Sunscreens block harmful ultraviolet light from the sun, but they can also do damage if they are absorbed into the body.Sol-Gel Technologies Ltd., a four-year-old company located in Beit Shemesh, Israel, has developed a technique that uses glass made at room temperature to create a material that will make sunscreen and other health care products safer.

The company has a proprietary method of entrapping the active ingredients of sunscreen molecules in silica glass beads to prevent direct contact with the skin and absorption into the body. This is important, since as sunscreen molecules absorb ultraviolet light, free radicals may develop and interact with the body, causing skin damage. According to the company, its products provide safe and inert ultraviolet filters that do not penetrate the skin, even hours after application.

Besides sunscreens, Sol-Gel’s product will be used in other cosmetic products, such as moisturizer, lipstick, and body lotion.

With Sol-Gel’s technology, each chemical that absorbs ultraviolet sun radiation is trapped into a separate minute micron-sized bead-like particle of glass. The particles are small enough to be incorporated into a variety of cosmetic preparations, including moisturizer, lipstick and body lotion.

Pharmaceutical giant Merck recently acquired a minority stake in Sol-Gel and plans to use its technology to launch a new line of UV absorbers, Eusolex UV-Pearls, which will be sold to cosmetic manufacturers. Sol-Gel’s technology was developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It has a combination of 13 patents and patent applications that were either developed by the company or licensed from Yissum Research Development Company, the organization charged with the commercial development of the Hebrew University’s intellectual property.

Hebrew University Prof. David Avnir co-founded the company in January 1998, with his former student, Dr. Alon Seri-Levy. The company employs 35 workers at its Beit Shemesh plant. It has raised $4.5 million in capital and has a manufacturing capacity of several dozen tons annually.

The company is emerging at a time when sunscreen use is skyrocketing worldwide. The $3 billion industry has seen a 6 to 7 percent annual growth rate in recent years, said Nir Zalmanov, Sol-Gel’s manager of marketing and business development.

Manufacturers are putting more ultraviolet-blocking ingredients into their sunscreens to raise their Sun Protection Factors, in part due to depletion of the ozone layer. The SPF is the figure used by the manufacturer to indicate how long the user can be exposed to the sun without burning, in comparison with not using any SPF. In Australia, for instance – where being in the sun is a way of life, products with an SPF as high as 100 are sold.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ultraviolet index, “Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight can result in a painful sunburn. It can also lead to more, serious health effects, including skin cancer, premature aging of the skin, and other skin disorders; cataracts and other eye damage; and immune system suppression.”

Thus, Sol-Gel is marketing two kinds of health benefits: high ultraviolet protection, along with reduction of direct chemical interaction with the skin.

Sol-Gel also expects to enter the cosmetics market with its glass bead technology and is targeting the $1.2 billion anti-acne market with a method to provide a safer acne treatment. The company plans to enter this market by 2006, Zalmanov said.

In addition, the Sol-Gel is in discussion with a major player in the oral care market to help it comply with FDA requirements to change some of the pigments used to color toothpaste. The company has found a way to trap the colors in water and prevent leeching.