Blue light: what is it and how does it impact wellbeing?
Curious about how blue light affects your health? Blue light is the blue part of the visible light spectrum. You’ll probably have heard this high-energy wavelength mentioned in relation to sleep.
However, that’s not the only way it can affect your wellbeing! There’s growing evidence that blue light could also be effective at treating skin concerns like acne, as well as mental health disorders such as SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
From what it is to how it impacts sleep, skin and mental health, we’ve called in the experts to find out more. Here’s what you need to know about blue light and wellbeing.
What is blue light?
First on the agenda, what is it? Well, the short answer is: exactly what it sounds like! Blue light is light with blue wavelengths.
Falling within the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can detect, blue light is a type of high-energy visible, or HEV, light.
Ever wondered why the sky looks blue during the day? It’s because the sun emits a large amount of blue light, which then gets scattered by molecules in our atmosphere. Although other types of light are also emitted, blue light has the shortest wavelength and highest energy of all visible light. This means it’s dispersed more.
Thanks to these qualities, blue light can also boost alertness and reaction times, as well as elevate mood. In fact, daytime exposure to blue light via sunshine actually helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, AKA body clock.
Unfortunately, having exposure to blue light too close to bed – i.e. from smartphones, laptops and tablets, which emit it artificially – has the opposite effect, impeding sleep.
Blue light and sleep
If you’ve heard about blue light already, it’s likely to have been in the context of sleep. Nowadays, evening exposure to blue light is well-known to impact sleep duration and quality.
In fact, though all visible light can throw off our sleep-wake cycle, blue light has the greatest impact on your circadian rhythm. The reason for this is that the short wavelengths suppress production of melatonin, the body’s key sleep hormone.
As one recent study found, impaired melatonin production disrupts natural mechanisms such as the regulation of body temperature, leading to less and more disrupted sleep.
Participants who were exposed to artificial blue light before bed not only averaged 16 minutes less, but also woke up more times than those who weren’t. Unsurprisingly, they reported effects on their tiredness levels and mood too. Learn more about supporting your energy levels here.
So, how concerned should you be? And what can you do to help? We spoke to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan to find out more about the effects, and how to combat them.
How to combat the impact of blue light on sleep
First up, how does blue light compare to other sleep inhibitors, such as caffeine? According to Nerina, it’s hard to quantify this since people have different sensitivities to both.
However, while we should avoid caffeine ideally after 3pm, cutting down on your blue light exposure before bed is an absolute must.
In fact, removing electronics from the bedroom is one of the five ‘non-negotiables’ outlined in Dr Ramlakhan’s book, Tired But Wired: How to Overcome Sleep Problems – The Essential Toolkit. This means resting without phones, tablets or screens of any kind.
Tempted to use your phone with a blue light blocking device instead? From filters for laptops and phones to special glasses, there are lots of options around. Yet, though these are effective, ‘the ideal,’ according to Nerina, is taking breaks from your screens instead, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.
We also checked in about whether the impacts of blue light on sleep are permanent. The answer isn’t simple. As Nerina explains, a few weeks of reducing your exposure and practising effective sleep strategies should help you restore a healthy sleep rhythm.
However, blue light overexposure can cause other permanent effects to be mindful of, such as macular degeneration in your eyes. That’s when the macula, or central portion of your retina, degrades. It can lead to severe vision problems and even blindness in some, though few, cases.
“That is another important consideration and reason to put the electronics away in the evening,” says Nerina.
Additionally, the knock-on effects of a disrupted circadian rhythm can cause issues for physical and mental health.
Blue light and mental health
Blue light and mental health has undergone much less scrutiny than other wellbeing areas. Much of what we know about it relates to blue light and sleep.
As mentioned, too much blue light exposure disrupts our sleep-wake cycle, leading to reduced sleep quality and duration. This can, in turn, put you at risk of triggering or even developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. So, at the very least, blue light can indirectly cause consequences for mental health via its impact on sleep.
However, given that the circadian rhythm also regulates our emotions, it’s arguable that it may actually have a more direct impact.
Interestingly, blue light also has the potential to support certain mental health conditions. That’s because its wavelengths stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine, two of our ‘happy’ hormones.
Both perform a number of varying functions but, to put it simply, dopamine motivates and rewards us, while serotonin is a mood stabiliser.
In light of these qualifications, it’s not surprising that blue light therapy shows promise as a means of treating types of depression – most notably, SAD.
