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Does a Cell Phone’s Blue Light Hurt Your Skin?
The science of light is amazing. There is visible light and there is light you don’t see, like the UVA and UVB light from the sun that causes sunburn and other forms of serious damage to your health. Then there are the light rays you do see that come from the sun and also emanate from most digital devices, including your smartphone.
When you look at a chart about the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays, you’ll see that their wavelengths range from 100 nm to 400 nm (“nm” stands for nanometer, which is a measurement of length). Next on the spectrum is blue light, whose wavelength ranges from 380 nm to 500 nm. (The entire light spectrum goes up to 700 nm.) The blue light portion is what emanates from digital devices, such as computers, flat screen TVs, fluorescent light bulbs, and smartphones.
Evolving research has shown that blue light can be bad for skin. It’s certain that blue light in the 380–400 nm range is problematic, although the risk seems to lessen somewhat toward the top end at 500 nm. Long-term exposure to concentrated blue light energy can cause skin damage, including color changes, inflammation, and weakening of the skin’s surface. Simply put, blue light promotes stressors in skin that cause photo-aging; that is, aging from exposure to light.
Without question, sunlight is the main source of blue light to which we are exposed; digital devices emit only a fraction of that amount of radiation. However, our phones are much closer to us than the sun, and this “close-up” exposure matters. We spend so much time using our devices, holding them close to our face and eyes, it adds up—that’s where health issues arise. Statistics show that millennials check their smartphones 157 times per day, in comparison to older adults, who check their phones only about 30 times per day. That means millennials are at a much higher risk of blue light exposure each and every day.
When it comes to the eyes, there’s far more research indicating how damaging unprotected exposure to blue light can be. The research into blue light damage to the skin is less conclusive but concerning because while there's research showing it hurts skin, there’s also research showing it helps; for example, blue light treatments can be a potentially effective therapy for certain skin disorders. Confusing, yes, but research can be that way.
Our strong recommendation is to cover your phone with a blue light screen shield (amazon.com has plenty of options). It’s a cheap fix and it eliminates the need to worry about skincare or sunglasses when using your phone or tablet (if only it were that easy for your skin and the sun). Some smart phones have a setting that disables blue light in favor of yellow light (often called night mode or nightshift) which is far easier on the eyes—and, in turn, your skin. If your phone has this feature using it all the time can be a great anti-aging and eye saving thing to do.
Whether it’s the light from sun exposure or from your smartphone, without question, you need to protect your eyes during the day. Polarized sunglasses are essential for all outside light exposure to prevent long-term damage as well as damage from your phone (although we realize it’s not practical to wear sunglasses inside). If you don’t have a blue light screen shield, viewing your smartphone at arm’s length will help.
Unless your doctor prescribes a blue light facial treatment, you also need to protect your skin from the potential damage due to exposure to blue light. In addition to a blue light blocker (obviously we’re keen for you to get that now) on your smartphone screen, sunscreens and products loaded with antioxidants are the research-supported options for diminishing the negative effects of blue light on skin. If you’re already using those types of products, that’s one more problem solved!
References for this information:
International Journal of Ophthalmology, February 2017, pages 191–202
Dermatologic Surgery, June 2016, pages 727–732; and September 2014, pages 979–987
Molecular Vision, January 2016, pages 61–72
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, September 2015, pages 526–528
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, January 2015, pages 603–610
Free Radical Biology and Medicine, July 2015, pages 373–384
Journal of Biomedical Optics, May 2015, #58001
Environmental Health Perspective, March 2014, pages 269–276
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, February 2010, pages 16–21
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About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!