YouTube creator Rachel “Valkyrae” Hofstetter announced the launch of RFLCT, a skin-care product that protects against blue-light pollution. 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 isn’t the only one to have a product like this. There are many other skin-care products that claim to block blue light, which we have covered. In the wake of the RFLCT controversy, however, we decided to revisit this topic – 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? Dr. Alicia Zalka says that blue light is part what’s called the visible portion of the light spectrum. Alicia Zalka is a Yale School of Medicine Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology and a board-certified dermatologist. Because it has a similar wavelength and intensity to the ultraviolet spectrum blue light is also called high energy visible (HEV). Dr. Zeichner says that blue light is emitted from light bulbs and other electronic devices at lower levels than the sun. However, it is the most prevalent source. Joshua Zeichner, Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Dr Zalka explains that ultraviolet light can cause reactive oxygen species in skin. This is also true for certain visible light such as blue light. She explains that these species create a cascade of chemical reactions and other processes within the skin that reduce things like collagen or elastin. “This can cause skin to lose elasticity and worsen pigmentation,” she warns. This is why we look for products that contain antioxidants.”
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. Dr. Zalka says that ultraviolet damage is almost a fact of life, having been extensively studied over many years. Studies on ultraviolet light are much larger in size. She says that studies on blue light are older and need to be updated. “The studies that are more recent are very few. Companies casually compare blue-light protection products to UV-protection products.”
Dr. Zalka explains that we know very little about the effects of blue light on the skin. A 2010 study found that blue light can worsen melasma among people with darker skin tones. However, Dr. Zalka claims that researchers are now rethinking this recommendation. She cites a 2019 research in which one side of the faces was exposed to high-intensity light for eight hours over five days. The researchers concluded that this exposure did not cause melasma lesion worsening. “For those with melasma, we can be sure that we are not suffering as much from sitting at a desk,” Dr. Zalka states. “But it is still damage that could be causing other problems, such as loss of elasticity that we may not wish.”
It is important to think about how much exposure you have to blue light. Blue light can be beneficial to the skin if it is controlled and targeted. Dr. Zalka says that the most common uses of blue light for skin treatment are to target precancerous lesions called Actinic Keratosis. Sun damage spots, certain types of skin cancer, acne and psoriasis are all common uses for blue light. All of these treatments have one thing in common: the blue light exposure is controlled and targeted. It does not harm the skin’s other parts.
Blue-light exposure depends on the person’s lifestyle. This includes how much time one spends outdoors, how sunny that day and how often they use a screen. Dr. Zalka points out that artificial blue light exposure from screens is only fractional to natural blue-light radiation from the sun.
She cites the previous 2019 study as a reason. “The amount you would receive on an average sunny day would be 1,000 times greater than what you would get sitting in front a screen.” 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.”
Although blue-light exposure from screens may not be significant, it can cause skin damage. This is a topic that is still being researched and developed. The best thing to do is to add blue-light protection to your skincare routine. Dr Zalka reminds us that the science on reactive oxidative substances is not good for skin. “They can damage skin cells, causing premature cell death and accelerating the skin’s loss of strength.” Dr Zalka reminds us that this type if damage is cumulative. Once it has logged in the skin it cannot be reversed.
What products are the best to protect your skin from blue light? Dr. Zeichner recommends that tinted mineral sunscreens provide primary protection by blocking the penetration of blue light into skin. Tinted sunscreens have iron-oxide pigments that provide the tinted shade. They also reflect the blue light away from skin.
Dr. Zalka recommends the same: “Tinted sunblock, tinted makeup and tinted lipstick – any product that has some pigment in it will provide a better protection.” However, antioxidants are not meant to be a barrier against blue light, but as a way of repairing damaged skin. She says that while antioxidants may not block high-energy visible light, they can be used to repair damage caused by free radicals.
The debate surrounding blue-light skin care is ongoing. However, it is important to think about where you should be fighting your battles when it comes down to your routine. Dr. Zalka says that while more research on blue light is needed to make a better consensus, we can suggest tinted sunscreens in the interim.