Characterised as a recurrent major depressive disorder, SAD includes symptoms common to other types of depression, such as feelings of sadness and low energy. However, episodes tend to occur during autumn and winter months only. Significantly, people with SAD are likely to overproduce melatonin and have trouble regulating serotonin.
According to BUPA, an estimated three out of 100 people in the UK suffer from SAD, with women four times more likely than men to develop it.
Although there are other treatments available, experts consider sun or daylight lamps (also sometimes called light boxes) one of the most effective modes of treatment. Designed to simulate sunlight, these devices help by encouraging the brain to reduce melatonin production, as well as increase serotonin.
Although light therapy typically uses white light, blue light may be a promising alternative, given its effects on melatonin and serotonin – as one recent study found. Notably, while the research didn’t find any advantages of using blue light over white light, the benefits were ‘mostly comparable.’
Despite this, one of the researchers, Dr Ybe Meesters, wouldn’t rule out blue light as a potential treatment for other illnesses.
“Like white light, blue light can be effective in treating or improving other types of depression, mood disorder or mental illness – especially if sleep patterns or energy levels are not optimal.”
Blue light and skin
Blue light and skin has a complicated relationship. While unintentional exposure to blue light from screens can also cause issues like premature ageing, targeted blue light therapies have a wealth of benefits for skin, including fighting acne and reducing inflammation.
First up, let’s address the potential cons. Is your phone ageing you? It could be.
As it’s a form of HEV light and electromagnetic radiation, blue light can trigger pigmentation and inflammation, as well as cell shrinkage and death (read: wrinkles). Additionally, your body’s – and according to one study, individual cells’ – circadian rhythms being thrown out of kilter hinders the skin’s natural repair process, contributing to other visible signs of ages.
However, the good news is that most products that protect against UV rays – think broad-spectrum SPFs and topical antioxidants – also help with blue light. Plus, skincare is evolving to fit our increasingly tech-centred lifestyles. Products like BYBI’s Blueberry Booster, are designed with blue light in mind. Getting blue light filters for your screens, and keeping them on night-time mode, is also good damage control.
When used intentionally and in short, concentrated bursts, blue light can actually do a lot of good for skin.
We spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dr Michael Gold about how it works. The founder and medical director of several US-based skin clinics, Michael has authored numerous papers on the efficacy of blue light LED therapy.
Though it’s relatively new in the UK, this form of phototherapy is commonplace as a means of treating mild to severe acne in countries like South Korea and the US.
So, what’s the science behind it? Essentially, thanks to its broad-spectrum antimicrobial effect, blue light is able to kill off acne-causing bacteria. This is done by targeting a substance within the bacteria, called porphyrins. This allows the rest of the skin tissue to be unaffected.
That’s not all it can do, though. As well as improving blemishes, blue light therapy may prevent future outbreaks, reduce inflammation and more. Michael explains that it’s also effective at treating actinic keratosis (pre-skin cancers) and rejuvenating the skin overall when combined with a proper photosensitiser. Bear in mind that both must be done in medical offices.
Concerned about side effects? Don’t be. Blue light therapy is completely safe, with no real side effects when performed correctly – even on your sleep cycle. However, it’s essential to buy yours from a reputable brand. This is one that’s ideally EU-cleared or FDA-approved, to ensure it’s been through the necessary safety checks.
Try it yourself
Wondering how to try it out yourself? CELLRETURN UK’s at-home devices are making it easier than ever for people to benefit from blue light therapy, without the need for a specialist clinic. Home of the 4th-generation Platinum LED Mask, CELLRETURN UK has revolutionised the UK market with its premium light therapy device, which combines NASA-derived LED and NIR technology.
So, how does CELLRETURN UK’s mask differ? We caught up with founder Lily Earle, who readers may know as Liz’s eldest daughter, to ask.
As Lily explains, the difference is in its efficacy and power.
“It has 1,026 LED lights, making it the most powerful available direct to consumers and for use in the home,” she says. “It also includes Near Infrared wavelengths, meaning that it can penetrate deeper into the skin than LED light alone. This leads to healthier skin and a more effective mask.”
Thanks to this addition, the Platinum LED Mask is able to offer even more benefits for skin. The Blue Mode can combat acne, reduce sebum production, shrink pores and reduce sun damage. Meanwhile, the Pink Mode (which combines red and blue light) also helps to calm inflamed skin and reduce the appearance of scarring.
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Words: Tilly Alexander