5 ways to protect your skin against blue light damage
Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t give us more to be worried about, staying home made many people realize how much time they spend on their phones (thanks, Apple Screen Time!). We know blue light can disrupt sleep, but what is it doing to our skin? In this post we’ll look at the science behind how blue light affects us, and what we can do to minimize any harmful effects from too much blue light exposure.
What is blue light?
All light exists on a spectrum. We can see the different colors of visible light when light rays are split by a spectrum to form a rainbow. Blue light is the highest energy light that’s visible to humans. Visible light is just one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is made up of a series of wavelengths. Blue light is at the upper end of visible light, just before ultraviolet (UV) light.Visible light as part of the electromagnetic spectrum:
Fulvio314, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We know that UV light is bad for our skin. It’s what causes typical signs of sun damage such as leathery texture, wrinkles, discoloration, and even skin cancer. As blue light is so close to UV light on the spectrum, does that mean that it has the same harmful effects?
What does blue light do to our skin?
The truth is, scientists don’t yet know what all the effects of blue light exposure might be. As a high-energy wavelength, blue light can penetrate more deeply into the skin than other forms of visible light, and that’s probably not a good thing. But most of our exposure to blue light comes from electronics that haven’t been around long enough for scientists to study the long-term effects.
Studies on the effects of short-term blue light exposure produced troubling results. Our bodies use light to regulate our internal clock, known as our circadian rhythm. This regulates how we use or store energy, and whether our bodies are in “build” or “repair” mode. During the day our bodies are busy building new cells and keeping us alert. At night while we rest, our cells repair damage sustained during the day. This cycle of building and repairing is critical to us staying healthy.
Blue light suppresses our levels of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Without it, we struggle to fall asleep or enjoy fully restful sleep. That means blue light disrupts our circadian rhythm. And without restful sleep, our bodies don't heal properly and cellular damage can get out of control.
Studies back this up. We know that blue light creates damage in skin cells by switching off the nighttime “repair” cycle. That’s because skin cells can sense whether it is day or night by measuring light exposure. Blue light tricks cells into acting as though it’s always daytime, delaying important cell repairs. Researchers found that exposure to blue light led to an “increase in ROS production, DNA damage and inflammatory mediators,” that cause skin damage. Put simply, blue light stops our skin cells from repairing and regenerating. This leads to oxidative stress and DNA mutations that cause signs of premature aging.
The signs of blue light damage can also be different depending on skin type. A study on the impact of long-wavelength UVA and visible light on melanocompetent skin found that light brown to black skin (types IV-VI) suffered “darker and more sustained” discoloration after exposure to blue light, compared with UV light exposure. Lighter skin tones, by contrast, were largely unaffected.
The effects of blue light on the skin also appear to be cumulative, meaning that damage builds up over time. Damage can start to appear in just 60 minutes, but the long-term consequences are unknown.
Is blue light all bad?
Despite concerns about blue light, some exposure can be good for our skin. Blue light therapy is used to treat psoriasis and acne. Blue light also helps reduce the number of precancerous skin patches, known as actinic keratosis, that are caused by UV light. Blue light therapy (“photodynamic therapy”) can kill some skin cancers, and has been shown to be as effective as surgery or radiation.
For good and bad, blue light affects the skin. But where's the line between positive and harmful effects?
Unfortunately, no one knows. Genetics, skin type, and other factors play a role in the damage UV light does to skin, and blue light is likely the same. One person might see damage after an hour on their phone, while another could game all day with no ill effects. There isn't enough research available right now to show how much blue light is harmful to our skin. We also don't know if the distance from the light source or strength of the light makes a difference.
How to protect your skin against blue light
Because the science in this area is still very new, there are no guarantees about how to protect your skin from blue light (or even if it’s necessary). However there are some common sense measures you can take to reduce your exposure, just in case.
1. Use “night shift” on your phone
Most cell phones now come with a “Night Shift” mode. This adjusts the light your phone emits throughout the day, switching from blue light to warmer colors. Night Shift can help reduce eye strain, and limits your exposure to blue light at the time when you’re most likely to have the phone close to your face.
2. Lower your screen brightness
Consider turning off auto-brightness and capping your phone at 50 percent. A study by EIZO found that reducing screen brightness can cut blue light by as much as 60 or 70 percent, making this simple trick more effective than using blue light blocking screens, which only capture around half of blue light rays.
3. Keep screens away from your face
Going hands-free is a simple and effective way of reducing your exposure to blue light, but beware of your distance whatever device you’re using. Think of the flickering blue light in house windows when the occupants are watching TV. Backing away from screens can help protect your skin and eyes from any harmful effects from the blue light.
4. Apply topical antioxidants
One of the key findings of studies into the effect of blue light on skin is that blue light seems to increase the production of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), which can cause oxidative stress and lead to signs of premature aging. Some researchers even believe that blue light plays a part in generating cell-damaging free radicals. The best way to combat these free radicals and prevent oxidative stress (aside from avoiding blue light completely!) is to apply skincare products such as Qyral’s, that contain antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing harm.
5. Use mineral sunscreen with iron oxides
Mineral sunscreen blocks UV rays using inorganic compounds zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These minerals form a barrier over the skin that deflects UV light, but they are less effective at protecting against visible light. Instead, look for sunscreens that also contain iron oxides. Iron oxides reduce the white residue that mineral sunscreens often leave behind, and protect from a wider range of visible light, including blue light.
While scientists don’t yet know the full extent of the risk blue light plays to our skin, and probably won’t for years to come, it’s a good idea to be safe around electronics. We do know that blue light affects our sleep cycle and has been associated with eye strain, so for those reasons alone it’s important to limit your exposure. In 2020, the average American spent over three hours each day on mobile devices, so if you’re somebody who can’t live without their phone, try to reduce the amount of blue light it emits, and keep it from getting too close. Maintaining a safe distance from your device screens, turning down the brightness, and adjusting the color of your device’s light can all protect you by reducing the amount of blue light you encounter each day.