Scientists in the UK have developed a new wearable device that monitors the correct amount of sun exposure for a person's skin type in order to stay healthy. The Solitair device consists of a tiny sensor to measure how much sunlight the user is exposed to, with the information synchronized to a smartphone app that offers real time recommendations on when it is time to seek out some shade. The developers hope Solitair will reduce the confusion that surrounds just how much sun we should be getting.
UVA and UVB radiation from the sun damage skin-cell DNA and are partly responsible for skin ageing and for promoting skin cancer.
But sunlight is also vital for a host of crucial body functions. Vitamin D, sometimes known as the "sunshine vitamin", is made in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight and is known to boost the uptake of calcium and bone formation, with some observational studies also suggesting a link between low levels of vitamin D and greater risks of many acute and chronic diseases. Exposure to sunlight could also combat 'seasonal affective disorder', where some people see a drop in mood as the days get shorter and darker during the winter months.
The makers of Solitair hope it will help people make the most of available sunlight all year round; striking the correct balance between the benefits and detrimental effects of the sun.
"People are becoming increasingly concerned with the amount of sun exposure that they get. On the one hand, there's detrimental effects like skin cancer and also the increasing awareness of skin ageing that comes from exposure to the sun. But on the plus side, people benefit from increased vitamin D synthesis in the skin which is great for their health, but also combating things like seasonal effective disorder. So it's really getting that balance right between the down sides of sun exposure and of course the good side," explained Peter Luebcke, from technology developers Cambridge Consultants.
There are other sun exposure devices already commercially available, but Solitair's designers say their device offers a truly personal approach to sun safety.
"We're very good in terms of color measurement, optics and image analysis. So we've brought our expertise in those areas together to really look at skin in a novel way that can directly feed that information into the app so it can calculate your predicted safe levels," said Luebcke.
The user starts by taking a skin pigment measurement using the smartphone app. This analyses the image and combines it with the user's schedule for the day, their location and the weather forecast. The Solitair device - currently built into a tie clip or hair slide - connects via Bluetooth with the app to calculate the optimum time in the sun to absorb the health-giving rays without risk of skin damage. It is also sophisticated enough to adapt its recommendations if the user plans to wear a sunscreen; the user simply updates a setting in the app with the SPF rating they are using.
"So the system is intelligent in the sense that it will take into account the sun screen that you're going to wear that day; because this isn't a system that's a substitute for sun screen - it actually brings that in to the equation so you know what's safe for you, your skins type, that SPF, that location and your planned movements for the day," said Luebcke.
Throughout the day, Solitair monitors actual sun exposure with real-time updates sent to the user's smartphone, and alerts them when they're about to exceed the recommended safe levels of sun.
The miniature sensors in Solitair are currently the size of a small coin, with the electronic materials inside costing about $5 USD. Luebcke said there are plans to make the device smaller and even less obtrusive for the wearer, with software updates that would take into account if the device falls into shade for a short time.
"We've managed to get the technology down to quite a small size; about the size of a penny. But the plans are to get it down much smaller than that, probably down to the size of a shirt button. This then needs to be worn somewhere on the body that's obviously exposed to the sun. And we will be incorporating a smoothing algorithm that would take into account if for a short period of time it goes into the shade."
Cambridge Consultants are currently seeking partners to launch Solitair commercially.