High-Energy Visible (HEV) Light and Skin Damage
As if exposure to UV rays from sunlight wasn’t bad enough, skin has another enemy trying to steal away its youth and health: high-energy visible (HEV) light. Also referred to as blue light, HEV light is primarily from the sun, but it’s also emitted by your smartphone, tablet and computer screen. By any name and from any source, a growing amount of research is proving how destructive HEV light is for your skin.
What is HEV Light—and How Does it Differ from UV Light?
The spectrum of visible light—that is, what the human eye can see—emitted by the sun is made up of the colors of the rainbow, with wavelengths of 390 nm to 700 nm (nm = nanometer, a measure of length, specifically, 1 billionth of a meter).
UVA and UVB light from the sun fall under the category of invisible light; we can’t see these rays, but they’re present during daylight hours, and absolutely impact your skin’s health and appearance.
The sun’s UVB light causes sunburn and its UVA light causes deeper damage, like loss of firmness. For a bit of geek science: The wavelength of UVB rays goes from 280 nm to 320 nm; the wavelength of UVA rays ranges from 320 nm to 400 nm.
The HEV light (blue light) emitting from the sun and your electronic devices ranges from 380 nm to 500 nm, a bit longer than, but overlapping with, the range of UVA light. Interestingly, the range of blue light varies depending on whose research you’re reading, with some scientists putting it more strongly in the range of 400-450 nm in terms of its damage to skin.
Regardless of exact numbers, for certain it’s no exaggeration to say that the progressive damage unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB light does to skin is ultraviolent. As it turns out, damage from HEV light isn’t far behind.
The sun’s blue light is a big part of why on a cloudless day we see the sky as blue. But, unlike the invisible UVA and UVB radiation, which is not an issue after dark, the threat from blue light doesn’t stop when the sun goes down.
As mentioned, HEV light is also emitted by common devices we use or are exposed to all day long: televisions, fluorescent bulbs, at-home light devices for acne, computer monitors and smart phones.
High Energy Visible Light Protection for Your Skin
So, what can you do to protect your skin from HEV light? Daily application of a broad-spectrum sunscreen is the logical first choice, given that the sun emits a large portion of blue light that sunscreen can protect from. But don’t reach for just any sunscreen: You want one that’s rated SPF 30 or greater and contains plenty of antioxidants, a research-proven combination that we use in all of our sunscreens.
What can antioxidants do for skin? Just as UVA and UVB light exposure triggers a cascade of oxidative damage on and within skin, so does blue light. The startling difference is that blue light can penetrate farther into skin than UVA light, causing deeper damage that eventually shows up as wrinkles, rough texture and brown spots.
Antioxidants are found in well-formulated sunscreens as well as in serums, boosters and moisturizers. When applied to skin, these antioxidant-loaded products help defend and minimize the chain reaction of damage before it visibly impacts your skin.
Other tips to protect your skin from HEV light include:
- Wear large, wraparound-style sunglasses with dark lenses that have a UV rating, as the blue light portion of the visible spectrum can also damage your eyes
- Consider “computer glasses” if your job has you staring at screens much of the time. These yellow-tinted glasses, which don’t make the world look as yellow as you might think, block the blue light that most modern-day monitors emit
- Not a fan of glasses? Install covers that block the blue light from your smartphones, tablets and computer monitors (readily available online)
- Enable the “night mode” settings on your portable digital devices permanently, which significantly reduces the blue light in favor of harmless yellow light.
The Good Side of HEV Light
We know that the information in this article so far doesn’t put blue light in, well, the best light; however, the truth in beauty is that some (safe) exposure to blue light is also good for us.
Routine exposure to blue light, preferably from daylight, helps regulate our body’s sleep-wake cycle, improves our mood, keeps us alert and can even enhance memory.
As with many things in life, blue light has both risks and benefits. Balance comes from trying to ensure that your routine exposure (with an antioxidant-rich sunscreen applied first) helps as it’s supposed to without going in the opposite direction and harming your skin.
References for this information:
Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis, May 2019, pages 31-35
Journal of Investigative Dermatology, May 2019 Supplement, page S130; January 2018, pages 171–178; October 2017, page S304; September 2016, page S174; and July 2012, pages 1901–1907
Journal of Biomedical Physics and Engineering, December 2018, pages 447-452
Free Radical Biology and Medicine, July 2017, pages 300–310
Journal of Dermatological Science, June 2016, pages 314–321
Molecular Vision, January 2016, ePublication
Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, February 2015, ePublication
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!