Turn Out the Lights: New Studies Show Energy-Efficient Bulbs Can Damage Skin

Photo: Getty/Caroline Thompkins
A teeny, tiny "I told you so" secretly sparked within me when I heard that there are studies showing that visible light—the kind you see flooding out of fluorescent office fixtures or LED bulbs—could be damaging your skin. After years of welcoming guests to lounge areas illuminated almost exclusively by candles and nights spent at dinner parties searching for dimmers to take down the too-bright overheads, I felt like a subconscious instinct had been validated. And while the research is preliminary, it’s a good time to start tuning in—and turning off—whenever possible.

“New evidence has been published that [shows] high-energy visible light (HEVL), which is emitted from energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs and LED lights, can cause ROS-mediated photoaging and inflammation in the skin,” says dermatologist Bradley Bloom, MD, of Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. For those unfamiliar with the term ROS (most everyone?), it stands for "reactive oxygen species," which we've known for years are responsible for creating free-radical damage within the skin when it's exposed to UV light from the sun. Free-radical damage, or oxidative damage, can create problems within the skin that are wide-ranging, including acne, pigmentation, eczema, collagen degradation... the list goes on. These burgeoning studies from dermatologist David McDaniel, MD,  indicate that the light from bulbs (which is necessary to simply see) could also be responsible for "atmospheric skin aging," or compromising the health and integrity of our complexions.

This research is finally gaining attention, says Dr. Bloom, because we’re exposed to more artificial light sources than ever before, some of which are emitting HEVL. This type of light, which we refer to often as blue light, is purported to photoage skin more rapidly. “Before artificial lighting was developed, humans essentially only had meaningful blue light exposure during daylight hours,” he explains. “However, with the advent of artificial light sources, we are now exposed to blue light from many different sources.” And the extended exposure of these wavelengths makes things a little more complex for our complexions. While the research is still fresh, he assures us that there’s no reason to panic; instead, it’s worth educating yourself on the light you’re encountering most frequently so that you can protect your skin.

The wavelength matters

Sapna Palep, MD, founder of Manhattan’s Spring Street Dermatology, points out that both the light's intensity and length of exposure make a difference for its impact on the skin. Shorter-wave, intense UV light "causes disproportionately more damage because shorter wavelength means higher energy," Dr. Palep says, "so each light particle that hits your skin has more energy."

However, newer research is finding that the longer wavelengths we're met with from indoor, man-made light sources can also be damaging. While the given exposure of staring at your screen for eight hours might not bear the same consequences as sun-bathing on a beach sans-SPF all day, all the time we spend under LEDs or gazing at our phones adds up. “Even though each particle has less energy, there’s a lot more of them, so it ends up being a ‘death by a thousand paper cuts' situation,” says Dr. Palep. “In particular, the wavelengths in the blue and purple regions (400-500 nm) have been found to be the most damaging.”

The dangers of “blue light” have been well documented, but up to this point, they've been directed mainly at the screens on our devices. It’s easy to forget (or not realize) that the light coming out of that energy-saving bulb you thoughtfully purchased now likely falls into this exact category. But don't fret just yet, there are ways to guard against all of this from happening.

How to protect your skin from this

So you might just be thinking: "Cool, cool, cool, I'll just double down on my SPF," but as it happens, that might not protect you from visible light flooding your home or office the way it will shield you from UV. “Most of the commercially available sunscreens in the drugstore have minimal effects on reducing visible-light-induced ROS, suggesting that broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreens do not protect the skin from visible-light-induced responses,” dermatologist Rita Linkner, MD SAYS. “This is why I recommend my patients use sunscreens that are antioxidant-rich to offset the oxidative stress that comes with visible light, infrared light, and UV light.”

Recent research also points out that foundation wearers could be helping to guard against visible light unknowingly. Iron oxide, which is used to pigment many powders and foundations, has been shown to create a physical barrier between your complexion and the visible light coming at you from your environment. Take note: Iron oxide is not classified as sunscreen and shouldn't be used that way, but if you're looking for added protection from the light around you, it could be helpful. If you're not someone who wears face makeup daily, you can still reap the benefits of iron oxide by using a brush-on SPF such as Colorescience Total Protection Brush On Shield ($65)

Added protection can be especially important for those who have melasma, a form of hyperpigmentation that can worsen with exposure to infrared light. New studies suggest that infrared waves, or those that come from wellness-beloved saunas as well as fluorescent light bulbs, screens, and some sources of heat, can contribute to increased amounts of skin pigmentation. If you find that pigmentation is proliferating on your complexion, opt for a that has infrared blockers such as HydroPeptide Solar Defense Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30 ($48) or Coola Full Spectrum 360° Sun Silk Drops SPF 30 ($46).

While these topical solutions can all add up for robust protection, one of the newer areas of promise comes from ingestible supplements like Heliocare, a plant-based antioxidant from fern called polypodium leucotomos. Clinical studies have shown that this active ingredient has promise to fight free radicals and oxidative damage from the inside out to boost sun protection (and as the thinking goes: light protection, too).

As we continue to learn how new wavelengths are affecting our skin, coupling a robust preventative routine that includes protection from supplements, makeup, and SPF, shed new light on how we can best take care of our complexions, proving that knowledge is power.

If you're not up to date on how blue light affects skin, don't worry, we've got you. And remember: Not all light is bad! These serums are like a laser in a bottle.

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