Updated: June 3, 2020
Americans are inseparable from their screens, and it’s not just teens staying up late into the night on YouTube and Snapchat. A Nielsen survey found that adults over age 65 spend nearly 10 hours a day watching TV and using computers, smartphones and tablets. The blue light those screens emit can rob us of sleep if we don’t power down a few hours before bed. (Blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, which induces sleep.) But lately, some people have been wondering: Is blue light bad for your skin?
Researchers have begun to investigate whether too much screen time might accelerate skin aging and even cause dark patches to form.
As you read this article in the glow of a digital device, you’ll discover what scientists know and don’t know, and what you can do to protect your skin if you’re concerned about blue light damage.
What is blue light?
Visible light from the sun is made up of rays from all the colors in the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Light in the blue/violet range, also called high energy visible (HEV) light, has a short wavelength and more energy than other colors. It’s the scattering of these rays that makes the sky look blue in the daytime.
Your home is probably awash in artificial sources of blue light, including screens and also LED lights, compact fluorescent light bulbs (the coil-shaped variety) and any fluorescent lights you may have.
What are the concerns about blue light and skin damage?
A small amount of research suggests that exposure to blue light from digital devices could potentially damage the skin, causing premature aging and hyperpigmentation, or dark patches. (There’s no evidence that blue light causes cancer.)
In one experiment, scientists exposed skin cells that make collagen (the main building block of skin) to light from two models of iPhones and an iPad. After just one hour, the cells experienced oxidative stress, which is thought to contribute to skin aging and wrinkles. However, the screens were positioned just one centimeter from the skin cells — a whole lot closer than you hold your smartphone or tablet to your body.
Other research suggests that too much exposure to blue light may cause hyperpigmentation in certain people. In one study, exposing skin to blue-violet light caused dark patches to form in those with a medium or dark skin tone (not fair-skinned people), and the patches lasted for three months. Red light had no such effect. In a later study, skin cells that produce melanin, the dark pigment responsible for skin tanning, seemed to respond to blue light by making more pigment. Dark skin is rich in melanin.
What we don’t know
These studies raise interesting questions, but much more research is needed to know what harm to the skin, if any, artificial blue light causes.
Some studies have found no evidence that exposure to blue light from devices causes skin problems. A report published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 202o found that exposure to light filtered to contain the same color as device by screens for eight hours on five consecutive days didn’t worsen melasma, a condition that causes dark patches on the skin. Blue light from the sun does cause melasma to flare up.
“We don’t need to be overly worried about this at this point,” said Dr. Ted Schiff, founder and chief medical officer at Water’s Edge Dermatology. “All of the research that has been done in the past 50 years has been about ultraviolet light, first UVB and now UVA. It’s only recently that people have considered visible light on the skin. That’s all being researched now. The main focus of skin protection is always going to be ultraviolet rays — they are much more powerful and damaging than any visible wavelengths.”
What can you do if you’re worried?
If you’re concerned about blue light from screens, some fairly simple steps can lower your exposure. In most cases, you can reduce the amount of blue light your computer, tablet or smartphone emits by switching the display settings to “dark mode.” (You can find instructions online.) You can also purchase clear screen coverings designed to filter blue light or download apps that do so.
Some skin care products are said to block blue light (regular sunscreen doesn’t). But be prepared to pay a high price for questionable benefits. Only sunscreens that contain the minerals titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or iron oxide block blue light. In the first two cases, only products that look white on your skin do the job.
“Very little research has been done on these products,” said Dr. Schiff. “Current sunscreens have been tested only for UV, but not any other wavelengths.”
You can also find skin care products containing antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E, which in theory help prevent or repair damage from oxidative stress. In addition, some “sun supplements” claim to protect you from free radicals and UV rays from inside the body. But eating colorful foods and using sunscreen are likely the best bets.
“A healthy diet and lifestyle and use of sunscreens have proven to be effective, compared with supplements that have not been rigorously studied or approved by the FDA,” said Dr. Schiff. “The best way to avoid free radical damage is by wearing sunscreen.”
Finally, to cut down on blue light exposure from screens, consider a digital diet —maybe take a walk after dinner instead of binge-watching Netflix. Unlike the effects of screens on skin, the (positive) effects of walking are well known.
Written by: Timothy Gower, an award-winning journalist who writes about medicine and health. His work has appeared in more than two dozen national magazines.
Medically Reviewed by: Ted Schiff, M.D.