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Your Cell Phone Is Screwing Up Your Skin

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    Photographed by Rockie Nolan.


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    We know that our cell phones aren’t always good for us. Tech neck, sleep disturbances, eye strain — all actual health concerns. And of course, not cleaning phone screens can lead to serious clogged pores, as well as cheek and chin acne. But the light your phone emits can also affect your skin. Letting there be light can lead to letting there be hyperpigmentation in the form of melasma.

    Melasma — brown or gray patches on the skin — can be caused by sun exposure and hormones (from pregnancy or birth control). Women who tan easily or who have naturally brown skin (Fitzpatrick skin types IV and V) are predisposed to melasma and, thus, more likely to be affected by those triggers. But new research now indicates that indoor activities can also lead to this common skin condition. Get this — all light is suspect, from light bulbs (seriously) to the screen on your phone and computer. Weirdly, though visible light is used for the treatment of skin issues and aesthetic conditions in the form of lasers, intense pulsed light, and photodynamic therapy, it can also lead to causation of these issues, as well. That means visible light sources could be the next vilified thing (take a break, dairy) with regard to your skin.

    “In the last decade we have realized that sun and the birth control pill are not the only melasma culprits,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD. “Research has shown that the visible light from computers, cell phones, and light bulbs can be sources, as well.” As Dr. Gohara explains, these light sources act similar to the sun in that they trigger the skin to produce excess pigment. “That's why sometimes patients don't get better with just standard sunscreen — the other sources continue to tax the skin,” she notes.

    While UV radiation gets all the press, the visible light part of the spectrum had not been thoroughly investigated until recently. In this study from 2015, research showed that multiple exposures with visible light — defined in this case as non-UV light — resulted in darker pigmentation that was more apparent and long-lasting the more frequently that area was exposed. So holding that phone against your cheek for an hour while you talk to your BFF each night could possibly lead to a patch of melasma in that area.

    A 2008 review concluded that there are three different stages of pigmentation: immediate pigment darkening (IPD), persistent pigment darkening (PPD), and delayed tanning (DT). According to the review, IPD appears immediately on the skin but fades anywhere from two to 20 minutes. PPD, which involves higher radiation wavelengths, creates pigmentation that fades between two and 20 hours. Both IPD and PPD are simply affecting your existing melanin. DT, which appears days after exposure, creates new melanin.

    Seemal Desai, MD, notes that direct UV exposure is much more dangerous than visible light, which is why many people often think they only need to wear sunscreen while outdoors. “Remember, melasma is a chronic disease,” Desai notes. “Just like psoriasis can be controlled and managed, so can melasma, but it can also come back with a vengeance. This could be a lifelong struggle,” he explains.

    Are you turning down your screen brightness to barely visible levels? Take a minute and digest that your breakthrough of incandescence is also potentially affecting your skin pigmentation — "Quicker than a ray of light," to quote Madonna.

    Fortunately, there’s a light (heh) at the end of the tunnel. According to Dr. Gohara, physical blocking agents (such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) can block all kinds of light, however it’s iron oxide that’s the real power player in the fight against photodamage.

    Iron oxides are compounds that are used as coloring agents in some cosmetics, as well as a metal polish called jewelers’ rouge. You know iron oxide in its crude form as rust. Products containing this ingredient are “great to have on hand as easy-to-apply barriers against the [light] demons lurking in your office,” Dr. Gohara says.

    Dr. Desai adds that iron oxide-spiked sunscreens are key to skin protection, but “the problem is that this ingredient is not very cosmetically elegant and, therefore, it's not available in lots of products.” Newer formulations, which combine sunscreen and moisturizing products, are on the way, he notes.

    What about the melasma or pigmentation you’ve already racked up? Dr. Desai says that the most effective lightening agents are those that block the enzyme tyrosinase, “the key enzyme in the skin cells that creates melanin.” The most common prescription ingredient is hydroquinone, which he prescribes in 4% or 6% dosing, but if you don’t have a derm or can’t afford a prescription, Dr. Desai says that 2% is available in some products over the counter. He also likes natural lightening agents like ascorbic acid, kojic acid, and arbutin.

    Dr. Tanya Kormeili adds that ingredients like azelaic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, licorice, kojic acid, and various other botanicals may also help reduce less-severe pigmentation. Combining products containing these ingredients with prescription ingredients, such as hydroquinone in medical-grade concentrations, can help remove the pigment from the skin, Kormeili says. She adds, “Chemical peels can help further reduce the amount of pigment already deposited in the skin.” Just be sure to check with your doctor about which ingredients are safe to use with your prescription creams in order to avoid irritation or a skin reaction.

    Now that you know what can cause it, keep clicking for some iron oxide-infused products to keep handy for those marathon phone sessions or late nights spent staring at your laptop.

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