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Does Computer Light Damage Skin?

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Have you heard the latest warnings about our screens—computer lights are damaging our skins?  Every time we turn around, it seems like there is a new warning about these screen-based devices that we can’t live without in the modern-day. And now these warnings about computer lights. But before we chuck our computers, let’s find out if there’s any truth to the warnings.

Does computer light damage our skin?   While older computers used to emit low levels of radiation, modern LCD screens do not. Instead, they emit “blue light,” a type of light that some think might damage the skin. The limited amount of research suggests it might, but more research needs to be done.

Sounds complicated, right? As with anything involving technology, it is. Read on as we explore the issue of computers and skin.  Afterward, you can decide if you want to close your computer for the last time, go back to a landline, and read books the old-fashioned way. 

Let’s get started by talking light.

What is Blue Light?

Here’s the simple version—blue light is also known as HEV or high-energy light. It is one part of the spectrum of different colored light rays that, when combined, create what we call light.

But what makes it high-energy?

The relationship between light and energy goes like this—the longer the wavelength of light rays, the less energy they contain.  At the same time, the shorter a light’s wavelength, the more energy it emits. Think of it like this—light with long wavelengths expend more of their energy as the waves stretch out. Light with short wavelengths doesn’t have time to expend as much energy.

So, which one is blue light—long or short? Well, picture a candle. Where is the yellow light? The blue? The yellow light moves more quickly, so it surrounds the hotter and smaller blue light. They say that the blue light of a candle is the hottest part of the flame, but I don’t plan to burn my fingers to find out if that’s true.  I’m just going to take the word of my 7th grade Science teacher, Mr. Navarro.

Blue light is a short wavelength and therefore has a higher amount of energy.

FYI  
Blue light at the furthest end of the light spectrum is sometimes called blue-violet or even violet light. That’s where we get the term Ultraviolet.  And light rays are also called electromagnetic radiation.  Combine the two and you have Ultraviolet Radiation.  

Where Are We Exposed to Blue Light?

We are exposed to this blue light via light bulbs—LED, fluorescent, and the like, as well as our flat-screen televisions. But our greatest exposure to blue light comes from the sun.  That’s right, we have always been exposed to blue light.  If that’s the case, then why the worry?

Well, how close is your face to the sun? And how long do you stare at it?  The same goes for light bulbs and television screens. Most of us don’t sit that close to our TV or start into our light bulbs.

Compare that to how much time you spend staring at computer screens, smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices.  And though these devices emit only a fraction of the blue light the sun does, your face is so much closer to them.

Recently dermatologists and skincare specialists have begun to show concern about the effects of blue light on the skin.  They are joining the other group of medical experts—ophthalmologists and optometrists—who have been studying the effect of light from computer screens, including blue light, on our eyes.

Is Blue Light Bad for Your Skin?

We know that blue light and ultraviolet rays from the sun can damage your skin. UVB rays attack and injure the DNA in our skin. But UVA rays work their damage differently. They cause oxygen to react with our skin (also known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) in such a way that it promotes skin aging.

That’s why it’s recommended we wear sunscreen when we go outside. But should we use sunscreen when checking our Facebook or Instagram? Seems silly, doesn’t it?

Maybe not

In a 2012 study, researchers discovered that visible light (which includes blue light) contributed to enzymes that damage collagen, an important component in skin.  (If you’re not familiar with collagen and its importance to healthy skin, you might want to read this article about collagen.)

In 2017 an article with the scary-sounding title Blue light-induced oxidative stress in live skin discussed a study that found that blue light generated a small amount of ROS. 

And yet, those studies used a concentration similar to how much we get from the sun, which is more than we get from our electronic devices. As Lauren E. Adams, M.D., a White Plains Hospital  Physician Associate, says,

“It’s unclear at this point whether cellphones and other devices give off enough blue light to directly affect the skin”

Other Research Suggests It Has Negative Effects

In a study on how blue light affects our skin, researchers wrote in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that when people were exposed to the sun’s blue light only, their skin had additional pigmentation, as well as swelling and redness. When the same people’s skin was exposed to the same levels of UVA rays, they did not experience the same levels of negative effects on the skin.

