We all know that staring at screens for hours is making us stupid, damaging our eyesight, ruining our sleep patterns, shortening our concentration spans and probably killing us. But here’s some news that might make even the most ardent selfie-taker throw their phone in the sea – all that blue light from our screens might be making us look older. Cue The Scream emoji. Yes, we can now add “Screen Face” to the list of afflictions allegedly caused by our dependence on digital technology – along with Text Neck and Cellphone Elbow. What a time to be alive.
The purported culprit is the high-energy visible light (HEV – otherwise known as blue light) emitted by our devices, which some experts within the beauty industry claim could be as ageing as sun damage – and which is becoming the new buzzword in beauty. “High-energy visible light refers to the higher-frequency, shorter wavelengths of light in the violet-blue band in the visible spectrum,” says Andrew Birnie, a dermatologist and skin-cancer specialist at the William Harvey and Kent and Canterbury Hospitals. “HEV is present in daylight, but it’s also emitted by fluorescent lighting and LEDs, including TV screens, smartphones, tablets and computers.” The idea that this could be doing permanent damage is a fresh kind of hell.
The question of whether blue light is damaging has been preoccupying phototherapists and dermatologists for a while. Previously, though, companies have focused on fears about eyesight, memory and sleep, with companies like Ocushield selling ‘shields’ to place over your screen. Now, the conversation has moved towards skin ageing.
“There’s a lot of research being done at the moment into the effects of visible light,” says Birnie – light that can be seen by the human eye, unlike ultraviolet light such as UVA and UVB – of which HEV is just one example. “I recently got back from the American Academy of Dermatology meeting and one of the things that was being discussed there was whether visible light such as HEV or infra red ought to be protected against in sunscreens.” He’s clear, though, that “there’s no evidence of HEV causing skin cancer”.
In 2015, New York-based beauty brand Make was one of the first to cater to the device-dependent neurotic with its Moonlight Primer ($55), which purports to “shield against … HEV Light emitted from electronic devices and diminish the impact of Infrared Light”. Since then a broad spectrum of beauty brands, from Soap Glory to Lancome, promote the HEV-blocking properties of their products. If the beauty industry has its way, “HEV” is soon likely to become as much of a packaging buzzword as SPF was at the start of the 1990s. If you haven’t noticed it on shelves, you soon will.
But is there any scientific evidence behind “screen face”? According to Birnie, there is some data suggesting that “darker skin types could experience worsening skin pigmentation after exposure to visible light, such as melasma around the forehead and eyes”; he points to a study from 2014 which found that blue light did produce more hyper-pigmentation than UVB. Even that doesn’t conclusively support the “screen face” theory, however, given that blue light is present in sunlight as well as screen light. “I do occasionally have patients who say to me: ‘I’m using a broad-spectrum, five-star SPF50 product every day and I’m still having problems with skin darkening,’” Bernie continues, “So maybe HEV explains why. But, that’s a very small amount of people and there’s no evidence that the HEV is coming from their devices.”
Interestingly, the high street has cottoned on to the idea that blue light could be coming at us from both our screens and from sunlight: this season, Uniqlo is selling prescription-free sunglasses and spectacles fitted with blue-light reduction filters.
Jean-Louis Sebagh, a celebrity cosmetic surgeon and skincare expert, subscribes to the notion that we should all be wearing a sunscreen and a “screen-screen”. “HEV can be as damaging to the skin as UVA and UVB combined,” he claims, citing another study, from 2013, which was commissioned by Lipo Chemicals. It claims that “the effects of HEV are the same as UVA and UVB damage: uneven pigmentation, premature ageing and impaired barrier function, though of course you wouldn’t get the burning redness that you get from overexposure to the sun”. Still, the study, like many beauty studies, was commissioned by a skincare company, in this instance, Lipo Chemicals, a personal care ingredients supplier based in the US, so there is the potential for some bias.
Sebagh certainly has enough belief in HEV to launch a new product. The latest moisturiser from his eponymous skincare brand Dr Sebagh – the Supreme Day Cream (£145) – contains a “fractionated melanin compound formulated to shield the skin from High Blue/Violet visible light”. While Sebagh admits that for some “other” skincare companies, HEV is potentially just another marketing opportunity, he insists that HEV could be a source of premature ageing and that “given how much time we all spend in front of screens now, HEV-exposure is something everyone – not just the selfie generation – should be thinking about.”
But before you start Slip, Slap, Slopping on Snapchat, it is worth remembering that most of the dermatologists I spoke to for this article – including Andrew Birnie – remain sceptical about the extent of skin damage caused by HEV. “Until more research is done, people are better off just using broad-spectrum, five-star UVA protection every day,” he says. “Many people still don’t realise that UVA can penetrate through glass and is consistent throughout the year, not just in summer. 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.”