It may be hard to imagine, but the world once spent nights in darkness. Before gas and electric lighting were developed in the 1800s, families gathered by candlelight until they went to sleep around 9 p.m.
Some 200 years later, many people now spend evenings scrolling phones, binging TV shows, or working on laptops—exposing themselves to hours of what's known as "blue light." In short bursts, that artificial light is probably okay. But over time, it can lead to troubling consequences.
In particular, the blue light effect on skin is something many people don't talk about or realize, but should. Prolonged light from household electronics may lead to premature aging, and it can also raise the risk for melasma, a skin condition that causes patchy discoloration on the face.
Fortunately, there's one thing you can do to help preempt the damage of blue light exposure on the skin: wear sunscreen year round, indoors and out.
What Is Blue Light?
Blue light represents one color from the greater electromagnetic spectrum of visible light. Measured in nanometers (nm), those color wavelengths can vary between high-energy ultraviolet light at 200 nm to 400 nm (such as sunlight) to blue light at 400 nm to 450 nm (such as screens) all the way to lower-energy red light up to 700 nm (such as infrared light).
Whereas phones, laptops, TVs, gaming consoles, and even LED bulbs can give off blue light, this wavelength is outside, too. Sunlight is the main source of blue light. So, whether you're indoors or not, you're very likely exposed to some form of blue light. Can it really be that bad?
Blue Light and Your Skin
You probably already know that excessive screen time, particularly before bedtime, can affect your body's natural sleep cycles. That's because the blue light from screens limits your body's ability to make melatonin, known as the "sleep hormone."
This same reaction may make skin more prone to premature aging, given that melatonin has been found to help protect skin cells against damage. In addition, blue light may stimulate the body to produce more pigmentation than it needs through a process called melanogenesis, which can cause or worsen melasma.
Research has also suggested other mechanisms surrounding the blue light effect on skin. For one, blue light may increase the risk of free radical damage, making the skin more likely to get wrinkled or discolored. It may also trigger special enzymes that break down skin-firming collagen.
How to Protect Your Skin from Blue Light
It'd be easy to suggest cutting down on screen time as a way to reduce your exposure to blue light, but that may not be realistic. According to one Nielsen report in 2018, American adults spend more than 11 hours per day interacting with media. Those numbers may have even surged during the pandemic as doctors report higher numbers of screen-related problems.
Few people are willing or able to separate themselves from their devices in the name of skin health. So, if screens are a part of life, how can you reduce the risks they cause?
Wear sunscreen, particularly tinted sunscreen. That may sound strange, but iron oxide (a compound that gives tinted sunscreens their color), has been found to help protect the skin from damage caused by visible light. It acts as a physical barrier between the light from screens and your skin.
As a result of the known iron oxide benefits for skin, many experts recommend the use of tinted sunscreens for people who are particularly prone to melasma or hyperpigmentation. Even if you don't have those conditions, though, your skin may benefit from iron oxide's protective power against blue light. Seeing as sunscreens may not list "iron oxide" as an active ingredient, look for it on the inactive ingredients section on the label.
Many cosmetic products like foundation may also contain iron oxide, but you can't rely on that one ingredient alone: you still need a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. Packing both iron oxide and active sunscreen ingredients into a single product can give you the benefit of glowing skin along with ultimate protection.
Just remember that although a tinted sunscreen can help protect your skin from blue light, it may not protect your sleep given that your eyes will still be exposed to the light. Feel free to enjoy a social media scroll or TV binge with tinted sunscreen applied, but try not to do it close to bedtime.