Could Blue Light from Screen Time Be Damaging Your Skin?
Your Instagram obsession might be giving you wrinkles.
Between the endless scrolls of TikTok before you get up in the morning, the eight hour workday at a computer, and a few episodes on Netflix at night, it's safe to say you spend most of your day in front of a screen. In fact, a recent Nielsen report found Americans spend nearly half their day—11 hours to be exact—on a device. To be fair, this number also includes streaming music and listening to podcasts, but it's an alarming (although not entirely surprising) portion of your everyday life.
Before you think this is going to turn into a "put down your phone" lecture, know that screen time isn't all bad; it's a social link and industries depend on technology to do business—heck, this story wouldn't exist without screens.
Obviously experts (and your mom) are going to tell you to reduce your screen time, but depending on your job or lifestyle that may not be possible. "I think we should embrace technology and all the wonderful ways it has improved our lives. Just make sure to protect your skin while you do it," says Jeniece Trizzino, vice president of product development at Goodhabit, a new skin-care brand created specifically to combat the effects of blue light.
Read on to better understand the impact this blue light from your devices can have on your skin and what you can do to prevent it. (Related: 3 Ways Your Phone Is Ruining Your Skin and What to Do About It.)
What is blue light?
The human eye is able to see light as specific colors when it hits a certain wavelength. Blue light is a type of light that emits high-energy visible (HEV) light that lands in the blue part of the visible light spectrum. For context, ultraviolet light (UVA/UVB) is on the non-visible light spectrum and can penetrate to the first and second layers of skin. Blue light can reach all the way down to the third layer, says Trizzino.
There are two main sources of blue light: the sun and screens. The sun actually contains more blue light than UVA and UVB combined, says Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. (P.S. In case you're wondering: Yes, blue light is the reason you see the sky as the color blue.)
All digital screens emit blue light (your smartphone, TV, computer, tablet, and smartwatch) and the damage is based on the proximity to the device (how close your face is to the screen) and the size of the device, says Trizzino. There is debate around at what intensity and duration light exposure begins to cause damage, and it's unclear if most of your blue light exposure comes from the sun because it's a stronger source, or screens because of their close proximity and time of use. (Related: The Benefits of Red, Green, and Blue Light Therapy.)
How can blue light affect the skin?
The relationship between blue light and skin is complicated. Blue light has been studied for use in dermatology practices to treat skin conditions, such as acne or rosacea. (Sophia Bush swears by blue light treatment for her rosacea.) But new research has come out suggesting that high-level, long-term exposure to blue light can be associated with some less-than-ideal skin conditions, similar to exposure to UV light. It's thought that blue light, like UV, can create free radicals, which are believed to be the cause of all that damage. Free radicals are little cosmetic particles that wreak havoc on the skin, like discoloration and wrinkles, says Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist and associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine.
One study even showed that melanin production in the skin doubled and persisted longer when exposed to blue light versus UVA. Increased melanin levels can lead to pigmentation issues such as melasma, age spots, and dark spots after breakouts. And when testers were exposed to blue light and then separately to UVA, there was more redness and swelling of the skin exposed to blue light than the UVA light source, says Dr. Ciraldo.
Simply put: When exposed to blue light, your skin gets stressed, which causes inflammation and leads to cellular damage. Damage to the skin cells results in signs of aging, such as wrinkles, dark spots, and loss of collagen. For some bit of good news: There is no data to suggest a correlation between blue light and skin cancer.
Confused as to whether blue light is bad or good? It's important to note that both of these takeaways can be true: Short-term exposure (such as during a procedure in a derm's office) can be safe, while high, long-term exposure (such as time spent in front of screens) may contribute to DNA damage and premature aging. However, research is still ongoing and larger studies are needed to be completed for any conclusive evidence to emerge. (Related: Can At-Home Blue Light Devices Really Clear Acne?)
How can you prevent skin damage from blue light?
Since forgoing smartphones entirely isn't really a viable option, here's what you can do to prevent all this skin damage associated with blue light. Additionally, you may already be doing much of this in your daily skin-care routine.
1. Choose your serums wisely. An antioxidant serum, such as a vitamin C skin-care product, can help fight free-radical damage, says Dr. Gohara. She likes the Skin Medica Lumivive System (Buy It, $265, dermstore.com), which was formulated to protect against blue light. (Related: The Best Vitamin C Skin-Care Products for Brighter, Younger Looking Skin)
Another option is a blue light-specific serum, which could even be layered with another antioxidant serum if you'd like. Goodhabit products contain BLU5 Technology, a proprietary blend of marine plants that aims to reverse past skin damage caused by blue light exposure as well as block future damage from happening, says Trizzino. Try Goodhabit Glow Potion Oil Serum (Buy It, $80, goodhabitskin.com), which offers an antioxidant boost and minimizes the negative effects of blue light on the skin.
2. Don't skimp on sunscreen—seriously. Apply sunscreen every day (yes, even in the winter, and even while indoors), but not just any sunscreen. "The biggest mistake people make is thinking their current sunscreen is already protecting them," says Trizzino. Instead, look for a physical (aka mineral sunscreen) with a high amount of iron oxide, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide in its ingredients, since this kind of sunscreen works by blocking both UV and HEV light. FYI: Chemical sunscreen works by allowing UVA/UVB light to penetrate the skin but a chemical reaction then transforms the UV light into a non-damaging wavelength. While this process is effective to avoid sunburn or skin cancer, blue light is still able to penetrate the skin and cause damage.
Sunscreens are required to protect against UVA/UVB, but not blue light, so another option is to find an SPF with ingredients that specifically target that concern. Dr. Ciraldo offers a line of blue light products, such as Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen SPF 40 (Buy It, $50, dermstore.com), which has antioxidants to fight free radicals, zinc oxide for UV protection, and ginseng extract which has been shown to protect against damage from HEV light.
3. Add some accessories to your tech. Consider purchasing a blue light filter for computers and tablets, or lower the blue light setting on your phone (iPhones let you schedule night shift for this very purpose), says Dr. Ciraldo. You can also purchase blue light glasses to help thwart eye strain and damage to your eye health, but also to prevent under eye wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, she adds.