How the innovation industry is seeking to protect your skin in the extreme heat

Europe is bracing itself for the second heatwave to hit this summer, but is there a marketplace for digital tools helping people protect their skin?

The summer's second heatwave hit Europe this week, with Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands recording yesterday their highest ever temperatures.

On Tuesday, in the UK, the number of visits to the NHS heat exhaustion and heatstroke page had already soared to 22,000, compared to the average of around 4,200 per day throughout the rest of the month, according to NHS Digital.

While we’re all happy to soak up a bit of sunshine, doctors warn it is important to not put your skin at risk. Only last month, Cancer Research UK warned that melanoma skin cancer rates have gone up by 45% since 2004 in Britain, and that 9 in 10 cases could be prevented if people took better care of their skin, both on holiday and at home. 

“Sun safety is not just for when you’re going abroad, the sun can be strong enough to burn in the UK from the start of April to the end of September, so it’s important that people are protecting themselves properly both at home and further afield when the sun is strong,” Karis Betts, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said.

“We want to encourage people to embrace their natural look and protect their skin from UV damage by seeking shade, covering up and regularly applying sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and 4 or 5 stars,” Betts added.

While many factors are at play here, in the latest Cancer Research UK Science Surgery article, Professor Richard Marais, director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, explained that in almost all types of skin cancer “it’s very clear that the environmental carcinogen is sunlight”.

Health tech companies haven’t missed this space, with a suite of apps, sensors and patches developed to monitor UV exposure. 

One example is L'Oréal’s La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV, a battery-free sensor unveiled at 2018’s Consumer Electronics Show. Towards the end of last year, the company announced that the device, which measures UVA and UVB rays, comes with an accompanying app and retails for £54.95 in the UK, would become available for purchase through the Apple website. 

“Our research has long indicated the need for better consumer understanding of personal UV exposure, said Guive Balooch, global vice president and head of L'Oréal's Technology Incubator, at the time. 

Amsterdam-headquartered SkinVision is a startup that has developed a cancer screening app to help people monitor early signs of skin cancer, and this year it joined the NHS Innovation Accelerator, a programme run by NHS England and the 15 Academic Health Science Networks to speed up uptake of innovation across the health service. It allows the user to take a photo of a spot on the skin with their smartphone, who then receives a risk indication as to whether the photo presents similarities to signs appearing in the most common types of skin cancer, and recommends that they speak to a healthcare professional if appropriate.

But while the digital dermatology field is booming, it is not without its critics. For example, in 2015 two teledermatology apps, Mel App and Mole Detective, were the target of action by the Federal Trade Commission in the US. In early conversations about FDA regulation of mobile health, mole apps were the go-to example for an app that presented a mortal danger.

The tools have also come into question for how they acquire data and train artificial intelligence models

“Getting the data is really the biggest challenge, not the AI,” Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and dean of graduate engineering at Tufts University who studies AI use cases in healthcare, told MobiHealthNews in an interview in 2018. “We’ve already got the models, we just need more training data to validate this expertise. And then, again, getting doctors to also validate, to get random things from a cellphone, and you want multiple doctors to do it because they have to agree.”

However, these concerns have not stalled the market. More and more digital dermatology tools are emerging, and perhaps with the extreme temperatures there will be a marketplace.