On October 19, YouTube creator Rachel “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, currently the most-watched female streamer, announced the launch of RFLCT, a skin-care line designed to protect against blue-light pollution from the screen. The line was quickly met with criticism and concern, however, from her fans, fellow creators, and Reddit users alike regarding the legitimacy of its claims positioning artificial blue light as a threat to our skin. Unable to publish its own research and citing gender discrimination in response to the backlash, RFLCT announced its termination less than two weeks later.
While ultimately unsuccessful in its launch, RFLCT did succeed in one aspect of its mission: Everyone’s talking about blue-light skin-care.
Hofstetter is not the first to put out a line like this. In fact, there are plenty of other examples of skin-care products claiming to protect against blue light that we at R29 have previously covered. But in the aftermath of the RFLCT controversy — and considering how much more time we are spending in front of our screens since the start of the pandemic — we decided it was time to revisit this nuanced topic and do a refresh on what we actually do know about how blue light affects our skin.
Let’s start off with the basics: What exactly is blue light? “Blue light is part of what's considered the visible part of the light spectrum,” says Dr. Alicia Zalka, a board-certified dermatologist and Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. Blue light, also known as high energy visible (HEV) light, sits right next to the ultraviolet spectrum, as it is similar in wavelength and intensity. “The most common source of blue light comes from the sun, but it is also emitted at lower levels from our light bulbs and personal electronic devices,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Ultraviolet light — along with certain visible light, including blue light — can create what are called reactive oxygen species in the skin, explains Dr Zalka. “What these species do is they create a cascade chemical and other processes in the skin that break down things like collagen and elastin,” she says. “This can end up damaging skin by causing it to lose elasticity or worsen pigmentation.” This is the reason we seek out products with antioxidants, she says, which act like sponges that pick up these reactive oxygen species.
What we know about how ultraviolet light affects the skin — how it can lead to skin cancer and cause premature signs of aging — is far more robust and conclusive than what we know about blue light. “Ultraviolet damage is almost written in stone at this point, as it has been studied very in-depth and for many years,” says Dr. Zalka. The sample size of studies on ultraviolet light is simply far greater in scale. “[With blue light], we're talking about studies that are a little bit older and that need to be updated,” she says. “The studies that do exist that are more current are very few in number.” When companies casually compare skin-care products with blue-light protection to those with UV-protection (“It’s like SPF, but for the screen!”), it is arguably not an equal — or fair — comparison.
In terms of what we do know about how blue light affects the skin, Dr. Zalka says it is a “mixed bag.” A 2010 study found that blue light has the potential to worsen melasma in individuals with darker skin tones, but recently, Dr. Zalka says researchers have been pulling back on this recommendation. She points to a 2019 study in which researchers exposed one side of individuals’ faces to high-intensity blue light for eight hours at a time over the course of five days, ultimately concluding that this type of exposure did not worsen melasma lesions. “For those that suffer with melasma, I think we can rest assured that perhaps we're not getting as much damage as we thought from just being at a desk,” Dr. Zalka says, “but it is still damage that may be causing other issues, like loss of elasticity, that we may not desire.”
The amount of exposure you are getting to blue light is important to consider, as well, since targeted and controlled amounts of blue light can actually benefit the skin. The most common ways we use blue light to treat the skin, Dr. Zalka explains, are in targeting precancerous lesions known as Actinic Keratosis (i.e. sun damage spots), certain types of skin cancer, acne, and psoriasis. Common to all of these treatments is the fact that the blue light exposure is targeted, controlled, and does not affect the rest of the skin in the process, therefore keeping it safe.
The amount of blue-light exposure we get on a typical day depends, of course, on one’s personal lifestyle, taking into consideration how much time they are spending outdoors, how sunny it is that day, and how much time they spend in front of a screen. Dr. Zalka calls out, however, that artificial blue-light exposure from the screens is fractional compared to natural blue-light exposure from the sun.
“The amount of blue-light exposure you would get on an average sunny day is 1,000 times more than the amount of exposure you would get sitting in front of a screen,” she explains, pointing back to the same previous 2019 study. To frame it another way, dermatologist Dr. Dray explains in a YouTube video reacting to RFLCT that “worrying about the blue light from your computer screen is like wearing a life jacket to drink a glass of water: You’re not going to drown.” In medicine, she says, “it’s not the poison, it’s the dose.”
While blue-light exposure from screens may be negligible, we can’t yet rule out the extent to which it damages our skin, as it is still a developing and ongoing topic. At the very least, what we know about how natural blue light from the sun affects our skin is enough to warrant adding an element of blue-light protection to your routine. “The science we do know about these reactive oxidative species is that it’s not great for the skin,” Dr Zalka reminds us. “They can break down skin cells and cause premature cell death, speeding up the skin losing its strength.” It’s important to remember, she calls out, that this type of damage is cumulative — once it’s logged in the skin, it cannot be turned back.
So what types of products, if any, are best to protect against blue light? “Tinted mineral sunscreens can provide primary protection by blocking penetration of blue light into the skin to begin with,” recommends Dr. Zeichner. “The iron-oxide pigments in the tinted sunscreens are the heavy hitter: They not only provide the tinted colour, but reflect blue light away from the skin.”
Dr. Zalka suggests the same: “Tinted sunscreen, tinted makeup, tinted lipstick — anything that's got some pigment in it will actually provide a better shield.” Antioxidants, as well, are good ingredients to look out for, not as a shield from blue light but rather as a means of repair. “Antioxidants may not so much as block the high energy visible light, but they can act as a repair mechanism against the type of free radicals that form from blue light exposure,” she says.
While the conversation surrounding blue-light skin-care is still ongoing, it’s important to consider where to wage your wars when it comes to your routine: “I think the greater battle here is the ultraviolet light,” says Dr. Zalka, “the outdoor exposure to both the visible light and the ultraviolet light.” So while we await more studies on blue light to come out in order to form a clearer consensus, may we suggest a tinted sunscreen in the meantime?