Move over, UV rays. There’s another threat to your skin, and it’s even harder to avoid than the sun—we’re talking blue light. If you’re reading this story, you’re even being exposed now.
So what is blue light? “Blue light—also known as high-energy visible light (HEV)—is a specific range of light emitted by the sun as well as digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and some types of televisions,” explains Paula Begoun, creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare.
“Blue light is both good and bad for you but carries more risks than rewards,” she continues. “It’s good because environmental blue light from the sun plays a role in our overall health, memory and even our mood on a given day. In contrast, too much blue-light exposure from digital devices can disrupt sleep by throwing off your body’s natural rhythm, essentially tricking it into thinking it’s earlier than it is. But the real danger from blue light is to your skin and eyes. Unprotected exposure to blue light weakens skin’s natural protective barrier and triggers inflammation throughout skin. The inflammation creates damaging molecules known as free radicals that steadily degrade skin’s support structure and ability to resist and repair damage.”
Since many of us are practically glued to our phones, we’re getting a lot more blue-light exposure than we used to from just outdoor sun exposure. Even when we’re not in front of a screen, there are other blue-light sources, including some LED lightbulbs. “There has been growing concern over the safety of our exposure to blue light, and research suggests that there may be good reason to be,” says Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, M.D., FAAD. “Even short-term exposures can have an aging effect. In studies, skin changes have been seen after just one hour of blue-light exposure! We know that the skin is a major target of oxidative damage and that oxidative damage causes aging.” In fact, a study published in the Journal of Biomedical Physics and Engineering showed that blue light from LED-based devices can cause skin damage and accelerated skin aging.
Murphy-Rose explains that blue-light exposure damages healthy cells and causes cell death, leading to premature aging and pigmentation. It’s possible that blue light can cause even more hyperpigmentation than UVA and UVB because it can travel deeper into the dermis, where collagen and elastin reside. “Therefore, it may have a more significant effect on aging as loss of collagen and elastin leads to wrinkles and loose skin,” she says. “You may think twice next time you take a selfie! Even frequent exposure to smartphone flashes (most of them use LED light that has peak emission of blue light) is thought to cause accelerated skin aging.”
While it isn’t feasible to never use our phones again, there are steps we can take to reduce blue- light exposure. “The best course of action is to minimize your usage,” says Sam Dhatt, founder, lead chemist and CEO of DermaQuest. “Setting alerts on your smartphone, lowering the screen’s brightness and taking advantage of the digital well-being features can help keep you on track. It’s important to remember that the night filter on phones doesn’t eliminate blue light but rather covers it with a rose filter. This means that while the effects may be diminished, they still exist.” If your electronic devices don’t have these settings, purchase blue-light screen protectors, which are also available for computer screens. Another option is blue-light eyeglasses. If you wear prescription glasses or sunglasses, ask for a blue-light coating to be applied to the lenses.
Hopefully, you’re already wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day to shield your skin from UV rays, which also can help with blue-light damage. To get that extra protection, make sure the formula specifically guards against blue light. “I recommend daily use of a mineral sunblock containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which naturally blocks some blue light,” Murphy-Rose says. “It is unclear just how well sunscreen can help, but it probably has some benefit—the question is to what degree. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate for blue-light protection in sunscreens the way it regulates UVA and UVB protection. Other ingredients that are thought to provide increased protection against blue light include iron oxides and carotenoids like red algae and lutein, all of which absorb some blue light.” Wearing protective clothing, hats and sunglasses and avoiding excessive outdoor midday sunlight exposure is always important.
Another key to preventing blue-light damage is antioxidants, both in your skin-care routine and diet. “Of particular note are several natural antioxidants found in superfoods like kiwi, wild cherry, broccoli and dark veggies like purple potatoes, kale, spinach and fruits such as brightly colored berries,” Begoun says. “These contain plant pigments such as lutein and xanthophylls that intercept and neutralize the damaging molecules blue-light exposure triggers, before they can harm your skin. Classic antioxidants like vitamins C and E are also great, as are niacinamide, licorice and glutathione. Generally speaking, you want your leave-on skin-care products, especially your sunscreen, to contain a variety of antioxidants for blue-light defense.” Consider it another reason to eat your veggies!
Photo credit: tommaso79, Getty Images