Digital detox

How Your Phone's Blue Light Could Be Damaging Your Skin, According to Dermatologists

However, more research still needs to be done.
Woman looking at phone in the dark with blue light shining on her face
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Health experts have known about digital eye strain for a while, and the potential for all that blue light from digital devices to do eye damage. But can screens damage your skin, too?

What is blue light?

Blue light, part of the spectrum of visible light, is a high-energy, short-wavelength light (not to be confused with UVA or UVB rays), says Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.

The main source of the blue light we're exposed to is the sun, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. However, we also get a significant dose from our screens and indoor lighting.

"One of the reasons that blue light has become a concern is that High Energy Visible (HEV) light, which typically refers to blue wavelengths on the visible light spectrum, not only comes from sun exposure but also from computer screens, cell phones, and other digital devices," Marchbein explains. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us are spending more time indoors and in front of screens than normal, it's important to understand the effects of blue light.

"Blue light has been reported to contribute to eye strain as well as cataracts, glaucoma, and other eye diseases," Marchbein says.

But blue light isn't all bad. "Blue light plays a critical role in maintaining good health, as it regulates our body's circadian rhythm — our natural sleep-wake cycle," Meenakashi Gupta, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, previously told Allure. "Blue light also elevates mood and helps memory and cognitive function."

Is blue light damaging your skin?

Recently, you might have noticed some of your favorite skin-care brands coming out with blue-light-fighting products — so, does that mean it's damaging your skin? The best evidence we have is that blue light "contributes to brown spots on the skin and hyperpigmentation such as melasma, and possibly to photoaging and the breakdown of collagen, which leads to wrinkles and skin laxity," says Marchbein.

Research on how blue light affects your skin is ongoing, but what dermatologists know so far doesn't look good. One small, peer-reviewed study of the effects of blue light on the skin, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2010, found that exposing skin to the amount of blue light we get from the sun caused more pigment, redness, and swelling than when the same person's skin was exposed to comparable levels of UVA rays. Ten years later, this early study is still the one our dermatologist experts referenced.

Blue light plays a critical role in maintaining good health, as it regulates our body's circadian rhythm.

In the study, the effects were only observed in people with darker skin tones, but the researchers noted that pigmentation also lasted longer. "This study absolutely makes us realize that blue light produces visible skin change, including redness and pigmentation," Loretta Ciraldo, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami and co-founder of Dr. Loretta skin care, tells Allure.

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"There is a paucity of study on the damage blue light does on the skin," says Ciraldo. "Instead [of blue light from screens], most dermatologists are much more familiar with small, measured doses of blue light as a therapeutic approach for both precancerous skin lesions or acne."

Another (very small) study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in 2015, suggested that exposure to blue light might stimulate the production of free radicals in skin, which can accelerate the appearance of aging.

The bottom line? The blue light effect on skin needs more research before we can draw any solid conclusions, though early evidence seems to suggest it has the potential to be damaging.

So, what exactly is the blue light doing?

"Dermatologists have good evidence to show that visible light triggers certain skin conditions, such as melasma, where the skin is stimulated to produce more pigment," says Marchbein. "There's also evidence that as blue light penetrates the skin, reactive oxygen species are generated, which leads to DNA damage, thereby causing inflammation and the breakdown of healthy collagen and elastin, as well as hyperpigmentation."

To recap: We know blue light can cause damage to the skin; whether or not we really have to worry about our digital devices (versus blue light emitted from the sun) is still in question.

"The more time we spend on our devices, the worse off our skin might be," says Marchbein. "The key word is 'might.'"

As of now, there's no commonly understood threshold for when time spent in front of a screen starts to show on your skin. (It's unknown, for example, whether a forty-hour workweek will lead to melasma faster than 20 hours of video gaming.)

"There is a wide range of how much blue light you are exposed to depending on the screen device you are using and the settings you use so you can't just measure this in hours," says Ciraldo.

There have been few true investigations into what happens with accumulation of blue-light exposure from our screens. Anecdotally, some dermatologists say they've seen what they believe is skin damage from blue light. "I am seeing a new pattern of hyperpigmentation in some patients that I am concerned is coming from holding a cell phone to their face," says Ciraldo, who has been tracking the effects of blue-light exposure throughout her career. "Melasma is now often more on the sides of the face than on the central cheeks, where it had been most common."

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That's not all. "Dark spots after acne are often worse on the side of the face where the person is holding their cell phone," she says. "It seems that, in these cases, the cell phone being right on top of the skin surface is giving high levels of blue light to the skin." Your computer screen, meanwhile, might not be so worrisome, because you sit farther away from it, she adds.

Do skin-care products targeting blue light really work?

Luckily, a wave of blue-light-specific products that work to block the high-energy wavelengths radiating from the sun and your digital screens is hitting the skin-care world. "I do think there is a place for blue-light protection within skin-care routines, especially if you spend a lot of time in front of digital devices," Ciraldo says. Even without conclusive evidence, Marchbein agrees: "My feeling is that since we aren't sure, I'd rather try to be protected," she says.

Marchbein recommends sunscreens with iron oxide and antioxidants in the ingredient list, which will help to protect the skin from blue light rays. Try Alastin Skincare HydraTint, Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart SPF 50, and Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer SPF 30. "The pigments and antioxidants in these products also help protect against blue-light damage from our phones and computers, which is really important as we continue to work from home," she says.

Some skin types might have more need for a blue-light-fighting serum than others, Ciraldo says, like people who have "sun-sensitive" skin disorders, such as lupus and rosacea. Try Supergoop's Unseen Sunscreen, the Best of Beauty-winning sunscreen formula souped-up with red algae to specifically help protect skin against blue-light damage.

As more research on blue light and skin comes out, dermatologists expect to see the blue-light protecting ingredients emerging more and more in skin care. "I lectured at the Society of Cosmetic Chemists Sunscreen Symposium in 2019, and there was unanimous consensus among chemists and FDA personnel there that we do need to start to include blue-light protection into sunscreens going forward," says Ciraldo. (FYI, sunscreens, which protect against ultraviolet A and B rays, don't do anything to help protect you from blue-light rays, says Marchbein, unless they are physical mineral sunscreens that contain iron oxide, known to block visible light.)

Ciraldo predicts the majority of sunscreens will eventually be formulated to protect against blue light, in addition to UVA and UVB light, but "it will take some years" before we get there.

In addition to catching the blue-light-fighting skin-care wave, Ciraldo suggests lowering the brightness level on your screens to 50 percent or go on the darker "Night Shift" setting to help prevent skin damage. (Just don't dim it so much that you're straining your eyes). And to cut down on the risk of hyperpigmentation where you hold your phone, go hands-free.

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