Studies suggest blue light from cellphones and computer screens can cause eye-strain, but it’s less clear how tech time may be affecting your complexion.
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 — emitted by both the sun and digital devices — could be wreaking havoc on your skin health.
“The 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,” 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?
“Blue 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,” says Jason Bloom, MD, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Bloom Facial Plastic Surgery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
“[Blue light] is thought to penetrate deeper into the skin than UV light but fortunately is not associated with the development of skin cancer,” adds Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital’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 “only a fraction” of that given off by the sun, explains Dr. Bloom — “but the problem is that we are constantly spending time on and carrying around these devices and keeping them close to our face and head.”
In fact, per Nielsen data published in July 2018, the average American spends more than 11 hours per day using digital media.
“Spending 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,” Dr. Zeichner says. “The 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.”
So, if you’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.
How Does Blue Light Affect Human Health?
Scientists know that blue light, whether from the sun or devices, can cause eye-strain. A review published in December 2018 in the International Journal of Ophthalmology found that on the visible spectrum, high-energy blue light with a wavelength between 415 and 455 nanometers passes through the cornea and lens to the retina. In the process, it can cause diseases such as dry eye, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration. Study authors wrote that it may even affect hormone production, creating an imbalance that can negatively affect sleep quality.
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. “They 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,” he points out.
Another small study, published in February 2015 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, found a connection between blue light exposure and the production of free radicals in skin, which have been linked to an accelerated appearance of aging.
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. “It is suspected that blue light may induce harmful effects on the skin, specifically pigmentation and photoaging; however, this has not been proven,” 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. “It 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,” says Bloom.
And if you aren’t already slathering a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 on your face every day, start now. “Wearing sunscreen is always recommended for patients on a daily basis,” says Bloom. “I stress the importance of physical blocking sunscreens, like EltaMD or Coola, which contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. This can help in blocking blue light, because chemical sunscreens that may block UVA and UVB rays do not block visible or blue light rays.” Zeichner recommends opting for a tinted mineral sunscreen, which will physically block blue light rays from reaching the surface of the skin to begin with.
Currently, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (two common ingredients in mineral sunscreens) are the only two active ingredients that are generally recognized as safe and effective (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when used in sunscreens. (While chemical sunscreens are a better option than no sun protection at all, some concerns persist over their environmental effects and high skin absorption rates, per a review published in July 2018 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and a randomized clinical trial from the January 2020 Journal of the American Medical Association, respectively.)
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. “We aren’t sure how detrimental this band of visible light is to our skin,” he says.
Still, this lack of research hasn’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 “Valkyrae” 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 RFLCT’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.
“Think of [antioxidants] as an insurance policy on your SPF, to neutralize free radical damage that you’re exposed to despite your best efforts in protecting yourself with sunscreen,” Zeichner explains. “Plus, they have their own independent benefits in brightening the skin.”
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). You’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 isn’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 — and all the sun’s rays, for that matter — remain a known cause for concern. “The amount of energy emitted by [technology] sources is minimal compared with the irradiances from the solar spectrum,” she says, “and their effect on the skin is likely minimal.”
Additional reporting by Laura McArdle.