Can your mobile phone really damage your skin?

blue light skin damage Kaia Gerber

We speak to a dermatologist to find out the truth

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / September 04 2019

Whether you’re a skin care fanatic or a total novice, by now you’ve probably heard of blue light, and how it may be damaging your skin and causing premature ageing. Yay! Anyone else feel like everything in this world just wants to suck the youth out of you? ‘Cause same.

Along with the growing buzz around blue light, you’ve probably also noticed a whole heap of new skin care products on the market that promise to protect you from the harmful rays of your computer screens, smartphones and other digital devices.

But is blue light from our electronics really damaging our skin? Are all these creams and lotions really worth the money and the extra effort? Because girl, if your skin care routine looks anything like ours, then you’re already dealing with one step too many. To find out if we should be minimising our exposure to electronics to save our skin, we spoke with dermatologist and founder of Bespoke Skin Technology, Dr Katherine Armour.

Why is there such a buzz around blue light?

So, what’s the go? Why are people talking so much about blue light all of a sudden? “I think that the buzz around blue light and premature ageing is related to the latest research that shows that visible light (in the blue and violet wavelengths) can contribute to unwanted pigmentation in the skin,” says Dr Armour. “Whilst we have long been aware of the ageing effects of ultraviolet A and B wavelengths on the skin, investigations into the effects of blue light are relatively recent, and studies are few.”

Can blue light really damage our skin?

If you're a bit hazy as to what blue light actually is, let’s have a bit of a refresher. Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum (not to be confused with UVA or UVB rays, which are part of the non-visible spectrum) and is a high-energy, short-wavelength light. The main blue light source we’re exposed to is the sun, however it has been suggested that we get a significant dose from our screens and indoor light sources, too. 

While blue-light exposure plays a critical role in good health (it regulates our body's circadian rhythm - our body's sleep pattern), it has been reported to contribute to eyestrain and blurry vision and can increase the risk of macular degeneration. What's more, there is some evidence that supports the contribution of blue light to photoageing (including wrinkles, loss of skin laxity, and hyperpigmentation). However, Dr Armour says research into the effects of high-energy visible light on the skin is still ongoing. 

“We are still learning a lot about the effects of visible light on our skin. Melanocytes (the pigment-producing cells in our epidermis) can “see” blue light. Upon exposure to a threshold level of blue light, melanocytes start producing more melanin,” explains Dr Armour. “This leads to hyperpigmentation. What we know for sure is that blue light from the sun stimulates prolonged hyperpigmentation in darker skin types (called Fitzpatrick III-VI – think olive skin and darker), but not fair skin types. The amount of sun exposure in summer that it takes to induce pigmentation is approximately one and a half hours.

“Studies have also shown that blue light contributes to the development of something called ‘post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation’ (PIH). PIH is unwanted increased pigmentation seen after some kind of insult to the skin, such as acne or eczema. This can take a long time to diminish, and may never completely resolve. Blue light can also lead to relapses of melasma in those who are prone to this condition.” 

To recap: We know blue light from the sun can cause damage to our skin, but do we have to worry about our electronic devices? If we're guilty of sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time or constantly using our phones, should we start minimising our screen time? 

Dr Armour recently attended the 24th World Congress of Dermatology in Milan, which she says revealed recent findings as to whether or not digital screens themselves actually produce enough light to cause serious damage. “New data presented at this conference showed that the levels of blue light emitted from devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops are not significant, despite what has been reported recently in the media,” she says. “In fact, the emission of blue light from screens is of low intensity. It was reported that more than 150 hours of continuous exposure to a screen would be needed to induce even minimal pigmentation.”

So, do skin products targeting blue light really work?

According to Dr Armour, this depends on the part of the skin care product being considered. “Skin care targeting blue light tends to focus on either antioxidants to mop up the effects of blue light, or ingredients to block out the blue light,” she says. “Antioxidants per se will not have an effect specifically on the pigmentation induced by blue light, as this is not due to free-radical formation. However, it is possible that antioxidants which generally combat pigment (such as niacinamide or ascorbic acid) may have a role to play. However, this has not been studied rigorously yet.”

But, before you go ahead and consider all blue-light protection a total myth, Dr Armour says there are a few specific ingredients that work to protect the skin from blue light. “Fortunately, iron oxide has been proven to be useful to block the effects of blue light in causing pigmentation and can be used in cosmetically acceptable formulations,” she says. “We have harnessed this technology in the Bespoke Skin Technology Active Combat Stick. Iron oxide has also been proven to protect against relapses of melasma in those prone to this condition.”

Together with looking out for these kinds of ingredients, Dr Armour says you should always make sure you limit your sun exposure and wear sunscreen daily (but you’re probably already doing this to block out UV rays anyway, right guys? RIGHT?). “We should limit sun exposure during the times of the day with a high UV rating, and wear hats and clothing. In terms of skin care, blocking or scattering blue light with inorganic sunscreen ingredients is effective. However, zinc or titanium dioxide needs to be fairly opaque, and hence white-looking, to scatter blue light,” she says. 

Want the lowdown on some other things that could be causing your skin to age? Check out four things you didn’t know were ageing your skin.

What do you try to do to limit your exposure to blue light? Let us know in the comment section below.

Main image credit: @kaiagerber

Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.