This Is How Blue Light Is Actually Affecting Your Skin & What To Do About It
Today, more than ever, we are being bombarded with blue light from our digital devices. I mean, just try to think of the longest chunk of time you spent away from a screen in the past day or two. I'm talking laptop, phone, TV, iPad—you get the point. If you're anything like me, probably not much more than 30 minutes to an hour, aside from sleeping.
When the conversation about blue light and our health has mostly been focused on eye health and sleep quality—both of which blue light can compromise—the conversation is now turning to blue light and our skin, thanks in large part to some recent skin care product launches claiming to combat blue light's age-accelerating effects.
But is there any legitimacy to these products or to the idea that minimizing blue light exposure would benefit skin in any way? We dug into the research and consulted some experts to find out.
First, what exactly is blue light?
High-energy blue light rays are part of the visible light spectrum—not to be confused with UVA and UVB—and we're exposed them via sunlight and light bulbs (fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and LED) in addition to our digital screens. In fact, the sun is our largest source of blue light, says Lauren E. Adams, M.D., a dermatologist with White Plains Hospital Physician Associates who's board-certified in lifestyle medicine. So, we've always been exposed to blue light to an extent.
Does blue light from digital devices really damage skin?
The short answer: maybe. Most research has focused on the effects of ultraviolet light on the skin. UVB rays typically cause skin damage by injuring DNA, while UVA rays trigger the formation of reactive oxygen species that can promote skin aging. "Only more recently has research begun to emerge showing that visible light also has the potential to damage the skin, contributing to redness, wrinkling, and hyperpigmentation," says Dr. Adams.
In a 2017 study, blue light, which is most similar to UVA in terms of wavelength, was found to generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the skin. And in a 2012 study, visible light (including blue light) was found to generate ROS as well as increase certain enzymes that degrade collagen and contribute to wrinkling of the skin.
However, the blue light in these studies was a similar concentration to what we'd get from the sun. That's to say, it was significantly more than what we'd get from digital devices. So, what conclusions about blue light emitted from our phones and laptops can we draw from this research? Not a whole lot. "It's unclear at this point whether cellphones and other devices give off enough blue light to directly affect the skin," says Dr. Adams.
But while staring at your phone for hours may not contribute to future fine lines and wrinkles, blue light from the sun could potentially prime you for problems down the road. So taking steps to protect yourself isn't unreasonable. Unfortunately, typical sunscreen, which blocks UVA and UVB rays, does not protect against blue light. But the same 2012 study mentioned above found that the addition of a topical antioxidant to a traditional sunscreen may decrease these ill effects of blue light on the skin.
So slathering on a pre-sunscreen serum, or looking for a sunscreen that already contains antioxidants, could be a good idea. "Antioxidants to look out for include vitamin C, vitamin E, ferric acid, and feverfew, to name a few," says Dr. Adams. And no, you don't need to seek out a product that makes specific claims that it will counter blue light.
Getting additional antioxidants in your diet (think: a variety of colorful, antioxidant-rich produce) or via supplements may help, too. Some "Polypodium leucomtomos extract (PLE), for example, has antioxidant, photo-protective, and anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to decrease skin damage incurred from exposure to UV and visible light," says Dr. Adams. "It can be taken daily, especially in anticipation of sun exposure."
How blue light may indirectly contribute to skin aging.
While experts aren't confident saying that blue light from our digital devices is directly damaging skin, many can agree that it's messing with our skin in more of an indirect manner.
"What I'm noticing with my younger clients who tend to be on their devices a lot and have no boundaries with work is that their stress levels are through the roof," says Nichola Weir, holistic esthetician and owner of Pacific Touch NYC. "It's known that this type of blue light at night interferes with sleep, and sleep is vital for skin health—it's when our bodies repair."
Dr. Adams agrees that poor sleep can be a major stressor on the body and the skin. "Exposure to blue light in the hours prior to bedtime adversely affects circadian rhythm and sleep quality, and poor sleep quality can contribute to dry skin, wrinkles, and inflammation, among other problems."
In this case, a blue-light-blocking skin care product or antioxidant-rich serum obviously won't help you out. You need to shut down your devices earlier or cut off the blue light at the source. Both Weir and Dr. Adams recommend using blue-light-blocking screen protectors for phones and laptops or downloading a filter app that stops your device from emitting blue light. (Pro tip: If you use a Mac or iPhone, you've got some built-in protection. To turn off blue light on these devices, simply go to settings or system preferences and switch on Night Shift mode.)
The take-away on blue light and skin.
We know blue light exposure from the sun can damage skin, and this damage may be partially countered with topical antioxidant products or consuming more antioxidants in your diet. It's much less clear, however, if the blue light from our digital devices is directly contributing to these same skin problems. Blue light from these devices can, however, interfere with sleep, and thus indirectly damage skin—which means less screen time (or at least using a blue light filter of some kind) should be a priority.