Is blue light damaging your skin?
Our non-stop digital connectivity has created a world in which humans are experiencing unprecedented exposure to blue light from our technological devices. But is your skin paying the price of technology overexposure?
If you’re serious about taking care of your complexion, it’s important to understand the impact blue light has on the cellular ageing of your skin and your general wellbeing, plus what you can do about it.
When it comes to minimising premature ageing, photosensitivity and pigmentation, there is growing evidence confirming that protecting your skin from UVA and UVB rays alone simply isn’t enough. According to experts, blue light is a big culprit contributing to oxidative stress, which has an overall beauty-damaging domino effect.
Are you glued to your phone, laptop or tablet for multiple hours a day? If you answered “Yes”, take a deep breath! The good news is that you don’t have to let your skin pay the price of overexposure to technological blue light emissions; you simply need to understand what is really going on and what you can do about it.
What is blue light?
Although today blue light is often associated with technology, it naturally comes from the sun. When the light from the sun travels towards Earth, it contains all colours of visible light. As the sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere, it collides with gases and other particles, which cause it to scatter. Since blue light travels in shorter, smaller waves, it is scattered more than other colours and therefore makes the sky appear blue most of the time. So really, we are quite literally surrounded by blue light.
The increase in exposure, however, comes from human-made sources of blue light, including our laptops, computers, television screens and all other digital devices, as well as LED lighting and fluorescent bulbs.
Blue light’s relatively short wavelength measures around 400–450 nanometres. This means blue light, also known as High Energy Visible Light (or HEV), has a higher energy intensity than other lights in the visible spectrum. The significance of this for your skin is that it is more likely to cause cell damage.
Australians are large consumers of technology and most of us spend hours each day in front of gadgets and screens. A quick look at recent statistics shows why understanding the associated implications of tech-use, including blue light exposure, is so significant in today’s digitally focused world.
A report released in February this year by We Are Social and Hootsuite, Digital 2021: Australia, revealed that Australians have become increasingly reliant on digital and social media in every aspect of their daily lives, fuelling technological consumption. As a result, Australians now spend over 40 per cent of their waking hours online, with an approximate average of seven hours each day dedicated to the internet via smartphone, tablet and computer use. This has seen an increase of around 32 minutes daily compared to figures from just last year.
Research conducted by reviews.org across all ages showed that Australian smartphone users clock an average of five and a half hours a day in front of their screens, which translates to a staggering 17 years of your life. Combine this data with television use and the fact that a large percentage of the population works 40-hour weeks in job roles largely spent in front of a computer screen, it’s clear that the total hours you are exposed to blue light from digital devices on a daily basis is much higher.
The problem with blue light
Not all blue light is bad. Natural exposure to the right amounts of blue light during the day is essential for regulating your body’s natural sleep and wake cycles. Additionally, blue light can boost your alertness, elevate your mood, improve reaction times and even increase your memory and cognitive abilities.
The problem is the overexposure to blue light. While your body needs blue light from the sun to regulate your circadian rhythm, our technology-driven world means this exposure doesn’t end when the sun sets as it once did, and continues late into the evening through the use of our devices. This throws off your natural body clock and disrupts sleep quality.
Pervasive tech-usage means that even during waking hours, your skin may be coming into unnaturally high concentrations of the powerful blue light emitted from screens, which combines with the blue light you receive from the sun to produce a cumulative adverse effect.
Beauty sleep, interrupted
Experts agree that even small bursts of blue light from devices is enough to disrupt your sleep cycle, which is why you should make sure your smartphone isn’t near your bed at night. “Upsetting our circadian rhythm should be avoided,” says dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams, who explains that getting the recommended eight hours of quality shut-eye each night is essential for the body and skin to repair itself. “Disturbing our biological clock is connected not only to premature ageing, but also many health issues.”
If this optimal period required for rest and restorative cellular functions is interrupted, over time the consequences will show on your skin. Think accelerated effects of ageing, including the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and a lacklustre complexion.
A study carried out by scientists from the University Hospitals of Cleveland clearly illuminates the link between a good night’s sleep and better skin health and appearance. Using a combination of a specific sleep questionnaire compared against data gathered using clinical tools and other viable measures of the internal and external signs of skin ageing, 60 women between 30 and 50 years of age were assessed in order to evaluate the role that poor sleep quality plays. The health of the skin barrier, as well as the participants’ self-perceived satisfaction with their appearance, were also factored into the research. The findings revealed that those with chronic poor sleep quality experienced significantly accelerated internal ageing compared to those who slept soundly for around seven to nine hours a night. The poor sleepers also showed impaired skin barrier function and were found to have lower self-satisfaction with how they looked.
The skin’s internal clock
Over a 24-hour period your circadian rhythm regulates most of the physiological, mental and behavioural changes in your body, including your sleep and hormones. According to Dr Williams, many people are not aware that our skin cells have their own internal clock too. “Our skin is subject to a circadian rhythm as much as any other organ system,” she explains. “We know for example that in the evening and at night our skin is more active in cell regeneration and repair than during the early day. One of the reasons for that is that the stem cells in the bottom layer of our epidermis (the ones that create new cells) are most active late at night.”
