Are 'Cellphone Spots' The New Sun Spots? We Investigated

Image by MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy

As we enter summer, the conversation (rightly!) turns to sun damage: How we are protecting ourselves? Are we are adequately shielding UVA rays? What ingredients might be doing more harm than good? And here's the problem: There's actually a lot we don't know about how the sun and light affect us and our skin. Up until this point, the research has really only focused on UVB and UVA, which, as we know, comes from the sun and does cause damage. But there's much more to the story, and that has to do with the visible light spectrum.

Light contains a full spectrum of wavelengths. (Mentally go back to school when you learned about color and wavelengths—that's going to come in handy here.) And light can come from the sun, lightbulbs—and since you are reading this, you are likely sitting in front of something that emits it right now: your computer or phone. Well, certain studies have shown that high-energy blue light is affecting our skin: specifically increasing pigment production in certain individuals. (You've likely already heard of people talking about increased production—they are commonly referred to sun spots or dark spots.) And since then, beauty brands have pushed out a slew of products targeting this concern.

And here's the problem: There's still a lot we don't know, some we do, and a lot of speculation. Here it is, broken down.

Blue light from the sun does affect skin—some more than others.

According to this study, when study participants were exposed to strong blue light, they developed darker and more sustained pigmentation. And as we know from this study, blue light at high frequencies from the sun creates oxidative stress on our skin—damage even comparable to UVA light. Oxidative stress is what causes wrinkling and premature aging.

And in the pigmentation study mentioned above, it showed that individuals with light brown to black skin tones were heavily affected by the blue light. "So we know that some people need to be more concerned about this than others, specifically people with dark skin tones, as they are more susceptible to pigmentation production," says board-certified dermatologist Doris Day, M.D.

Cellphones *could* be part of the problem.

Since these studies came out, the dermatology community has been waiting with bated breath to hear about how blue light from cellphones and computers affects our skin. And since the studies that are out now focused on only high-energy blue light, we don't have answers for the blue light that's coming out of our devices. "Since we know that blue light is affecting our skin, the inference is that if you sit in front of a computer all day long or you are holding up your cellphone, you are going to increase that damage. We still need data to show how much exposure you need, but the fear that it could cause damage is real," says Day.

"I do think all this glare and light from the computer has to be doing something," says board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D. "Even if we don't have full answers yet, we need to prepare for the possibility that they are harming our skin." To be safe? Day recommends using headphones and getting a blue light filter for your screens.

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All those "blue light" products? We have no idea if they work.

Since these studies became prominent, brands have released a slew of products to target blue light. But since this is all so new, these studies haven't been done to see if they are actually shielding us. So at the moment: You don't need to toss them out, just be wary! These "shielders" aren't akin to sunblock.

There are, however, products, that may help mitigate dark spots. These are not protection products as much as they are products that help reduce or diminish pigmentation. While each product's mechanisms and ingredient formulations will work differently, the bulk try to buffer pigmentation production in the skin, provide brightening antioxidants, or increase exfoliation. Finally, "Always wear actual sunscreen. That at least protects you from the UV rays we know are doing harm. I always tell people: You can't complain about blue light if you aren't wearing SPF daily," says Downie. (Check some out here.)

Regardless, "this is going to be an interesting next few years in researching visible light, technology, and our skin," says Day. "So until we know more, use a blue light filter on your computer and phone and use headphones if you are going to talk on the phone."

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