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Is blue light making us age faster?

August 18th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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From the light emitted by our laptops to craning over our smartphone screens, tech is said to be triggering early onset wrinkles, fine lines and pigmentation. Are our fears well founded? We asked the experts...

Ageing: it’s happening guys. Nothing stands in Old Master Time’s way (apart from maybe retinol), but most of us know that there are steps that we can take to both boost our health and preserve our youthful vigour. At the risk of echoing the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s Wear Sunscreen, here’s the gist in a list: eat well most of the time, move as much as possible, don’t smoke, say no to drugs, establish a grown up and sensible sleep pattern, protect yourself from the sun, see friends often, chill out and throw in a glass of red when the mood takes you (perhaps not yet totally official advice but...should be). Thanks to the pace of modern life, some of the above can prove hard to juggle, but the news that light emitted from our smartphones, computers and tablets could be accelerating ageing is just about tipping us over the edge. What’s the deal with this supposed new sagginess culprit, and given that we spend the vast majority of our time face to face with a screen (this makes me feel a bit sad inside), is there anything that we can realistically do to ward off the evil light? Also, did someone just make this up to make us feel bad? Basically, help.

The light that’s causing such a fuss is also known as ‘blue light’, which is often blamed for disrupting our sleep patterns. Leading aesthetic doctor, ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon Dr Maryam Zamani explains exactly what it is, and how it could potentially be affecting our skin:

“HEV, also known as high energy visible light is high frequency, high energy light that is in the violet/blue band from 400-500 nm.”

“It has been implicated as a cause of age-related macular degeneration and most recently has raised concerns as being as harmful as damage caused by UVA and UVB combined.”

Right. That’s quite a scary proposition there. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Rachael Eckel outlines where the research is at:

“Studies conducted to evaluate the effect of HEV exposure demonstrated damaging effects to the epidermal and dermal tissues, mediated via the generation of a variety of reactive oxygen species. This results in indirect DNA damage and gene activation of matrix metalloproteinase enzymes (MMPs), which degrade the dermal fiber network leading to premature ageing.”

So far, not so good. It appears that HEV light could be the ninja of skin ageing; silent but deadly in terms of early onset lines and dark spots. Dr Zamani expands on HEV light’s quiet campaign to compromise cell repair:

“HEV light is silent, meaning that it does not generate immediate erythema (reddening of the skin) or edema (swelling), as UV rays can trigger. HEV light can weaken our barrier function, accelerate photo-ageing and suppress healing, but infrared light and UVA/B rays penetrate deeper into our skin as opposed to light in the visible spectrum.”

Unfortunately, the fact that it doesn’t run deep doesn’t limit its capacity to impair skin function, as Dr Eckel reveals:

“In a landmark microarray gene expression study, it was determined that HEV light affects 40 separate skin specific genes. The researchers further deduced that HEV causes inflammation due to the scores of free radicals generated, and further prevents the progression of inflammation to a healing state. This occurs primarily at the stage where immune cells seek the damaged tissue. By slowing the healing process, more cells remain in a state of senescence (deterioration with age), thereby hindering barrier recovery and perpetuating cellular ageing.”

As our understanding into the effects of different wavelengths has broadened, so have our tools to shield against such challenges

Not all scientists and skincare experts are in agreement that there’s sufficient concrete evidence as to the detrimental impact of HEV light on our skin, but there is one less than ideal side-effect of HEV light that looks highly likely to be legit according to Dr Zamani:

“HEV light can worsen melasma (pigmentation that can also be known as the ‘pregnancy mask). There is convincing data suggesting that this type of light is an important factor in the development of melasma.”

In terms of treating pigmentation, there’s a wealth of clinically tested products on the market, but how about if we want to screen out HEV light as best we can, regardless of the current gaps in research? Dr Eckel gives us a tip-off as to what to look out for:

“As our understanding into the effects of different wavelengths has broadened, so have our tools to shield against such challenges. Melanin, a widely occurring pigment within the animal and plant kingdom, has long been considered photoprotective (able to cope with molecular damage caused by sunlight). Released by melanocytes as a first line of defense against UV exposure, melanin broadly protects against light at all wavelengths. The photophysical properties of human melanin are however limited, with relatively low absorbance in the HEV region.”

“In order to capitalize on melanin’s photobiologic nature and HEV protection, a plant derivative was custom engineered. This fractionated melanin compound (Liposhield® HEV Melanin), is the first cosmetic ingredient purposely designed to protect skin from damaging HEV rays. It maximally absorbs light in the visible range of 400-500 nm, while still allowing the penetration of beneficial red light. In one gene expression study, 0.5 % fractionated melanin applied to HEV irradiated skin showed no change to any of the 40 skin specific genes. Moreover, it is designed to yield eight hours of continuous protection and with a high molecular weight, it will not penetrate skin.”

“While fractionated melanin is a formidable UV protective ingredient, it is also indispensable when treating and maintaining conditions of pigmentation. Visible light is known to magnify hyperpigmentation and melasma. Studies have demonstrated that melasma clearance is improved when broad-spectrum UV sunscreens with a visible light absorbing pigment are utilized, compared with a UV-only broad-spectrum sunscreen. Considering that one in every four women are dissatisfied with their uneven complexion, fractionated melanin is a formidable sunscreen ingredient.”

If you’re after a sunscreen that fits the bill in terms of HEV light protection, Dr Eckel recommends the ZO Skin Health Oclipse range, while Dr Zamani has a few more tricks up her sleeve in terms of ingredients to prioritise if you suspect that your HEV exposure is on the high side:

“Other ingredients that can aid in the prevention damage are titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide; they work by reflecting high energy visible light near the top part of the UVA spectrum.”

Despite the screentime freakouts, Dr Zamani thinks that we’re needn’t throw the kitchen sink (or our pay packets) at the problem just yet:

“While we should ALWAYS wear broad-spectrum sunscreen, we should not go overboard in buying the latest creams boasting results when we do not yet have the science to back it. That being said, it is also very possible that science will prove this correlation, just as we now know that pollution affects the skin.”

Hearing from a pro that you should hold your horses for the moment is heartening, but do be extra cautious when using blue light emitting screens outside. Dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall outlines why sun and screens can be a particularly unfavourable combination:

“It’s worth noting that using a laptop or phone outdoors causes an increase in exposure to UVB and UVA light due to the reflective qualities of the screen. This increased concentration of UV exposure along with the exposure to HEV light is prompting experts to strongly recommend covering up skin and wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen whilst using them outside. When choosing a sunscreen it is important to consider its broad spectrum qualities to protect against UVB and UVA but also longer wavelengths we see with visible light.”

Turns out Baz was right all along.

Tempted to try a digital detox? Read how Christa D’Souza got on here

Follow Anna on Instagram @annyhunter

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