What this means is that excessive exposure to blue light from your devices has the potential to not only disrupt your overarching bodily circadian rhythm, it can also have a microcosmic impact right down to the cellular level of your body’s largest organ – your precious skin.
If your skin cells do not recognise the change from day to night, the important evening repair processes may be impacted, leading to visible ageing of the skin, along with other unwanted physical manifestations, such as a dull complexion and dark under-eye circles.
Direct consequences for your complexion
Beyond the domino effect that poor sleep and disrupted cellular rhythms have on your beauty and wellbeing, the direct impact that blue light exposure can have on your skin is quite serious. Overexposure to blue light accelerates the oxidation process, which causes inflammation and damages the skin barrier, producing effects similar to those associated with too much sun exposure — worsened lines, wrinkles, skin laxity and uneven tone.
According to Anna Mitsios, the naturopath and skin expert behind Edible Beauty Australia, long-term exposure to blue light has not only been shown to cause serious skin damage including premature wrinkles and pigmentation, but it can also promote the breakdown of collagen and can exacerbate existing skin conditions, including dry skin, acne and hypersensitive skin. “When combined with UVA and UVB sun damage, long-term exposure to blue light ultimately presents as premature ageing and the research is scary!” she says.
In fact, one peer-reviewed study of the effects of blue light on the skin, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, found that exposing skin to the amount of blue light we get from the sun caused more pigment, redness and swelling than when the same person’s skin was exposed to comparable levels of UVA rays.
While these findings are shocking, they are not that surprising when you consider that the direct skin-harming effects of blue light are due to potential free radical generation, which contributes to skin ageing in the same way that exposure to UV rays does.
What makes blue light even more impactful, however, is that it has the ability to penetrate deeper into the skin than UVA and UBA light does. Blue light can reach right down to the layers of the dermis which house your collagen and elastin. These substances are essential for maintaining the structural integrity of your skin, so damage equates to exacerbated sagging and wrinkling.
How to protect your skin?
Another similarity with UV light damage is that studies have revealed that the effects of blue light on skin may take years to show on the surface. This makes prevention methods key when it comes to reducing the impact that technological blue light exposure has on your skin, as well as that which comes from the sun.
Of course, the simplest and most direct way to protect your skin is to avoid overexposure whenever possible. This means minimising screen time and only using blue light-emitting devices for essential reasons. Reserve your technology usage for its important functions, such as work and education or staying in touch with friends and family. You may find it helpful to monitor your daily screen time so you can see how much time you are spending in front of your devices.
It can be particularly helpful to implement a technology-free evening regime. Try switching off blue light-emitting devices by around 8pm to allow your body to produce melatonin and prepare for a rejuvenating slumber.
If you must look at screens past this time, consider turning down the blue light on your device. Many phones and laptops now have in-built “night modes” or use an application such as Flux. These can usually be configured to automatically activate during your chosen hours across all your devices.
Wearing blue light-blocking glasses is another lifestyle tool that may be helpful in preventing some of the circadian rhythm disrupting qualities of blue light exposure, as well as helping to protect the delicate skin around the eye area.
Blue light is also another reason to apply your SPF every day and preferably a natural, physical one. “Wearing any physical sunscreen can actually help to mitigate damage caused by blue light. Physical sunscreens contain active ingredients such as zinc oxide and, unlike chemical sunscreens, sit on the skin surface to most effectively block blue light and minimise the damage caused by light radiation,” explains Mitsios.
As a naturopath, Mitsios also recommends bolstering your skin’s resilience by loading up on foods that are rich in antioxidants, which internally assist in preventing the free radical damage caused by blue light. “Green tea, broccoli and berries are some of my favourite antioxidant-rich superfoods with evidence around improving skin’s response to damage,” she says.
Incorporating topical antioxidants into your skincare routine is also key to defending the skin from the free radical inducing repercussions of excessive blue light exposure. This is because your skin’s antioxidant stores are rapidly depleted the more you are exposed to the damaging effects of blue light and the oxidative stress it causes. “By giving the skin a healthy dose of antioxidants, you create a ‘bank’ or store of them so they continue to work to reduce skin damage, even when you have removed your sunscreen,” explains Mitsios.
Look for serums and face oils that are rich in ingredients that provide antioxidant protection, such as broccoli extract, kale and St Mary’s thistle, as well as super fruits like pomegranate and açaí berry and plenty of vitamin C. Adding a protective serum to your skincare regime both morning and night is an effective strategy for supporting skin health and defending your complexion from all sorts of external aggressors, including blue light and pollution.
According to Mitsios, the right natural skincare ingredients applied regularly can have profound benefits that are backed by research. For example, topically applied broccoli has been shown to work inside cells by boosting the production of a network of protective enzymes that defend cells against many aspects of damage, including UV and blue light damage.
More than skin deep
Ultimately the health of your skin is a reflection of your overall wellness and beauty. Glowing skin and sparkling eyes really do start from within. Make a good night’s sleep a priority, switch off from your emails at the end of the day, put your phone down and take a walk outside or curl up with a good book instead.
While it’s important to understand how overexposure to blue light can damage your complexion, in this technology-saturated world it is more than just your skin that could use a break from digital stimulation. Go on, switch off for a moment; your body, mind and skin will thank you.