The importance of sunlight for human health becomes particularly obvious when people do not receive sufficient sunlight. A prime example of this is rachitis, also known as 'English disease', which is caused by vitamin D deficiency. However, the exposure to too much sunlight can also be dangerous. The Empfingen-based company HelioVital has now developed a special foil that enables the therapeutic use of the positive effects of sunlight without causing skin damage.
Exposure to sunlight is the only reliable way for the human skin to generate vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for the calcium and phosphate metabolisms. The lack of sunlight, for example during the winter months and the deliberate avoidance of sunlight, considerably impedes vitamin D production. The bones of children suffering from vitamin D deficiency are very soft and tend to deform under the pressure of their own body weight. In adults, vitamin D deficiency is an important risk factor for the occurrence of bone fractures in people suffering from osteoporosis. While rachitis can be counteracted by the consumption of suitable vitamin cocktails, sunlight is essential for the treatment of certain skin diseases. It has long been known that psoriasis or neurodermatitis symptoms improve dramatically during the summer months. In order to therapeutically exploit this effect more efficiently, artificial light sources that produce light similar to natural sunlight have been developed. These light sources are also used with great success for the treatment of diseases such as standard winter depression. In addition, tanned skin has become a major aesthetic factor for many people.
Too much sun can be dangerous. The skin reacts to excessive UV irradiation with painful sunburn. Repeated skin damage leads to premature skin ageing; in addition, it increases the risk of developing skin cancers. In the past, industry has come up with numerous sunscreens with higher and higher light protection factors. However, the effect of such sunscreens is limited and they might also lead to undesired allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin.
The company HelioVital, which has its headquarters in the city of Empfingen in southern Germany, has developed an innovative solution to counteract the risk of excessive sun exposure. The company has developed protective polymer foils that are able to selectively screen out harmful UV rays from the sunlight. "It is known that the energy-rich UVB proportion of sunlight with a wavelength of between 280 and 320 nanometres leads to sunburn," said Klaus Lang, the industrial engineer and managing director of HelioVital. The HelioVital sunscreen foils are designed in such a way that they screen out harmful UVB sun rays. People using one of the company's suncare products, can achieve a healthy tan without the risk of getting sunburned.
"The pigmentation of the skin is achieved mainly by the long-wave UVA rays," explained Lang. UVA rays might also lead to free radicals in the cells and cause typical DNA damage, which plays a specific role in light-related skin ageing. However, the HelioVital foil is able to reduce unwanted reactions. A study funded by the Baden-Württemberg government at the University Skin Hospital in Tübingen has shown that cells exposed to HelioVital foil-filtered UVA light have fewer mutations than cells exposed to sunlight without the use of HelioVital foils. "The key biological mechanisms in this process are not yet understood in detail," said Lang who does know however that the protective capacity of the foils was so effective that even experts were surprised.
The discovery of HelioVital foils not only has the potential to give people a healthy tan. HelioVital foils can also be used for disease therapy. Tests have shown that UV rays with a wavelength of between 290 and 320 nanometres are very effective for the treatment of psoriasis symptoms. This wavelength spectrum can be artificially produced with expensive UV light lamps and the same wavelength is also found in particular geographic areas, namely in the area around the Dead Sea.
“By modifying the assembly of polymers, we are able to achieve an effective and specific (up to five nanometre) filtration of sunlight,” said Lang explaining that “this makes it possible to imitate the UV conditions in the Dead Sea area.” Psoriasis sufferers will in future be able to enjoy their holidays wherever they want, and nevertheless be able to do something positive for their well being. Even with the therapeutically used artificial light sources it is now possible to quickly and inexpensively generate any UV spectrum.
The HelioVital foils, which were nominated for the prestigious German Future Award in 2008 and which received the Initiative Mittelstand Industry Award in the category “Medical Technology”, have since attracted worldwide interest. The Cedars Jebel Ali International Hospital in Dubai is planning to set up a department that will specifically focus on the therapeutic application of these sunscreen foils as part of a cooperative project with the Baden-Württemberg government. “Recently, we also had somebody from Pakistan contact us. They want to use the product for the construction of a hospital,” said Lang, who has also found ways to include the foils in windows. The internationally active businessman enjoys working with regional companies. Close cooperation with the textile producers in and around the city of Albstadt has enabled Lang to produce his high-tech foil very cheaply. Another fruitful cooperation has emerged with the Albstadt University of Applied Sciences which has recently established a course on “Technical Textiles”. “If we want to exploit the positive effect of sunlight, then we need many people with excellent ideas,” said Lang who is convinced that there are still a huge number of areas where the HelioVital foils can be used.