The biggest health gadget of the 21st century may be a $40 personal UV tracker

But its health benefits are the opposite of what L’Oréal, its promoter, is touting at CES

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, cosmetics titan L’Oréal launched a fingernail-size device to measure personal UV exposure.

Although L’Oréal is positioning the device, called the UV Sense, as a means of limiting sun exposure, the device has far greater promise as a tool for encouraging sun exposure.

I’ll make a bold claim. Although the device was unmentioned in most write-ups of CES, one hundred years from now, UV Sense and its peers may be celebrated for being as important to health science in the 21st century as insulin and penicillin were in the 20th century. UV Sense is one of a whole new class of grass roots devices/services — FitBit, Spire, 23andme, OpenBCI, the Open Science Framework, PLOS, and various microbiome sensors and assays — that are as powerful anything deployed by high end researchers a decade ago. More importantly, combined with crowdsourcing and rentable big data tools, these people-empowering devices will let individuals pursue hypotheses that no profit-driven business cares (or dares) to examine.

The solar-powered UV Sense measures sunlight, then pushes readouts and UV warnings into a user’s mobile phone. With help from a $2 million NIH grant, the technology was engineered by a Northwestern University team led by renowned wearables researcher John Rogers.

“We think it provides the most convenient, most accurate way for people to measure sun exposure in a quantitative manner,” said John A. Rogers…. “The broader goal is to provide a technology platform that can save lives and reduce skin cancers by allowing individuals, on a personalized level, to modulate their exposure to the sun.”

Clinical trials studying the device’s ability to measure sun exposure began in December. The UV Sense might someday be sold at cosmetic counters — L’Oréal, which sold $30 billion in skin care products in 2016, seems excited by the market potential of the new product:

Guive Balooch, Global Vice President of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, said the company’s research shows that overexposure to UV rays is a top health and beauty concern of consumers worldwide.

Ironically, L’Oréal’s device has the potential to save far more lives by encouraging people to boost their sun exposure.

Few, if any, doctors ever tell a patient to “get more sun” — we all know the sun causes cancer. As Northwestern’s Rogers noted in the University’s press release about the UV Sense: “Sunlight is the most potent known carcinogen. It’s responsible for more cancers than any other carcinogen known to man, and it’s everywhere — even in Chicago.”

Skin cancer notwithstanding, there’s a rich body of scientific literature showing that, when considered in total, for every 1 year of life lost globally because of too much sun exposure, 2,000 years are lost because of too little.

Wait. What? That’s right folks: the global benefits to sun exposure outweigh the harms by 2000 to 1.

Here’s what a 2008 meta analysis for dozens of studies concluded about the risks and rewards of sunlight:

UVR exposure is a minor contributor to the world’s disease burden, causing an estimated annual loss of 1.6 million DALYs; i.e. 0.1% of the total global disease burden. A markedly larger annual disease burden, 3.3 billion DALYs, might result from reduction in global UVR exposure to very low levels.

It’s not just vitamin D, the lack of which leads to rickets and correlates with frequency of MS, diabetes and hypertension, among others.

Exposure to sunlight boosts nighttime production of melatonin, while decreasing stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. You can see that in the following chart. Compare the dramatic differences between columns a) sunlight alone and b) sunlight and exercise to column d) control group.

Groups in study: only sun exposure (for 30 minutes, EG1) protocol, only aerobic exercise (walking and jogging for 30 minutes, EG2) protocol, aerobic exercise with sun exposure (EG3) protocol, and control (no exercise and no sun exposure, EG4) protocol.

Even patient survival rates for melanoma, the images of which dermatologists use to scare us about sun exposure, seem to increase as sun exposure increases. In fact, “most melanomas occur in the areas of the body which are least sun exposed.” And a number of cancers have been linked to circadian misalignment.

There is evidence that numerous other biochemical pathways depend on sunlight, for example, in boosting endorphins, reducing autoimmune diseases, and supporting gene repair. Sunlight even seems to boost testosterone.

Why are the broad spectrum, overwhelmingly positive health effects of sunlight ignored by most researchers, doctors and journalists?

A Marxist would obviously blame our collective blindness on the fact that no company or individual has a patent on sunlight. No detail men visit doctors to extol the sun’s virtues, leaving behind free packets of rays for doctors to share with their patients. And, perhaps most importantly, the only people buying sun-related ads on TV and magazines are skincare companies like L’Oréal preying on our vanity.

Second, most of the sun’s benefits are slow and cummulative, which makes its effects hard to measure or study.

Third, in our personal lives, the sun is just so damn obvious that we can’t factor it into our cause/ effect risk/reward calculations, other than knowing that too much sun causes painful blisters.

The link between light and mood is so embedded in our language and folk wisdom that it’s almost invisible. Depression is a black dog. She has a sunny disposition. His mood is dark. Depression is a cave. Just last week a friend, in narrating her escape from months of anxious depression, mentioned that her recovery had begun when her husband had started mornings by opening the bedroom blinds, pulling her out of bed, and nudging her in a sunny chair on the porch. Not knowing about my sunlight fascination, these details about light were offered as incidental to her personal narrative of “getting out and moving forward.” My friend saw light as a metaphor, not a mechanism, for healing.

