The science is clear: UV exposure causes skin cancer. Still, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the rate of this malignancy is on the rise. Can technology change that? In the past few years, a wave of UV-detection wearables, apps, and stickers designed to alert users to dangerous levels of sun exposure have been making headlines.
“Personal UV detection [devices] are finally being marketed to consumers,” says Elke Hacker, a researcher at the Improving Health Outcomes for People, part of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. She and other experts say that if they can accurately measure UV, they could have a big impact. But the big question is: Do they actually work?
Most UV sensor wearables on the market today are designed to clip onto clothes or fit securely around the wrist. Whenever you step outside, they record the amount of UV rays your skin is getting, and via an app, they feed you that number as well as advice on whether it’s still safe for you to remain outside.
As part of her research, Hacker is responsible for testing UV wearables and other technology that could improve the health of Australians, who have high rates of skin cancer. “UV monitors have been used in research studies for the past 20 years, but now these devices are out there to consumers.” And in the past few years, many of these devices have become increasingly high-tech. The L’Oreal-funded UV Sense, for example, made headlines earlier this year for the being a device so small that it can be applied on the fingernail.
The majority of these wearables use a dosimeter, a device that measures exposure to ionizing radiation to calculate UV exposure. Ionizing radiation is a type that’s at a high enough radiation level that it can physically remove an electron from an atom. If it reaches human skin cells, this ability can damage DNA and make the chances of skin cancer higher. UVA and UVB are both ionizing, but UVB is far more so.
That exposure data is then sent to an app, where users are asked what skin type they have and, depending on the wearable, if they have skin diseases. Both of these factors change how much sun you can get. People with lupus, an autoimmune disease, for example, are much more sensitive to UV exposure, sometimes breaking out in rashes.