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Skincare companies are selling products that promise to guard against harmful rays from computer screens and cell phones. But does science back them up?

By Amanda MacMillan
September 20, 2018

If you’ve been paying attention to health and wellness news for the last few years, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about blue light. We’re talking about wavelengths on the blue end of the visible light spectrum, which are commonly emitted from the screens of electronic devices like cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions.

A growing body of evidence indicates that exposure to blue light, especially at night, can disrupt circadian rhythm and make it harder to sleep. Newer research also suggests that this type of light may damage cells in the eyes and could even accelerate blindness. And now, as if you needed another reason to spend less time in front of your computer, some skincare companies say that the beams coming from our devices may also be contributing to skin damage or premature aging.

Of course, these companies have solutions ready: In the last few years, brands such as Supercoop, Estee Lauder, and Murad have come out with products that are specifically designed to protect against blue light from electronics.

But are these creams and lotions really worth the money—and the extra effort to incorporate them into your daily routine? To find out, we dug into the research and spoke with several dermatologists about blue light, its effect on skin, and how worried we should be.

What blue light research shows

In 2010, a small study in Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine examined the effects of five days of blue-light exposure on eight healthy volunteers. The researchers wanted to know if this component of visible light—which was increasingly being used for phototherapy to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis—could harm skin the same way that ultraviolet rays do. They found that blue light did not cause DNA damage or early photo-aging, and concluded that “the (short-term) use of visible blue light in dermatological practice is safe."

Other studies have had more concerning results. In 2014, in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research, researchers compared skin exposed to blue light with skin exposed to UVB rays, the type of ultraviolet light that’s most closely associated with sunburns and skin cancer. While the skin exposed to blue light showed no signs of cancer growth, it did show “significantly more pronounced hyperpigmentation that lasted up to 3 months,” the authors wrote.

So what does that mean, exactly? Nada Elbuluk, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the USC Keck School of Medicine, who was not involved in the 2014 study, acknowledges that “there has been some scientific data showing that visible light can contribute to increased pigmentation.”

But, Dr. Elbuluk adds, that doesn’t mean sitting in front a computer will lead to noticeable skin changes for most people. “This matters particularly for people with conditions of hyperpigentation,” she says, "such as melasma."

Then there’s the study published in 2017 in the journal Free Radical Biology & Medicine, in which researchers found that exposure to the blue light contained in sunlight triggered oxidation and damaged proteins in human skin. “These results suggest that blue light contributes to skin aging similar to UVA,” the authors wrote in their paper.

That certainly sounds pretty damning. But Alexander Wolf, a professor of cell biology and biochemistry at Nippon Medical School in Japan and co-author of that paper, told Health that he and his colleagues used blue light at the same intensity it’s found in sunlight. "The light intensities emitted from cell phones are much lower than those contained in sunlight,” he notes, "so spending time in direct sunlight is much more damaging than spending time in front of a cell phone."

In other words, he says, the study’s findings “cannot really be applied” to blue light from electronics. “There’s very little reason to worry about the small amount of light from electronic devices, at least for the direct damage from blue light I am investigating,” Wolf says. (Like any good health researcher, though, he does point out the other reasons you shouldn’t look at your phone late at night.)

So why do blue light skincare products exist?

Skincare companies, of course, are conducting their own research on blue light and skin damage. The Estée Lauder Research Laboratory, for example, announced findings back in May that linked blue light exposure at night to an increase of free radical production, an increase of DNA damage, and an increased production of inflammatory mediators.

Presenting at the International Investigative Dermatology Meeting in Orlando, Estée Lauder scientists said their findings revealed that skin cells can “see” by sensing light through light-sensitive proteins, and that they control their own circadian rhythm based on these external cues. Blue light exposure damages cells through a "desynchronization with their night rhythm,” the company said in a press release, which “ultimately will result in an acceleration of skin aging."

Other beauty and personal-care brands have taken a similar, better-safe-than-sorry stance on blue light, arguing that many of us now spend far more time in front of computers and phones—at a very close distance—than we do out in the sun. But peer-reviewed, published data on the light from electronic devices and skin damage is still lacking—and for most dermatologists, the existing research simply isn’t strong enough to sound an alarm (and break out special products) just yet.

What the experts really think

Andrew Birnie, MD, a dermatologist and skin-cancer specialist at the William Harvey and Kent and Canterbury Hospitals in the UK, told the Guardian earlier this year that until more research on blue light is done, the most important thing for people to wear every day is a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

“Many people still don’t realise that UVA can penetrate through glass and is consistent throughout the year, not just in summer,” Dr. Birnie told the Guardian. “Let me put it this way: if you’re sitting in front of a computer all day, and your monitor is next to a window, I think you should be more worried about the window than the computer.”

Dr. Elbuluk agrees. “We don’t have enough data right now to say that blue light from phones and computers is sufficient for causing skin damage and aging in the way that ultraviolet light can,” she says. “At this time, we need more research to understand how much visible light can contribute to these processes, and how much exposure would be needed to cause these changes.”

In other words, skincare products designed to protect against blue light certainly won’t hurt you, but there’s not much evidence they’ll make a real difference, either. Below, some of our favorite skincare and makeup products that protect against blue light—plus, they also deliver other benefits, such as anti-aging, SPF protection, and hydration.

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