With most of us now fully reliant on screen based devices just to get through our daily lives, to run our businesses and now even for our connection with the outside world, should we be concerned about the effects on our skin from the light they emit? LED-based computer screens, TVs, tablets, smartphones, and even car controls nowadays mean that we are almost constantly exposed to some source of artificial light at any given point.
In particular, high energy visible light (HEV) or blue light (as it is more commonly known) is increasingly believed to be damaging to our skin and eyes in ways that were previously only associated with the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. With most of us spending an estimated 60% of our woken hours exposed to screens, it’s certainly something we need to consider.
What is blue light?
Blue light refers to the high energy visible light (HEV) in the range that we can see with our eyes. Compared to other colours visible to the human eye, blue light is at one extreme, with the shortest wavelengths (380-500nm) and highest energy - red is at the other end. In the whole spectrum of light emitted by the sun, the blue wavelengths are believed to help regulate the normal sleep-wake cycle most, as well as elevate mood and even improve memory. Through exposure to natural sunlight of course. So it’s not all bad.
The problem comes when we are exposed to much more of it than we are naturally supposed to be, through prolonged time looking and interacting with screens. Indeed, the proportion of blue light emitted by LED screens is often much higher than in other colours.
Why is it bad?
Since blue has higher wavelengths than other visible forms of light, as well as higher energy, it is thought that exposure to higher energy light can cause increased levels of oxidative stress on the exposed surfaces such as the skin and eyes.
What does this actually mean though? From the literature available it seems that this increased stress may cause damaging DNA changes which can lead to skin issues including pigmentation, dermal thinning and premature ageing.
In addition, it is believed that blue light can penetrate even deeper into the skin than both UVA and UVB light from the sun. Penetrating deeper means that it may cause more direct damage to the all important collagen and elastin fibres that give the skin its support. In time this could also contribute to the premature ageing of the skin.
Similarly, the structures that blue light passes through in the eyes may be at risk of damage through long term exposure, such as the corneas, lenses and the retina.
Since blue light is intrinsically linked with our circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycle, unnaturally long exposure to excess levels of blue light at bedtime is believed to result in poorer sleep patterns. Blue light in the evening is thought to suppress the release of the hormone melatonin which controls this cycle.
Are there any benefits?
Natural exposure to blue light is important to regulate our mood and sleep-wake cycle, mostly through regulating melatonin release. Melatonin has various interactions with other hormones so indirectly blue light may have normal, regulatory effects on some other body systems.
Short term exposure to certain wavelengths of blue light has also been used with some success to treat acne, possibly through reduction of the bacteria P. Acne on the skin and in the affected pores. This being said, the treatment doesn’t work for everyone and the results may not be as good as those seen with retinol and other skincare products.
What can we do to reduce exposure to blue light?
Most modern smartphones and computer screens have settings that can reduce the amount of HEV they emit (such as night shift on apple iPhones). Switching these on permanently is something to consider - it makes very little difference to the appearance of the screen and you get used to the more yellowish tinge very quickly. For older screens that may not have this possibility, there is stick on filters that are an inexpensive way to cut out a good proportion of the damaging rays.
What skincare should we be using to protect against it?
We are all well versed in the daily need for broad spectrum SPF to protect the skin against UVA and UVB rays. Unfortunately, most SPFs are only very limited in the protection they provide against HEV so the quest for new ingredients against this newly recognised threat has begun. In the last year or so, a few new and interesting ingredients have emerged that may help solve this problem, including some natural carrot and cacao extracts. These are only starting to become available so it is likely we will see some products coming to market in the next few years.
Until these become available, it is important to consider how we repair the damage that is done to the skin on a daily basis. The key here is topical antioxidants. Vitamin C and vitamin E together have been shown to be effective in reducing the effects of oxidative stress on the skin so should be your first choice. Many different forms of these are available, including our own Good Morning! serum. Vitamin C can be used in the morning as protection, or overnight to help repair the damage. Similarly, retinol (vitamin A) acts as antioxidants, as well as having many other benefits and is best used overnight after cleansing.
Blue light is an important stimulus for our sleep cycles and general health, however, prolonged exposure to artificial blue light via LED screens has been shown to have some damaging effects on the skin. Topical antioxidants are important to use on a daily basis to help repair damage and the use of new ingredients such as carrot and cacao extracts in skincare may help protect against future damage.