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Digital Health — 8 min

UV Wearables

July 4th, 2019
Biron

A new generation of wearable devices that help you and your family stay safe in the sun.

We take a look at a trio of new wearables that track users’ exposure to the sun’s cancer-causing UV rays and tell you when it’s time to cover up. Reviewed: Shade, My Skin Track UV, QSun.

While the incidence rates of many cancers have decreased in recent decades, in large part due to education and changing behaviours such as quitting smoking, the global incidence for skin cancers has continued to rise. According to the US-based Skin Cancer Foundation, one in three cancer diagnoses is now a skin cancer, and one in seven Canadians are likely to develop skin cancer in their lifetime[1].

These are frightening statistics, especially as climate change portends more episodes of extreme heat and sunlight. Still, the primary factor in developing a skin cancer remains recreational exposure to excessive UV radiation — a risk largely within our capacity to either control (through the amount of exposure) or mitigate through the application of sunscreen.

But how can we know when enough sun is enough, or too much? Enter a new generation of wearable devices now available to consumers, designed to track UV exposure and notify you when it’s time either to lather on more sunscreen, seek shade, or simply cover up skin. Sensors embedded in the wearable, typically a small disc or bud, measure real-time UV exposure then wirelessly transmit the data into the accompanying app on your mobile device, tracking the amount of sun you’re getting against a daily UV limit. The makers of these wearables hope they will one day become as indispensable as sunscreen in mitigating the effects of the sun’s rays, not just in preventing cancers but other ill effects of UV, such as wrinkles and premature skin aging, and eye damage in the form of cataracts.

If you are thinking about purchasing a UV tracker, there are several caveats to keep in mind. As many scientists point out, there is really no “safe dose” when it comes to UV radiation, and sun damage is cumulative — no matter how well an app monitors current exposure, it will never be able to factor in the number of sunburns you’ve had in a lifetime. At the very least, consider a UV tracker that logs your exposure over periods of time. (All of the wearables and apps discussed here do so.) Second, everyone’s UV sensitivity is different, shaped by genetics, skin type, age, and past history with sunburns, so choose the wearable that accounts for as many personal variables as possible.

As UV wearables are a fairly new technology at the consumer level, clinical trials are ongoing to better understand their efficacy and best use. While it’s one thing to get a notification from your phone advising you to cover up, the science is still out on whether wearables genuinely change behaviour as intended. But if used as instructed, these wearables can help you and your family’s time at the beach be a little more carefree.

Shade

Developed by scientists at Cornell Tech, and partially funded by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., the technology behind Shade was inspired by research into the particular challenges faced by those with lupus, a chronic auto-immune disease that makes sufferers especially vulnerable to skin flareups and rashes due to sun exposure. The wearable comes in the form of a black magnetic disc embedded with powerful laboratory-grade sensors designed to mimic the skin’s sensitivity to sun exposure; it can either be clasped to your clothing or worn like a wristwatch. The accompanying app calculates the user’s daily UV limit based on a personalized set of factors, including skin type and a physician’s advice. $800 CAD approximately (plus shipping) for Shade wearable device, accompanying app available in both iOS and Android is free. An earlier generation of the shade device is available for $400 CAD. Not available in French.

My Skin Track UV

Launched last fall under L’Oreal’s high end La Roche-Posay skincare brand, and created in collaboration with respected Swiss industrial designer Yves Behar, My Skin Track UV is a tiny 12mm x 6mm waterproof bud with a wire clip that discretely attaches to your clothing, swimsuit or accessories. Its battery-free sensor is activated by the sun and draws its power from the user’s smartphone. Like Shade, My Skin Track monitors for UV exposure and daily limits, but allows one to do so for multiple users, so you can keep tabs on your entire family while at the beach. (The device also measures for exposure to pollen and pollution.) L’Oreal’s previous product in this space, My UV Patch, was shown in consumer studies to significantly increase sun safe behaviours, with around 35% of those participating seeking shade and applying sun screen more regularly. $80 CAD (plus shipping) for the wearable, app currently available only through the Apple Store for iOS. Available in multiple languages, including French and English.

QSun UV Exposure Tracker

The QSun is small disc that clips onto your clothing — just give it a shake and the LED lights on the disc’s face will supply a UV reading. The accompanying app notifies you how long you have left until skin reddening occurs and during what times of day to be most careful in the sun. If applying SPF there’s no need to let the app know, just give the disc two shakes and it will take that into account. When it’s time to seek protection, the wearable itself will vibrate. Appropriately for a device developed in Canada, where winters are long and sunshine sometimes elusive, the QSun also tracks vitamin D intake, whether from the sun, food or supplemental sources. Another nifty add-on within the app is the QSun Skin Analyzer. Just use the camera feature to take a picture of your face, and the app, powered by AI imaging technology, instantly supplies your “skin age” and an overall skin health score. $200 CAD (plus shipping) for the device, app free for download in iOS and Android. App available in English and Japanese only.

  1. Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation. “Skin Cancer.” 2018. https://www.canadianskincancerfoundation.com/home/skin-cancer/ (accessed June 2019).

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