (a) that tattoos can be removed with laser treatments and (b) you can just make an appointment at a salon and receive a laser removal treatment. Full tattoo removal takes 6-10 sessions, I have a tattoo I’ve been regretting for the bulk of my adult life, so I got a treatment before returning home.
Six weeks later and back in the US, I tried to make an appointment for a second treatment. “One laser session please.” “Sure, that’ll be $2700 for the 10 session package, payable upfront.” “No, you see, I don’t know when I’ll be near your studio, and so my sessions might be longer than just 6 weeks apart, can I just pay for this session this time, and next session next time?” “We don’t do that.” “What if it only takes 9 sessions for me, since I already had a session in Mexico?” “Well I guess you could get a six-session package, but if your tattoo wasn’t gone yet you would have to get another six-session package.” “Huh. I can’t just show up and give you $270 and you laser my tattoo?” “No.” “I see.”
I relate this frustration to a friend, who says “ebay sells hair removal lasers, I bet you can find a tattoo laser too.”
And, indeed, I could. And $500 later, I have my own nd:YAG laser. It’s not as nice as the salon models, it runs at 10 pulses per second as compared to the picosecond professional models. So it hurts more, but I don’t have to feel beleaguered by the rigid billing structure of the pseudo-medical industry. Laser tattoo removal probably requires some weekend certification, but I played around with some sakura pigma pens on card stock until I’d developed a technique I could teach to friends. I did buy some fairly spendy, made-in-the-USA safety goggles for the laser wavelength I purchased, because I don’t want to be cavalier with eyesight.
So here’s my hypothesis1 of why getting a tattoo removal treatment cured my beesting. Note that after cooking up the hypothesis, I’ve changed it 3x before even running the test. I clearly have no idea what I’m doing, and it is very good that I am not allowed near any test subjects other than myself.
A tattoo is made by injecting pigment particles too large for the human lymphatic system to remove, into the skin. A macrophage engulfs the pigment particles, the macrophage is nestled in a collagen matrix, and the pigment is held in place ad mortem. A neat property of pigments is that they are intense and uniform in their color (that’s why they’re chosen, after all) so they respond uniformly to energy delivered at their absorptive wavelength. Hit a large black pigment particle with concentrated light at 1064nm, and it will shatter into a bunch of smaller black pigment particles. And the human lymphatic system can come around and “garbage collect” these small pigment bits, and send them out as waste.
So, all right, maybe my lymph system had phoned it in and stopped caring about the bee sting. But upon receiving the laser zap, it drummed up a robust response, shuttling pigment particles away toward my kidneys, and some extra white blood cells noticed “oh hey we could keep processing this bee venom while we’re on the clock.”
In conclusion! in order to avoid the unpleasant week of prednisone, next time I get poison ivy, I’m going to see whether I can’t stimulate a correct immune response using lasers v pigment.
I realized as soon as I said it out loud, that this makes me look like a madman. But it’s trivial to see that I’m not seeking fame or adrenaline. I’m just using the tools around me to test weird hypotheses in an attempt to improve my life. I still can’t judge Boyle, but I can decisively tell Possible Modernist that SOME batshit self-experimenters are only in it for the knowledge.
(This hypothesis is nearly certainly crazy and wrong. Used to thinking about plants, I originally typed ‘a cellulose matrix,’ then went back to correct myself, called it a collagen matrix, did some actual research, and found out that tattoo pigments are held in place by a succession of macrophages (Baranska 2018, Tamoutounour 2012).↩︎