Finally, researches have not previously had access to pervasive reliable technology for gathering data about sun exposure. (One challenge: how to monitor how much clothing someone has on?)

One small company has taken a serious, but so far unsuccessful, shot at building that market. In 2014, a pendant-shaped device called the SunSprite launched with an explicit mission of helping people ensure they get enough sun. In an IndieGogo campaign, which raised $65k, SunSprite’s creators offered extensive documentation of sunlight’s physical and mental benefits. Here’s one of their pitch videos: https://youtu.be/hiKL-0AySRQ. Three years later, the $99 device is not currently in stock — CEO Jaqueline Olds told me by e-mail that they’ll be filling wait list orders in February and doing a redesign in six months. Olds, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said Sunsprite had raised $1.2 million to design and build the devices and had sold several thousand units to date.

Though L’Oreal is positioning UV Sense as a weapon in the battle against skin cancer, its size and price point position the device— once the quantified self community gets its collective hands on it — as a perfect tool for gathering enough data to reach both granular and broad conclusions about the relationship between sunshine and health.

Some relationships will be immediately evident, like when FitBit’s impressive HRV-based sleep data is mapped against sun exposure and timing. Other relationships, like the impact of sun exposure and timing on a person’s mood, will be evident in days or weeks too. Diseases like diabetes and hypertension will take much longer to chart, but should show results based on correlations previously observed by epidemiologists.

You can get a sense of the potentially massive impact of UV Sense and similar devices when you consider the field of psychiatry. Though the psychiatric-industrial complex currently prescribes at least $40 billion in drugs in the US annually, the theoretical model it’s built on — psychiatric “illness” as a “chemistry problem” — has been imploded over the last 15 years.

Thomas Insell, then the head of the National Institute for Mental health, observed in 2015 that “four decades of drug development resulting in over 20 antipsychotics and over 30 antidepressants have not demonstrably reduced the morbidity or mortality of mental disorders.” (Not only have the drugs not improved overall health, some researchers have tabulated persuasive evidence that, in the long term, these drugs cause substantial harm.)

Most people don’t know that drug industry giants have almost entirely abandoned researching new drugs addressing debilitating symptom clusters like anxiety and depression. (Ketamine, discovered in the labs of the club scene, may be the exception that proves the rule.)

The mind is vastly more complex than anyone imagined 30 years ago when pharmatropic research was in its heyday. As Steven E. Hyman, who lectures on psychiatry at Harvard and MIT, recently noted in an essay title “Revolution Stalled”:

The best-recognized obstacles to effective clinical translation in psychiatry include the complexity of the brain and the associated challenge of connecting levels of analysis from molecules to cells, synapses, circuits, and thence to higher cognition, emotion regulation, and executive function. The relative uniqueness of the human brain creates high hurdles for development of animal models. Anatomically, much of the neural circuitry involved in psychiatric symptoms — for example, that of the prefrontal cerebral cortex — is new or vastly expanded in humans, and gene expression patterns in the human cerebral cortex also appear to be newly evolved, even compared with nonhuman primates…. most psychiatric disorders are highly heterogeneous and polygenic, casting doubt about the utility of existing genetic mouse models. Overall, industry has come to the justifiable view that with few exceptions, valid disease models do not exist for psychiatric disorders.

The integration of massmarket UV-sensing wearables into the quantified self movement may have come just in time for people experiencing depression or anxiety. While research into the concept of Seasonal Affective Disorder has been steady, research on sunlight’s role in mood disorders in the general population has been hard to do and is grossly underfunded compared with past drug research. (It’s worth noting that earlier UV measurement devices like the Daysimeter and Sunsprite came online before FitBit’s powerful sleep tracking algorithms kicked in. Further, those devices have lacked the marketing umph and savvy of L’Oreal.)

The field of potential study is huge. Some studies have shown how dramatically sunlight, sleep and circadian rhythms impact mood and cognition. We know that morning sunlight exposure dramatically improves sleep quality; that morning light has a dramatic curative effect on depressed people; that light deprivation both damages neurons and creates depressive symptoms; that poor sleep and longer latency correlates with rumination, a key building block of depression and anxiety that sleep regularity improves cognition. One study observed that hospitalized bipolar patients with rooms facing east (getting morning sun) were discharged 3.7 days earlier than patients in rooms with other orientation. Daylong exposure to sunlight while camping both decreases melatonin in the morning and elevates it in the evening. Even your desk’s proximity to sunlight can have a dramatic impact on your mood.

An image from the website of SunSprite, an early entrant in the consumer-oriented UV-sensor market.

Again, nobody can patent the sun. Though drug companies have spent billions on developing drugs (and perhaps even more on marketing) to “cure mental illness,” research on the role of sunlight’s role in depression or anxiety is extremely scarce. Thanks to L’Oréal, we need no longer wait for corporate permission to do the research ourselves.

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