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Is Blue Light Really Ageing Your Skin?

By Renée Batchelor

Top Photo Corporation

When Joni Mitchell sang about the “blue TV screen light” way back in 1971, she would not have possibly known that along with cigarettes and UV exposure, that screen time was yet another possible cause of skin ageing. While UV rays, cigarettes and pollution have long been the usual suspects of skin ageing (thanks to extensive studies), you can now add one more thing to the list: the blue light emitted from the electronic and digital devices we use daily. 

Blue light is short, high-energy wavelengths on the blue end of the visible light spectrum, and while a lot of it actually comes from the sun, it is also emitted from the LED lights found in our TVs, smartphones, tablets and computers. And for everyone who has dared to glimpse at their weekly screen time on their phones, or who spends at least 40 hours in front of the computer each work week, this is not mere incidental exposure, but an integral, long-term routine in our modern lives. It is generally acknowledged, and pretty well documented, that daytime exposure to some blue light has its benefits — it’s a mood-lifter, helps memory and boosts mental alertness. On the flip side, researchers from Harvard have reported on the dark side of blue light exposure at night: it suppresses melatonin — a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycles — in the skin for twice as long as green light. This is is why it is generally recommended that you stay away from your screens for at least a few hours before bedtime. Circadian rhythm aside, the blue light’s true impact on skin and the ageing process has not been definitively pinpointed. This, however, has not stopped some skincare brands from creating products to protect skin against this potential new threat. 

How does blue light harm our skin? According to Jose Ginestar, the scientific director of luxury skincare brand Sisley, we must first distinguish between the different kinds of blue light. “We distinguish between blue-turquoise light and blue-violet light. Blue-turquoise light is rather beneficial and helps regulate the circadian rhythm — the body’s natural sleep and wake cycles. Inversely, the light emitted by our screens, the blue-violet light, is harmful to skin because it is very close to UV wavelengths,” explains Ginestar. “Blue light penetrates deeply into all layers of the skin and causes, at the skin level, significant oxidative stress (the amount of free-radicals generated into the skin exceeds the natural skin defenses and a reaction of oxidation occurs), dehydration, inflammatory reactions and contributes to the ageing of the skin by stimulating the production of enzymes that degrade the constituents of the dermis. That’s why it is necessary to protect the skin well,” says Ginestar. 

SisleYouthSisleYouth’s Anti-Pollution Energizing Super Hydrating Youth Protector, S$245
SisleYouth’s Anti-Pollution Energizing Super Hydrating Youth Protector, S$245

It is not surprising then that skincare brands have started to create products that work at curbing or lessening the effects of all forms of pollution and UV exposure. Sisley’s new SisleYouth Anti-Pollution Energizing Super Hydrating Youth Protector comes with a blue light shield — to protect against all kinds of pollution, whether indoor, outdoor or from new technology. “This powerful protective complex is composed of some key ingredients (buckwheat seed, ginkgo biloba, pea and vitamin E acetate). Together, it acts to strengthen the skin’s resistance, to create a natural protective shield against a pollution attack. This formula focuses on the optimisation of the natural skin’s shield,” says Ginestar. 

Luxury beauty brand Chantecaille has a Blue Light Protection Hyaluronic Serum, that not only plumps the skin, but contains a fermented extract from a radiation-resistant microorganism to enable the skin to adapt to visible light, thus lessening any resultant brown spots and wrinkles. It also contains nasturtium flower extract to revitalise skin that has been overexposed to blue light. “We have used different natural ingredients like fermented extracts that will help to protect and repair your skin from overexposure to blue light. At the same time, there is a blend of hyaluronic acids focusing on 360° hydration on the skin and red sage root extract for any environmental stress that causes inflammation and redness,” says Harvey Tsao, the regional manager of Asia for Chantecaille. The brand recommends wearing this under your moisturiser with UVA and UVB sun protection on top. 

ChantecailleChantecaille’s Blue Light Protection Hyaluronic Serum, S$250. Available from July 2019.
Chantecaille’s Blue Light Protection Hyaluronic Serum, S$250. Available from July 2019.

But will this “more is more” approach to fighting the causes of ageing work on your skin? 

Dr Rachel Ho, who practices at La Clinic, has her own thoughts on the impact of blue light. “There is a lot of concern that blue light from electronic devices can accelerate the signs of ageing in the skin. This is a valid concern. We are also seeing a trend where skincare companies are releasing products like sunscreen that claim to combat the damage from blue light from electronic devices. So far the studies that are available for the impact of blue light exposure on the skin have been equivocal and limited to mostly very small studies and in vitro studies (cells in petri dishes), which means that we have to be careful in interpreting the results,” says Dr Ho, who adds that studies have shown that blue light has a propensity to cause pigmentation formation in people with darker skin, which is an opposite phenomenon from UV light. And while most of the data shows that blue light accelerates the signs of ageing in the skin by breaking down collagen in the skin and causing free radical damage to the cell structures, it would take a large dose of blue light (both in terms of time exposed and intensity) to see these changes. 

“In comparison, our daily exposure to UV rays causes more significant damage than blue light. My conclusion is that while there is an impact, not to be too worried about the damage from blue light devices. You do not have to deliberately cut down on using your electronic devices if you are worried about damage to the skin. Although there is some data to show that blue light causes damage to the skin; it has been limited to mainly in vitro studies. However, if you have a darker complexion, you are at a higher risk of developing pigmentation,” she says. 

Dr Ho believes there are ingredients we can use to protect our skin from these factors though there is no true filter for blue light in the same way there is for UV light. “Currently, there is no filter available against blue light. One way to protect against the damage caused by blue light is to use antioxidants in your daily skincare routine. This is because the postulated mechanism of damage by blue light is by free radical damage to the skin and cell structures and antioxidants help to scavenge or neutralise the free radicals. One antioxidant that I would recommend is vitamin C because it is very well studied and it is safe even for pregnant and nursing mothers,” says Dr Ho. 

She also notes that despite what some sunscreens claim, sunscreen filters are not able to block out blue light. “There are some sunscreens that claim to offer protection against blue light and if you read their ingredient list carefully, you will also find that the protection that they are offering is some form of antioxidant rather than a true filter for blue light. My advice is to always use a topical antioxidant if you are considering protection against blue light; these sunscreens with antioxidants do not really have a high enough concentration of antioxidants to offer much help,” she says. 

Hence, there are other skincare brands who are not yet ready to jump on the blue light-blocking bandwagon until they are very sure of the efficacy of their products. Rupert Schmid, the president of cult skincare brand Biologique Recherche acknowledges the blue light trend, but says the brand will not be making any products specific to the phenomenon in the near future. “For the blue light of the computer, we believe — and we have been at the head of research for the past three to four years that there is no reality in what the brands are claiming with their blue light products. We have not launched a blue light product because we do not believe this is really impacting your beauty. We are working on blue light... it doesn’t mean that we have not done [a product] that we are not looking at it. It just means that we are really unclear about [whether] it’s really worth a cream or not,” says Schmid.