A group of nano-engineering students from the University of Waterloo are out to stop sunburn, perhaps even skin cancer, before it starts.
We all know we should wear sunscreen to protect ourselves from burns and help prevent skin cancer. Trouble is, putting on that protective layer of lotion, and keeping it up isn’t an exact science. Package instructions, and even the FDA, suggest reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours. Yet, many of us don’t reapply as often as we should—that is if we bother putting on any protection at all.
Canadian startup Suncayr is currently testing, what it believes is, a foolproof way to monitor UV exposure and tell users the minute they need to slather on more sunblock. Their solution, called the Sun Marker, changes from clear to purple in UV light.
The marker, which looks like a standard Crayola felt-tip pen, contains a UV-sensitive, non-toxic ink. Users apply a dot (or even a smiley face or line) to their skin and then put on their sunscreen. When the protection wears off, the ink reacts with the sun’s UV rays and turns purple. Once the ink is re-covered with sunblock, it turns clear.
Suncayr began two years ago as the final project for a group of nano-engineering students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The team, which is now led by CEO and co-founder Rachel Pautler, wanted to focus on solving a problem people face on a day-to-day basis. “I get sunburned super easily,” she says, “and two of my co-founders have skin-cancer history in their families, so they’re more worried about the effects of the sun.”
After some debate about the ideal form factor—the team considered a wearable device, a patch, and a smartphone app—they settled on a color-changing skin-worn ink. “We finalized on this idea, because it’s so simple and easy to do that a kid could do it.”
According to Pautler, reaching out to kids will be Suncayr’s most-important task. One highly-cited study out of Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School found that kids who suffer five or more severe burns before the age of 20 are up to 80% more likely to develop melanoma as adults.
What’s more, because Suncayr ink will be applied directly to skin it should provide a more-accurate measure of UV exposure than other methods. “We knew we needed something that was applied directly to the skin, so it could be specific to your skin,” she explains, “Myself and my co-founders, for example, burn at different rates, and we sweat at different rates. This is a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Competing products, such at the Netatmo June wristband and the Goodlux Sunsprite lapel clasp, can keep a tally of how much sunlight a user is exposed to, but aren’t precise enough to know when it’s time to reapply and don’t adjust based on conditions like sweat and moisture.
Those shortcomings are why Pautler thinks there’s more than enough room in the more than $1.3 billion sunscreen market for the Sun Marker. When Suncayr launches the product next summer (it’ll run about $15 for one marker) it will be a standalone product. Eventually, she could see it licensed to or packaged with existing sunscreen brands.
Right now, the team is still testing the Sun Marker ink for toxicity before they begin any human testing. From there, they’ll wait for clearance from Health Canada, their FDA equivalent, before pushing Sun Marker online or onto store shelves.
The company is currently working off of about $116,000 in grants and awards, including one from the University of Waterloo and a stay in local bootcamp Communitech—they were also named a runner-up in the 2014 James Dyson Awards. Next, according to Pautler, the company will need to raise about another half-million to get the product to market.