Could new technology succeed where years of public health messages, doctor warnings and nagging moms have failed — to keep us safe from too much sun?
We have all heard about the devastating effects of ultraviolet radiation. It burns, ages, wrinkles, and can even cause cancer. There are 3.5 million cases of skin cancer in the United States each year, yet fewer than one third of people use sunscreen regularly, according to a May report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Technology may offer a solution. A new jewel-like wearable device called JUNE can be worn as a bracelet or a brooch. While other wearables are geared toward monitoring exercise, JUNE contains UV sensors that monitor only sun exposure throughout the day. It pairs with a free iOS app to provide a daily sun forecast detailing the expected UV index, a measure of the expected risk of UV radiation from the sun on a scale from 0 to sun-scorched 15, as well as whether to pack sunscreen, sunglasses or a hat. The device sells for $129, and battery life lasts about a month, then plugs into a specialized USB to recharge.
I started testing JUNE a month ago. I filled out a short multiple-choice questionnaire that asks about natural eye and hair color, skin tone, and how skin responds to sun without protection. This information allows the JUNE app to produce tailored daily “sun dose” reports.
An hourlong midday trail run near Oakland, Calif., where the average UV rating has been a steady 8 or 9, provides around 70 percent of my recommended sun dose for the day. JUNE also recommends sunscreen with SPF 30 and sunglasses. During a one-and-a-half-hour walk under a cloudy sky, JUNE reported just 5 percent of maximum exposure, and showed that SPF 15 was ample protection. Wearing JUNE definitely made me more conscious of the sun and of not frying my skin.
JUNE is the first wearable device of its kind to blend newer tracking technology with sun protection, but competitors are on the way. One notable new wearable in production is called Violet. It’s a small, waterproof clip-on tracker that promises to offer real-time UV exposure as well as alerts about potential skin damage. The device also promises to calculate daily natural vitamin D production, but the first units won’t ship until August.
For a lower tech, more affordable solution, you can try a disposable wristband or sticker that changes colors to signal that it is time to reapply sunscreen or get out of the sun. I tried a set of UVSunSense wristbands ($7.40 for seven bands) that I ordered on Amazon. The bands have a sticker backing that holds it on your wrist, but mine came off the minute I got it wet, started to sweat, or even when I sprayed sunscreen on it (which the directions tell you to do). My daughter had more luck with the Sunburn Alert stickers ($12 for a 12 pack), but they still didn’t stay in place when she went into the water.
Another option is to turn your smartphone into a sun warning system. A new app called sunZapp was developed with funding from the National Cancer Institute. SunZapp combines specific location-based information, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hour-by-hour UV Index forecast, with the user’s personal information (hair, eye color, skin tone, age, sun-sensitive medications and the type of clothing you are wearing for a specific outing).
It takes about a minute to plug all that information in, then the app shows how long it will take you to be sunburned on a particular day and gives specific precautions, such as “wear sunglasses, use sunscreen and cover up.” A timer in the app also counts down the minutes until it is time for you to reapply sunscreen.
The sunZapp app is available in a free version or a Pro version, with additional user profiles, for $1.99. I prefer the paid version because I didn’t have to redo the questionnaire each time, and I was able to create multiple profiles for everyone in my family. I have one profile for myself for when I go running outside, another for hiking, and still another for a day at the beach. I created two more for my daughter, who is more fair-skinned than I am, and my husband, who has darker hair and skin than the two of us.
I am surprised how often the app tells us all to reapply sunscreen. On an overcast day with a reported UV level of 1, with all of us starting the day wearing waterproof SPF 30, the app still told us all to reapply every 30 minutes. I can honestly say, I’ve never used that much sunscreen in my life.
The app’s biggest drawback is that there are no alarms or other obvious notifications when it is time to put more sunscreen on, so if you forget to keep checking back in with the app, you can easily miss it.
SunZapp joins several other sun safety apps. Some provide simple location-based UV index information such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s free Sunwise UV Index. Others, such as Block (99 cents) or Nevus($1.99), sound an alarm on your smartphone when it is time to slather on more sunscreen.
While all of the sun protection devices and apps have potential, the real challenge will be getting people to use them. In January, JAMA Dermatology published mixed results on the effect of electronic reminders to use sunscreen. People who used the app used more sun protection techniques than those who didn’t, but overall use of the app was lower than expected.
“We confuse education with inspiration,” said Dr. Joseph Kevdar, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard University Medical School. “We think reminding you to use sunscreen, cover up, and educating you as to why it’s a good idea is enough, but most of the time, that’s not the case.”