Does a Cell Phone’s Blue Light Hurt Your Skin?
The science of natural light and how it interacts with people and the world around us is fascinating and complex. Research has established that even though UV light is invisible, it poses significant risks to our skin. But the sun also emits visible light, a portion of which is known as blue light.
Researchers have known for some time that blue light from the sun can harm skin and eyes, but--are you sitting down? Blue light also emanates from most digital devices, including your smartphone and computer, where the damage is up close and personal. Read on to find out what you can do to stop blue light damage to your skin.
Blue Light and UV Light Explained
When you look at a chart about the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays, you’ll see that their wavelengths range from 280 nm to 400 nm (“nm” stands for nanometer, which is a measurement of length). Next on the spectrum is blue light, defined as light whose wavelength ranges from 380 nm to 500 nm. (The entire light spectrum goes up to 700 nm.)
The blue light portion is what emanates from digital devices, such as computers, tablets, flat screen TVs, fluorescent light bulbs, and smartphones. Both types of UV rays and blue light are bad for your skin and eyes, but the danger from blue light gets up close and personal!
Is Blue Light a Danger to Your Skin?
Evolving research has shown that blue light can be bad for skin. It’s certain that blue light in the 380–400 nm range is problematic, although the risk seems to lessen somewhat toward the top end at 500 nm.
Long-term blue light exposure to concentrated sources of blue light energy can cause skin damage, including colour changes, inflammation, and weakening of the skin’s surface. Simply put, blue light promotes stressors in skin that cause photo-ageing; that is, ageing from exposure to light.
The Difference Between Blue Light Exposure from UV and Blue Light from Screens
Without question, sunlight is the main source of blue light to which we are exposed; digital devices emit only a fraction of that amount of radiation. A major difference is that our phones are much closer to us than the sun, and this “close-up” exposure matters. In contrast, blue light UV is more diffuse and much further away.
We spend so much time using our devices, holding them close to our face and eyes, it adds up—that’s where health issues arise. Statistics show that millennials check their smartphones 157 times per day, in comparison to older adults, who check their phones only about 30 times per day. That means millennials are at a much higher risk of blue light exposure each and every day.
When it comes to the eyes, there’s far more research indicating how damaging unprotected exposure to blue light from the sun can be. Current opinion on eye damage from blue light coming from digital devices is mixed, but many eye health professionals claim it’s too weak to be a problem. What’s certain is that nighttime exposure to blue light from smart phones and the like disturbs our body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, known as its circadian rhythm. This disruption can lead to several health issues, including weight gain and poor quality sleep.
The research into blue light damage to the skin is less conclusive but still concerning because while there's research showing it hurts skin, there’s also research showing it helps; for example, blue light treatments can be a potentially effective therapy for certain skin disorders. Confusing, yes, but research can be that way.
Blue Light Protection for Your Skin and Eyes
A simple solution for blue light protection is to cover your phone and tablet with a blue light screen shield (amazon.com has plenty of options). It’s a cheap fix, eliminating the need to worry about skin care or sunglasses when using your phone or tablet (if only it were that easy for your skin and the sun).
Another option: Some smart phones have a setting that disables blue light in favour of yellow light (often called night mode or nightshift) which is far easier on the eyes—and, in turn, your skin. If your phone has this feature, setting it to be on all the time can be a great anti-ageing and eye-saving thing to do. In all likelihood it will improve your sleep, too, and who doesn’t want that?
Whether it’s the light from sun exposure or from your smartphone, without question, you need to protect your eyes during the day. Polarised sunglasses are essential for all outside light exposure to prevent long-term damage as well as damage from your phone (although we realise it’s not practical to wear sunglasses inside).
Unless your doctor prescribes a blue light facial treatment, you also need to protect your skin from the potential damage due to exposure to this light.
In terms of skin care to help prevent blue light damage, look for serums loaded with antioxidants and consider a skin care routine formulated with ingredients proven to address the visible effects of airborne pollutants. Although blue light isn’t the same as smog, both cause unwanted skin issues. Last, always apply an antioxidant-loaded broad-spectrum sunscreen to keep skin shielded from the most concentrated portions of UV and blue light.
References for this information:
Journal of Biomedical Physics and Engineering, December 2018, pages 447-452
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, May 2018, pages 184–193
Journal of Investigative Dermatology, January 2018, pages 171–178
Free Radical Biology & Medicine, July 2017, pages 300–310
International Journal of Ophthalmology, February 2017, pages 191–202
Dermatologic Surgery, June 2016, pages 727–732; and September 2014, pages 979–987
Molecular Vision, January 2016, pages 61–72
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, September 2015, pages 526–528
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, January 2015, pages 603–610
Free Radical Biology and Medicine, July 2015, pages 373–384
Journal of Biomedical Optics, May 2015, #58001
Environmental Health Perspective, March 2014, pages 269–276
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, February 2010, pages 16–21
About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!