Along with ‘Cellphone Elbow’ and ‘Text Neck’, we may now be able to add ‘Screen Face’ to the list of ails our love of Technology has gifted us. Previous studies have already exposed that the glare from our screens is awarding us sleepless nights and curtailing our attention spans; could it also be ageing our skin and damaging our eyes?…
It wouldn’t be the first time that a wide-spread habit has been heavily adopted with little known risks to our health. Lung cancer was once a very rare disease, so rare that doctors would specially haul in students to observe the once in a lifetime oddity. That was until the 19th century when mechanisation and mass marketing popularised the cigarette habit and it wasn’t until the 1950s that this was linked to the global lung cancer epidemic. Indubitably, cigarette manufacturers publicly rejected these claims as an orchestrated conspiracy to salvage sales. As late as 1960 only 1/3rd of all US doctors believed that the case against cigarettes had been established.
Although ‘screen face’ doesn’t quite measure up to the menace of lung cancer, the side effects of our obsession with all things wireless and robotic, may be at a similar stage in its lifecycle. The latest purported culprit is high-energy visible light (HEV light), aka blue-violet or violet light at the end of the visible light spectrum.
The Risks of HEV light
Like UV light from the sun, HEV light comes with both of its own perks and perils. Sunlight is actually the main source of HEV light and this is what makes the sky look blue. Man-made indoor sources include LEDs, televisions, mobiles and laptops to name a few. The amount of HEV emitted by such devices is only a fraction of that of the sun, however the amount of time people spend on such equipment and its proximity to their faces is enough to have doctors raising concerns.
The eye is not very good at blocking blue light. Even if you aren’t wearing sunglasses less than 1% of UV light reaches the sensitive retina cells at the back of the eye, thanks to blockage from the cornea and lens at the front of the eye. Conversely virtually all visible blue light passes through the eye onto the retina. According to laboratory studies on animals, this can increase the risk of a condition known as macular degeneration, which would permanently affect vision later on in life.
Blue light also contributes to digital eye strain. Short-wavelength high energy light scatters more easily than other visible light (hence why the sky is blue) therefore it is not as easily focused. Research has shown that lenses that block some of these wavelengths (less than 450nm) can help reduce this effect over extended periods of time.
What are the benefits of Blue Light?
It should be noted that not all blue light is bad and in fact some exposure is essential for good health, just as with UV rays. Research has demonstrated that HEV light boosts alertness, cognitive function and memory and can elevate mood. Light therapy is often used to treat people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression that manifests in the winter months when there is a lack of sun.
Blue light is also necessary for regulating the bodies circadian rhythm. This is why exposure to light during the day is beneficial but the use of tablets and smartphones before bed can disrupt your sleep cycle by affecting melatonin production.
What should be done, if anything?
Dermatologists are currently debating whether or not suncreens should add HEV protection to their SPF. There is not yet any evidence that HEV light has a causal link with skin cancer, yet many high street brands have been quick to introduce ‘computer glasses’, sunglasses that offer blue light protection or creams with an HEV filter for the overly cautious. I must confess to having ordered a pair of HEV-blocking, prescription-free technology glasses myself…
Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh is a celebrity cosmetic surgeon who purports that we should all be wearing both sunscreen and screen-screen. He credits a study by Lipo Chemicals for demonstrating a link between HEV light and poor skin health (pigmentation, reduced barrier function and wrinkles). Nevertheless there will undoubtedly be some bias in a study commissioned by a skincare ingredients supplier and cited by a doctor with his own line of HEV-blocking creams (at £145 a pot).
In spite of all the flap around Blue Light, many dermatologists advise that UV light is still the main culprit of skin ageing, cancer and eye damage. If you’re about to embark on a digital detox by flying somewhere sunny and remote, bear in mind that the primary focus should still be on the very end of the light spectrum.