Is Blue Light Harming Your Skin Health?
In the past, most worries about premature aging and skin cancer stemmed from the damaging UVA and UVB rays emitted by the sun. But over the past decade, scientists have learned that these may not be the only rays of visible light people need to be concerned about. Blue light â€” emitted by both the sun and digital devices â€” could be wreaking havoc on your skin health.
â€œThe trend of blue-light blocking in skin care and wellness in general is increasing because we are all exposed to blue light more now with the use of smartphones and tablets,â€ says Nazanin Saedi, MD, the department co-chair of the laser and aesthetics surgery center at Dermatology Associates of Plymouth Meeting in Pennsylvania.
What Is Blue Light, Anyway?
â€œBlue light is a portion of the visible light spectrum (380 to 500 nanometers) that is contained in sunlight, but it is also given off by indoor lighting [and] common electronic devices, like computer screens and smartphones,â€ says Jason Bloom, MD, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Bloom Facial Plastic Surgery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
â€œ[Blue light] is thought to penetrate deeper into the skin than UV light but fortunately is not associated with the development of skin cancer,â€ adds Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospitalâ€™s Department of Dermatology in New York City.
Most of the blue light people are exposed to comes from the sun, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The amount of blue light emitted by devices is â€œonly a fractionâ€ of that given off by the sun, explains Dr. Bloom â€” â€œbut the problem is that we are constantly spending time on and carrying around these devices and keeping them close to our face and head.â€
â€œSpending more time in front of our devices during the COVID-19 lockdown raised the question of whether our devices are contributing to premature skin aging,â€ Dr. Zeichner says. â€œThe truth is that our computers, tablets, and phones emit only low levels of blue light. However, as we spend more and more time looking at our devices, we do need to consider the effects of long-term, low-level exposure.â€
So, if youâ€™ve noticed your screen time has gone up thanks to work-from-home Zoom calls and ongoing virtual happy hours, or maybe the latest Netflix series drop, you may be wondering about the effect on your health.
What Do We Know About Blue Light and Skin Health?
Unfortunately, research on the effects of blue light on the skin is lacking. But some preliminary studies may hold clues.
Bloom points to a past study that suggested people with darker skin who were exposed to visible blue light had more swelling, redness, and pigment changes than people with lighter skin who were exposed to similar levels of UVA rays. â€œThey do know that the penetration of visible blue light through the skin can cause reactive oxygen species, which then can lead to DNA damage and breakdown of our collagen and elastin fibers,â€ he points out.
How Can You Tell if Blue Light Has Damaged Your Skin?
Skin changes like pigmentation, swelling, early wrinkling, and redness can all be signs of damage from blue light, Bloom says.
But Kathleen Suozzi, MD, a dermatologic surgeon and the director of aesthetic dermatology at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, says there is no solid scientific evidence that blue light damages skin. â€œIt is suspected that blue light may induce harmful effects on the skin, specifically pigmentation and photoaging; however, this has not been proven,â€ she says. In fact, she points out that some dermatologists use blue light to treat certain skin conditions, such as acne, and there have been no reports that these treatments damage skin pigmentation.
How to Protect Your Skin From Potential Blue Light Damage
Dr. Saedi says the best way to prevent blue light damage is to cut down your screen time. You can also invest in a screen protector for your electronics, such as the ophthalmologist-endorsed EyeJust ($55, EyeJust.com), which can block or dim blue light. â€œIt is more important to try to be proactive by reducing the screen brightness on your phone or wearing headphones so the phone can be in your pocket and not directly against your cheek and face,â€ says Bloom.
Saedi also recommends Colorescience Sunforgettable sunscreen ($39, Nordstrom.com), a broad- spectrum mineral sunscreen with HEV (high-energy visible light) protection.
As for skin-care products marketed as protection against blue light, Bloom suggests that the jury is still out on their effectiveness, because of a lack of research. â€œWe arenâ€™t sure how detrimental this band of visible light is to our skin,â€ he says.
Still, this lack of research hasnâ€™t stopped companies from releasing skin- care products for this purpose. In one high-profile case, The Washington Post reported that the YouTube creator Rachell â€œValkyraeâ€ Hofstetter drew criticism for her involvement with RFLCT, a line of skin-care products that purported to protect the skin from blue light damage. Backlash ensued from experts such as the cosmetic scientist and YouTube creator Michelle Wong, PhD, who pointed to the lack of reputable research on RFLCTâ€™s site and reaffirmed that blue light from the sun is far more likely to cause skin damage than blue light from electronic devices, and RFLCT ended up terminating their brand.
Most skin-care products that claim to block blue light actually contain antioxidants that counter the negative effects of free radicals, Zeichner notes.
Two product examples are Skinbetter Science Alto Defense Serum ($155, SkinBetter.com), which contains the antioxidants vitamins C and E, and SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF With Ferulic Acid ($166, SkinCeuticals.com), which is made with vitamin C and ferulic acid, another antioxidant.
Can You Undo Blue Light Damage to the Skin?
Because blue light causes reactive oxygen species to break down collagen, Bloom suggests slathering on skin-care products with antioxidants like vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Youâ€™ll commonly find vitamin C in serums to help battle the oxidative stress that this visible light causes. Iron oxide is another ingredient that may help reverse damage, Saedi says. Past research has found that vitamin C can help with and prevent photoaging and treat hyperpigmentation, while one study found that iron oxide may help with reducing sensitivity to blue light.
How Worried Should You Be About Blue Light?
At this time, there isnâ€™t enough conclusive research to determine how damaging blue light from cellphones and electronic gadgets is to the skin. Dr. Suozzi does point out, though, that blue light from the sun â€” and all the sunâ€™s rays, for that matter â€” remain a known cause for concern. â€œThe amount of energy emitted by [technology] sources is minimal compared with the irradiances from the solar spectrum,â€ she says, â€œand their effect on the skin is likely minimal.â€
Additional reporting by Laura McArdle.
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