A question I am often asked is whether exposure to the light from screen devices can damage our skin, in the same way as the sun, and should we therefore be protecting it by applying an SPF compound as a part of our daily skincare routines. There are certainly plenty of voices within the beauty industry who claim that the high energy visible or “blue light” emitted by our devices could age our skin just like the sun. As a scientist my answer to this question will always be determined by the scientific evidence.
We should begin by looking at the facts relating to the sun itself. In terms of light emissions, the sun sends out or radiates many different rays of different wavelengths, of which VIS (visible, 300-700 nm), UV (ultraviolet, 100-400 nm) and IR (infrared, 780 nm – 1mm) are the most relevant for this discussion. Wavelength and energy are important, but so too is intensity, as it is the amount of radiation and the degree of exposure that will ultimately determine its effects.
Visible rays allow us to see what is around us, while IR radiation is responsible for increasing the temperature of those objects that receive it. UV rays are of higher frequency and energy, and with that higher energy, they have the ability to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, reaching the cells that are producing the compounds essential for its health and vitality. As a result, UV radiation can irreversibly damage tissue, collagen, and even cells. Therefore, when protecting the skin from the sun, what is important is to minimize or to entirely block out the penetration of UV rays. The skin in fact does have its own defense mechanism to prevent UV rays from penetrating. It produces melanin, a natural barrier that exists when we tan, but unfortunately it is not an effective one. We should also not disregard IR rays, whilst they may be less damaging in the long term, the fact that they increase the temperature of the objects they radiate, can result in burns, redness and in extreme cases blistering, which ultimately leads to permanent damage of all skin layers.
So, in order to protect our skin from the harmful effects of the sun we apply an SPF and protection is its only purpose. Whether the SPF is organic (chemical) or inorganic (mineral), the active ingredients are not necessary for the health of the skin.
Organic SPF are carbon-based compounds with specific bonds that can absorb light in within the UV spectrum, resulting in bond cleavage and the subsequent formation of the infamous free radicals. Free radicals are very reactive intermediates which can permanently modify the structure of those molecules they react with. They are the same as those that UV radiation causes to collagen, DNA and other skin compounds and substances. And because they react with almost anything they contact with; they are not selective in what they can damage.
The mechanistic action of inorganic SPF against the sun’s damaging rays is less understood. An inorganic SPF is believed to cause a protective physical barrier for the skin, through which the rays simply cannot penetrate. However, more recent research is pointing to the fact that these inorganic filters, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, absorb radiation and transform into other compounds, but the exact mechanism and effect of those on the skin is far less understood.
Therefore regardless of the type of SPF used, whilst applying these actives does not result in a health benefit to the skin, and in fact can be damaging to its vitality, the alternative of not applying them when exposed to the sun’s rays might not be an option You could however consider other alternatives such as minimizing your exposure to the sun, or putting in place other physical barriers such as hats, sunglasses or parasols. Enjoying the outdoors remains essential to our well-being as we know there are so many benefits, including the transformation of vitamin D precursors to vitamin D, a hormone that regulates so many vital functions, and is arguably responsible for boosting one’s mood.
Like the sun, screen devices radiate light of many different wavelengths, mostly visible, the so-called “blue light” in the range 400 to 455 nm. Why blue? Because you are supposed to see it. Whilst it can be harmful to your eyes, there is unlikely to be any effect on your skin, as visible light is unlikely to be able to penetrate it. In fact, your skin doesn’t mechanistically react toward the radiation emitted by monitors, TVs or even lightbulbs by producing melanin. In other words, you are not likely to get tanned no matter how long you sit in front of a monitor, or under your desk lamp, which also radiates blue light. We also know that whilst UV light is scientifically proven to be the one responsible for skin damage leading to spots, premature aging, wrinkles and ultimately melanoma, and that screens do emit UV rays and even X-rays, the intensity is so low as to not have long term consequences for your skin.
It is important however, not to overlook the fact that even though the effects of blue light from screens should not be regarded as directly damaging to the skin, they can still be harmful to us, as prolonged exposure is likely to adversely affect eyesight, your eyes being more vulnerable to visible radiation, and less obvious, they could be toxic for our mental health, which is also a vital ingredient for a healthy, glowing skin. Good skin starts with a healthy mind and stress can have terrible consequences on the skin. Too many hours in front of a screen can mean little, poor or even no sleep, as well as a heightened state of anxiety, manifested in symptoms including premature skin aging, which in turn can be compounded by a lack of oxygenation and greater exposure to dry air, as a direct consequence of indoor living. Clearly an SPF is not going to protect you against these effects.
One final thought, modern TVs operate just like monitors, they are simply “screens”. Many of us can attest to the fact that during the Covid lockdowns, exposure to TV was unusually long. Should this not have led to a call to recommend SPF when watching TV ? The cynic in me would say that it was already too late, as TV exposure has been with us for too long to now claim that it may be harmful to our skin, and thereby “make up” a reason to sell product. And the difference, this time the beauty industry has been quick to seize the marketing opportunity.