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Your device’s blue light & your skin: What you should know

Your device’s blue light & your skin: What you should know
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 9: Members of the audience are bathed in blue light as they watch a presentation for the new Samsung Galaxy Note 9 smartphone, during a product launch event at the Barclays Center on August 9, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The new smartphone will go on sale on August 24. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With more of us spending time indoors and engaging with the world through our computer and smartphone screens, more products are being punted to protect us from potentially harmful effects of blue light. But what do the experts say?

When it comes to creating new products and new marketing strategies, the skincare industry tends to lean into – and sometimes magnify – some of our personal concerns about our well-being, from the superficial through to the very real medical ones. On the aesthetic end, especially with regards to facial skincare, there’s the search for glowing skin, clearer skin, an even complexion, younger looking skin, or even lighter skin. On the more serious medical end, there’s a whole range of skin disorders  with very real and sometimes fatal health complications; perhaps the most serious of which is skin cancer.

For our more aesthetic concerns, there is a perpetual stream of facial skincare products that claim to be able to get us closer to the idealised and heavily marketed smooth clear plump youthful face. Now, with the world spending an increased amount of time at home, in front of computer and smartphone screens, more and more skincare products are being punted to counter the effects of the blue light emitted by our devices, on our skin.

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“If you’re serious about preventing premature ageing, experts say protection from UVA and UVB rays is no longer enough, as evolving research confirms that blue light – emitted from the sun and our digital devices – is also bad for our skin,” reads one advertorial article on Harper’s Bazaar, before going on to recommend a range of products to help you fight this dangerous blue light emitted by your screen. There are examples of similar articles, across numerous lifestyle publications, each referring to “experts” and “research”, before ultimately recommending a bottled solution.

To their credit, many articles do note that the science is inconclusive on whether the blue light emitted by our devices is actually harmful to the skin. But, of course, that does not stop them from punting bottled solutions to as yet unconfirmed problems. “My feeling is that since we aren’t sure, I’d rather try to be protected,” says Dr Shari Marchbein, a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine, in an interview with Allure magazine.

So, what exactly do the experts say?

Firstly, we need to understand what blue light is. For one, its most prevalent and concentrated source is the sun.  Blue light refers to visible light whose wavelength measures approximately 380 to 500 nanometers (nm). To put that into perspective, invisible light, which typically refers to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, is measured between 100-380nm. It is also the light which most sunscreens will protect you from, while a majority of them do not protect you from light above 380nm.

As more scientists have looked at the effects of the sun’s light on human skin, there has been an increase in studies looking specifically into the effects of visible light. One of the earlier ones was a 2006 study, which found that exposure to visible light could lead to the formation of free radicals (unstable atoms), however, less so than UV light. It is also important to note that the study was done on skin samples in a lab, and only white skin, and with blue light replicating the intensity of the sun, and not digital devices.

A later 2010 study that included a wider variety of skin tones, using actual human participants who were exposed to visible light, at an intensity similar to the sun, seven times over two weeks, found that “In participants with darker skin… the hyperpigmentation triggered by visible light was noticeably different than that caused by UVA light.”

While hyperpigmentation – commonly referred to as dark spots – caused by UV light started off grayish and then became dark brown after 24 hours and gradually faded over the course of the study, the study found that with visible light, “pigmentation was dark brown from the very beginning and stayed noticeable on the skin for the full two-week study period. However, those with lighter skin did not show any hyperpigmentation after visible light exposure.”

Another 2013 study, which looked at the efficacy of sunscreens with only UV protection, versus sunscreens with UV and visible light protection on patients who suffer from the pigmentation disorder melasma, which causes gray or brown patches to appear on the bridge of the nose, the cheeks, and the forehead, found that sunscreens with visible light protection resulted in significantly better improvement of the condition.

So, does this mean we should worry about the blue light emitted by our devices?

There’s no easy answer. The research is at best inconclusive. While doctors, scientists, dermatologists and researchers continue to warn about potential dangers of the sun’s rays, visible or invisible, there is simply not enough research to confirm that our devices promote similar dangers, regardless of what skincare merchants tell you.

A paper published in December 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, and authored by a team of five doctors and independent researchers, titled “Short-term exposure to blue light emitted by electronic devices does not worsen melasma”, states that “the irradiance of the light has profound influence on its biological effects, and the duration for achieving the dose capable of inducing pigmentation is significantly longer with devices than with sun exposure”.

Irradiance in this context refers to the radiant flux or power received by a surface per unit area. For example, according to one of the authors, Dr Thierry Passeron from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, the sun’s solar intensity at ground level is approximately 1,000W/m2 (watts per square metre), and the blue part of that solar spectrum is approximately 8mW/cm2 (milliwatts per square centimetre). The light from our devices on the other hand, accounts for 40microW/cm2.

“Thus, the ratio between the irradiance of digital screens and the irradiance of solar spectrum is below 1/200!” writes Passeron, before warning that “studies assessing the effect of visible light in the skin must take into consideration not only the wavelengths and doses but also the irradiance”. To simplify Masseron’s statement, the solar intensity of the blue light from the sun equals 0.008 watts per square centimetre, whereas a typical smartphone emits blue light at an intensity of 0.00004 watts per square centimetre, which effectively makes the phone’s blue light 200 times less intense than the sun’s blue light.

While the research remains inconclusive, it is also clear that there is a huge difference in intensity of light from the sun versus that from digital devices, and therefore a huge difference in potential for harm. That said, while this article looks specifically at the effects of blue light on skin, there is also a growing body of research on the effects of blue light on the eyes as well as the brain that is worth looking at should that be of particular concern to you.

However, strictly speaking of skincare, if you are one to err on the side of caution and consumption, even sans evidence, many smartphones come with an option to reduce blue light in favour of yellow light. You can also dim the light on your laptop or smartphone to reduce the light. And if indeed you’d prefer your solution in a bottle, any number of skincare product manufacturers are ready to welcome you and your money in the fight against the unconfirmed dangers of blue light from your devices. DM/ ML

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