A similar study in 2014 found that blue light had similar effects when compared to UVB rays.  Still, these studies do not show whether the levels of blue light emitted by our electronic screens have similar effects.

How Else Can Blue Light Affect You?

The blue light that laptops, tablets, and phones emit might be affecting your skin, but not in the way you think. Instead, those gadgets could be having detrimental effects on your sleep. 

Beauty sleep is an accurate phrase because getting the proper amount of sleep leads to optimum skin health. While you sleep, your body is busy doing a lot of things. Two very important to skin health are

  • Bringing fluids to those organs and tissues that need fresh water
  • Removing excess fluids

If your body doesn’t have adequate time to replenish those fluids, you will see it.  Those bags under the eyes of sleep-deprived people are full of fluids that your body didn’t have time to remove.

If that is not bad enough, Dr. Judith Hellman, a board-certified dermatologist, says that

“As far as the skin is concerned, lack of sleep causes the stress hormone cortisol to be released, which in turn encourages inflammation in the skin, causing flare-ups in conditions like acne, psoriasis, and even eczema.”

 Blue Light and Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone created in the pineal gland. Sometimes called the “sleep hormone,” melatonin sends signals to your body that it is time to transition into sleep time. These signals are supposed to lower your body temperature and decrease your respiration rate.  Basically, it tells your body it is time to relax and get your sleep going.

When the retina detects large amounts of light during the day, melatonin is at its lowest. So, at night, melatonin will be at its highest if the retina can’t detect any light. In an experiment at Harvard, researchers learned that subjects who were exposed to green light had half as much melatonin suppressed as those who had the same amount of blue light.  They also noticed that blue light affected the subjects’ circadian rhythms.

In a study in Toronto, researchers discovered that glasses that block blue light helped keep melatonin levels high. Sunglasses that block blue light are readily available, such as these at Amazon. However, for prescription glasses that include a blue light blocker, you would have to see your optometrist.

So, what are you probably doing an hour before going to sleep? Reading the latest bestseller on your tablet? Getting caught up on social media? Watching endless YouTube videos.  Checking Pinterest for recipes. Searching Amazon for blue light blocking sunglasses? If you are like millions of your fellow Americans, you are using a computer and a phone late into the night.

How You Should Protect Avoid Blue Night

This advice is like when your doctor tells you to exercise more, eat more veggies, and sleep more. You already know it, and you might follow it.  But it’s best to remind you anyway.

  • Get plenty of bright light during the day
  • Make sure your night lights use red light instead of blue. This product by LowBlueLights is designed especially for this purpose and is available at Amazon
  • Stop looking at your screens several hours before bed

Or

  • For those who know they won’t be able to do that, find a blue-light filtering app.

 Blue-Light Filtering Apps

Several developers have created apps to filter blue light. Others monitor your sleep.  It can be confusing because some apps only work for Androids, others for iPhones, some for both, some are for computers only. Some are free while others have two versions.

We’ve picked a few that show the variety.  App stores will have more. Look for programs that don’t have adds, are free or inexpensive, and don’t provide a lot of advice that may or may not be based on science. Here are a few that we recommend:

F.lux The app reduces blue light gradually, starting at sundown
Free
Available for Windows users
Only available for iPhone
Twilight is a similar app for Android users
Sleep Cycle Monitors your sleep
Records your REM cycles
Focuses mainly on sleep pattern
With a paid subscription, more features are available, including blue light integration, but only with iPhone
Red shift Adjusts light settings on your computer according to the surrounding light
Not as user-friendly

What Can I Do About It?

Let’s review the tips we’ve given

  • Get outside more
  • Look for products that control the amount of blue light your eyes take in
  • Wear sunscreen, ideally one with an antioxidant

Then there are some general tips for computer use

  • Take breaks away from your computer screen. Follow the 20/20/20 rule.  Every 20 minutes, look away from your computer for at least 20 seconds at an object that is at least 20 feet away
  • Clean your monitor regularly to cut down on dust
  • Stretch your neck frequently
  • See if you can rearrange your workspace so your computer screen is at eye level.

