Photograph: amanda dalbjorn/Unsplash
Is Blue Light Harmful to the Skin?
Our skin is one of the best indicators of our overall health. And because it’s always on display, problems with our skin’s condition can quickly lead to a loss of confidence.
Many of us follow a daily skincare routine and avoid exposure to the sun, but is this enough? Could other factors in our modern lifestyles be upsetting our skin’s delicate balance? One of the areas dermatologists are just starting to study is the effect of blue light on the skin. In this article, we look at the research and answer the question: Is blue light harmful to the skin?
What is Blue Light?
The light we see around us contains a whole spectrum of different colours. Light from the blue/violet end of that spectrum carries a lot of energy – in fact, it’s also known as HEV (High-Energy Visible) light. Because it carries so much energy, scientists are concerned that blue light may damage our skin and eyes – as well as affecting our sleep patterns.
We’re exposed to blue light naturally, each and every day. Sunlight includes blue light and represents our number-one source of exposure. This natural exposure is limited to the daytime, and it’s something our bodies are programmed to respond to. But ideally, we should get a break from blue light once the sun goes down.
Artificial Sources of Blue Light
Unfortunately, there are many artificial sources of blue light, and our exposure to these is growing year by year. These include fluorescent and LED bulbs – which emit a lot of light from the blue end of the spectrum, as well as the screens of devices we use every single day. Yes – our addiction to laptops, tablets and smartphones means we’re all basking in the glow of blue light, deep into the night!
What are the Effects of Exposure?
Blue light may be causing widespread eye damage and kicking our circadian rhythms out of sync – leading to an insomnia epidemic! Research also suggests that too much blue light can harm the skin – something we’ll look at more in the next section.
The Effect on Our Eyes
Blue light is believed to be a leading cause of digital eyestrain – a common condition where our eyes become tired, irritated and unable to focus. Digital eyestrain results from spending too long looking at screens. Once, computers were the leading cause, but today many of us spend even longer on our smartphones and tablets. Long-term eye conditions like age-related macular degeneration may also be linked to excessive blue-light exposure.
How Does Blue Light Affect Our Sleep?
In simple terms, blue light encourages us to feel awake, energised and responsive to events around us. This natural reaction is OK if we’re exposed to blue light in the daytime, but it quickly becomes a problem if we’re exposed to blue light at night.
Hormonal changes lie behind this effect. Melatonin levels drop sharply when our skin and eyes are exposed to blue light. Melatonin is a hormone that’s vital for healthy sleep, so by lowering melatonin levels in the evening, blue-light exposure can cause sleep disruption.
Can Blue Light Damage Skin?
According to a study by Unilever Skincare Research, four eight-hour workdays in front of a computer exposes the skin to the same amount of energy as 20 minutes in the mid- afternoon sun. With millennials reportedly checking their phone up to 150 times a day and clocking more than 10 hours of screen time daily, blue light – or High Energy Visible (HEV) light – is shown to cause oxidative stress on the skin and create free radicals which threaten the integrity of collagen structures deep within the epidermis.
Susceptible to the blue light emitted from smartphones, computers and tablets, the fragile skin round the eyes is under the strain of 22 muscles in perpetual motion to help coordinate 10,000 blinks per day. As one of the first areas of the face to age naturally due to the lack of sebaceous glands, HEV light can exacerbate the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and sagging due to protein loss while slowing the skin’s healing processes which in turn leaves damaged cells in a state of senescence leading to unwanted pigmentation such as melasma.
“Blue light silently assaults the skin,” says EXYRA founder, Raymond Seubelan. “Unlike UV rays which can trigger immediate erythema and edema, blue light initially goes unnoticed but can, over time, weaken our skin’s barrier function and accelerate photo-ageing.”
A 2014 study by industry journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research also saw researchers compare skin exposed to blue light with skin exposed to UVB rays, the type of ultraviolet light that’s most closely associated with sunburns and skin cancer. While the skin exposed to blue light showed no signs of cancer growth, it did confirm that darker skin types are more vulnerable to blue light induced pigmentation around the forehead and eyes. Dubbed ‘screen face’, this melasma was recorded up to 3-months post the study.
The Links to UV Exposure
Over the past few decades, a lot of research has looked at the negative effects of UV (Ultra-Violet) radiation on the skin. UV exposure is known to cause sunburn in the short term, and prolonged exposure can cause premature skin aging, as well as raising the long-term risk of diseases including skin cancer.
UV rays are close to HEV light on the electromagnetic spectrum. A 2017 study on blue light suggested that it triggers the release of damaging ‘Reactive Oxygen Species’ (or ROS) in a similar way to UVA rays. Other studies have produced similar findings, suggesting that blue-light exposure leads to the production of potentially damaging free radicals.
This research suggests that both UV and blue light can harm the skin, but the effects of UV have attracted a lot more attention. Many people who avoid the sun and wear sunscreen do nothing to protect themselves from blue light. Scientists fear this could cause problems in years to come.
Preventing Skin Damage
Much of our exposure to blue light happens naturally, during the daytime, when we’re exposed to sunlight, but we can take smart steps to minimise the potential damage caused by excessive screen time.
Limit Your Screen Time
Try to limit your exposure to screens – especially during the evening/night. Try scheduling a 2/3-hour screen-free period each evening, before you go to bed. This could involve scheduling your work or study periods differently – or simply kicking your WhatsApp-checking habit!
Wear Blue-Light-Blocking Glasses
The skin around our eyes is 40% thinner than the skin on the rest of the face. This makes it especially susceptible to aging. Blue-light-blocking glasses are a simple and affordable way to protect this sensitive skin from damage. They can also protect our eyes themselves and limit the effects of blue light on our circadian rhythm.
Apply a Topical Cream
Many face creams are now formulated to include blue-light-fighting ingredients. These may counter the effects of blue light – in the same way that sunscreen can counter the effects of UV. (The best face creams actually cover you against exposure to both.)
Many experts now recognise that blue light is harmful to the skin, as well as being a leading cause of eyestrain and sleep disorders. But by following the three simple steps above, you can minimise the impact your tech use has on your skin’s health!