The Scary Connection Between Technology & Skin-Aging

Photo: Getty Images.
It's no secret that the media likes to take a provocative idea and blow it a bit out of proportion. Take, for example, recent headlines linking selfies and premature aging.

The concept is certainly click-y: Rays emitted by technology — like phones, computers, and TVs — could be negatively impacting your skin. Some articles have even gone so far as to say that these rays are more dangerous than UV rays from the sun. Which, we don't even have to tell you, is an irresponsible claim to make without some serious scientific studies on your side. And, we'll just squash this one now: No rays are more dangerous than UV.

While comparing a selfie to a day in the sun may seem best suited for the cover of a grocery-store tabloid (right next to the headline stating Tom Cruise is an alien), we decided to take a closer look since the idea has been slowly simmering for a while now.

To wit: A slew of beauty brands have responded to the growing concern by releasing products that seek to block the rays coming from your favorite gadgets. From cool-kid New York line Make to science-backed SkinMedica, to derm-created formulas like Nassif MD, more and more reputable companies are investing in selfie-blocking skin care.

Naturally, the question of the hour is: Is this something I actually need worry about?

These rays aren’t causing cancer directly. But it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

Michael Swann, MD
Rays 101
First, it's important to understand the rays these products seek to block are very different from UV rays. The two types of rays you should be aware of are High Energy Visible (HEV) light and Infrared (IR) light, both of which can be emitted by technology — and are the ones garnering headlines. Forgive the grade-school analogy, but consider different types of light cousins: related, but very different.

"It all has to do with the spectrum of light in general," says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, board-certified dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. All light travels on wavelengths measured in nanometers (some of which can damage skin). Stay with us, because it is actually pretty simple: The light you can see (including HEV light) falls between 400 and 800 nanometers and is generally safe for skin. The types of light your eye cannot see are UV light, which rings in on the opposite side of this spectrum at around 200 to 300, and IR light, which is above the spectrum at over 800. Thus, IR is a bigger concern than HEV, but although it may appear so, is still not as dangerous as UV. The reason HEV is such a focus right now is it's the light closest to UV light (falling somewhere between 400 and 500 nanometers).
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
So What's Damaging My Skin & What's Not?
"There are two basic types of radiation: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation," board-certified dermatologist Michael Swann, MD, says. "Ionizing means that when those wavelengths hit your DNA, it causes mutations." This includes UV rays and X-rays, he explains, both of which we know are dangerous without proper protection.

HEV and IR, however, are grouped with things like microwaves and radio waves, and are considered non-ionizing radiation. So while they do penetrate your skin, scientists don't believe that they actually alter your DNA. What does that mean? "These rays aren’t causing cancer directly," Dr. Swann says. "But it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant."

So, What's The Problem?
The good news is that these rays are not believed to cause DNA mutations, so unlike with UV rays, cancer isn't something scientists are worried about when it comes to your selfies or extended periods of time in front of your computer. So what are the risks? Melasma and brown spots — maybe.

Dr. Tanzi says this is likely more of an issue for people who are prone to hyperpigmentation. "It hasn’t been scientifically proven, but there is research going on to see if this is a real phenomenon," she says. That means currently, the biggest risk IR rays pose is causing or exacerbating discoloration.

But know that this is just a suspicion, and the amount of IR light coming from your devices is negligible at best. How do we know? Because IR light, while it cannot be seen, can be felt as heat. "The amount that can come from your phone or your TV is going to be very, very small," Dr. Swann says. "And I don’t know how often you feel heat from your computer, but I don’t. However, small amounts of exposure in mass quantities could prove to be an issue."

I’m a little skeptical on how much danger there actually is, but never say never...

Elizabeth Tanzi, MD
HEV light, on the other hand, isn't so easy to detect. "There is real data that visible light could be one of the important factors in melasma," Dr. Swann says. His advice, at least until the science proving this rolls in fully, is to choose a sunscreen that has physical, not just chemical, blockers, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. (Just check the label, as it will tell you what the active ingredients are.) He says that even tinted sunscreen or heavy makeup can help guard against these HEV rays, since they are physically blocking the light from reaching your skin. Just another reason to wear sunscreen every day.

"There is some evidence to suggest that tinted physical block sunscreens do a better job in the long haul for patients that have pigmentary disorders, as opposed to chemical sunscreens," he says.

As for the products mentioned above that claim to repel them sans physical barrier? "It's hard for me to believe that a sunscreen blocks IR unless they have some real science to show me," he says. Translation: Don't invest just yet, as the science isn't quite there.

The Verdict
You should never feel warmth coming from your device's screen, which is your body telling you to back away to avoid soaking up these IR rays — as we discussed above, this can damage your skin by creating inflammation. Dr. Swann notes the real issue with IR light is damage to your eyes — as if you needed another reason to add distance between you and your screen.

As for HEV light? While it could be something we'll need to worry about one day, Dr. Swann reminds us to stop and think before we spend money on products that are not backed by science, especially when we could simply sit further back from the computer.

"We’re really early in our investigations of what can be happening on the skin," Dr. Tanzi adds. "I’m a little skeptical on how much danger there actually is, but never say never — we didn’t think pollution was an issue until the past decade, when research proved how damaging it can be to the skin."

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