About That Sunscreen

If you are like most people, you look at the SPF number when you purchase sunscreen.  For most of us, SPF 30 is ideal.  If you double the SPF, it won’t reduce UVB rays by twice as much. Since 30 SPF already blocks 97% of UVB rays, SPF will not reduce twice that much. Mathematically impossible.

What you should also be looking for is a sunscreen that has antioxidants. That’s because SPF does not protect against blue light. If you are trying to reduce your exposure to blue light during the day, then a sunscreen with antioxidants is ideal. 

You can also use a pre-sunscreen lotion with antioxidants such as vitamin C or E. Even better lotions contain mineral anti-oxidants such as zinc and titanium, which do a better job of combating the free-radicals that some sunscreens produce.

Another Way Your Phone Hurts Your Skin

It might not be your phone’s blue light that is damaging your skin. Quick question: when is the last time you cleaned your phone with a disinfectant wipe?

If you haven’t done it recently, then think about what kind of germs might be hanging out on your phone screen.

There are two skin conditions that your phone could be contributing to.  One is acne mechanica and the other staph infections. The heat, pressure to the skin and friction of the phone on your cheeks leads to blocked pores and pimples of acne. According to Seattle-based dermatologist Dr. Heather Rogers, the bacteria that cause staph infections

“can survive up to nine days on a cell phone.”

 Wet wipes, anyone?

Blue Light Also Has Benefits

The sky is not falling, and blue light is not all bad. Blue light is essential for good health. Remember that although the sun normally appears yellow, the sun’s rays include all colors of the spectrum, including blue. It is the blue light that causes the sky to appear, well, blue.

Sunlight causes the body to produce Vitamin D, also known as the “Sunshine Vitamin,” at least according to researchers who wrote about Vitamin D Insufficiency in an article entitled Vitamin D:  the “Sunshine” vitamin

 In addition, sunlight hitting the sun causes your body to form nitric oxide. This compound is then released into your blood vessels. Nitric oxide has been shown to help lower blood pressure. And people with lower blood pressure are also at lower risk of heart disease and stroke.  Richard Weller, senior lecturer in dermatology at the University of Edinburgh, says

 “We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer.”

Indeed, in a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh, volunteers who spent time under tanning lamps with UV rays had a drop in their blood pressure that lasted nearly an hour. Volunteers who spent time under tanning lamps that only emitted heat did not have a similar drop in blood pressure.

Blue Light Is Used to Treat SAD

People who have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, often begin to feel depressed as the amount of sunlight decreases. This usually begins in late fall, and symptoms often worsen in winter.

To treat people who have this disorder, doctors use light therapy. Doctors will have you sit near a device called a light therapy box. Included in the light is a larger than typical amount of blue light.

Here are a few additional benefits blue light provides

  • Regulating your body’s circadian rhythm
  • Boosting alertness
  • Improving your cognition and memory
  • Elevating your mood

When we consider the benefits of blue light, it is important to understand that research hasn’t conclusively proven that the blue light from our digital devices hurts our skin at all.

Even so, we can take steps to minimize the risks that may be associated with prolonged exposure to blue light. To put it simply, we should be cautious about blue light, even if at this point in time the known risks are not significant enough to stop using our screens.

You Can Keep Your Screen

Although there is still some concern among dermatologists and skin experts about the effects of the light coming from our computer screen and other electronic devices, most would agree with Andrew Birnie, a dermatologist and skin-cancer specialist at the William Harvey and Kent and Canterbury Hospitals, who points out that UVA in light is in sunlight year-round, not just in the summer.

“Let me put it this way: if you’re sitting in front of a computer all day, and your monitor is next to a window, I think you should be more worried about the window than the computer.”

So, don’t chuck your computer. But maybe you should consider buying a little more sunscreen.