While we know it’s probably not a good idea, we’ve all been guilty of looking at our phones before bed. The problem isn’t just that ending the day with doom scrolling is a real downer. It’s that the light from your phone can mess with your hormones, which disrupts your sleep cycle and causes a ripple effect of health issues.
The culprit is blue light, a wavelength of light (the “B” in middle school science’s famous ROY-G-BIV) that’s emitted from phones, laptops, LED lighting, and flatscreen TVs. Blue light is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it has properties that interfere with hormones…and not in a good way. While the sheer amount of time we spend staring at screens can cause issues, the timing of when we’re exposing ourselves to blue light is particularly important for good health.
Is Blue Light Bad for You?
Blue light didn’t originate in tech. The most concentrated source of this wavelength actually comes from the sun. But once computers and cellphones entered our lives and screens took over our days, medical experts noticed that it seemed to be causing ramifications beyond just needing a nap the day after a late night TikTok binge.
Blue light isn’t all bad, especially when your main source of it comes from the sun. In appropriate doses, blue light can boost alertness, memory, and mood. Babies who have jaundice are put in blue light boxes to help break down bilirubin, which causes yellowing of the skin and eyes and brain issues if not treated. Blue light can also kill acne causing bacteria.
The problem comes when we are overexposed to it, especially at night. Our bodies evolved to react to the progression of natural light. As the sun goes down, it triggers the release of more melatonin which sets the stage for a good night’s sleep. But artificial light, particularly blue light, disrupts this cycle, and leads to a variety of health issues:
Disrupted sleep: All light affects melatonin production to some degree, but blue light is the biggest culprit. Harvard researchers found that, when compared with green light, blue light suppressed the production of melatonin for twice as long, and shifted the circadian rhythm for twice as long as green light exposure. Simply put, blue light tricks the body into thinking it’s daytime, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.
While poor sleep causes its own set of problems, messing with melatonin production (like by scrolling through Instagram before bed) has a big ripple effect. It is estimated that melatonin plays a crucial role in approximately 700 reactions in the body, including helping to produce antioxidants and regulate glucose levels. When melatonin isn’t working as it should, neither are these other functions.
Skin aging: High levels of blue light may cause premature skin aging by triggering the production of free radicals, pesky unbonded atoms that stress out the skin. This type of light can also penetrate deep into the skin, damaging proteins and leading to a loss in firmness and premature wrinkling. In people with darker complexions, blue light exposure can also increase hyperpigmentation.
Changes in your cycle: Melatonin is the life of the biological party. It may be associated with sleep, but it pops up all over the body, including in the ovaries where there are melatonin receptors. This means that when your melatonin production drops due to blue light exposure (or for any other reason), it can affect your reproductive system. You may notice changes in your menstrual cycle, which can be concerning, especially if you’re trying to conceive.
Weight gain: Melatonin is vital when it comes to regulating other hormones, but especially leptin, the hormone responsible for telling your brain when you’re full. When melatonin production is thrown off, leptin production may also drop, which means your brain won’t get the signal that it’s time to stop eating. A couple nights of bad sleep won’t have a dramatic effect, but exposure to blue light over time can lead to unexplained weight gain as leptin levels become imbalanced and glucose isn’t properly regulated.
A Few Small Steps Will Protect You from Blue Light
The first step to protecting your hormones from too much blue light is to stop using screens at bedtime. There is no agreed upon amount of time that you need to cease and desist, but with advice ranging from 30 minutes to two hours, a safe rule of thumb is to start putting your devices away an hour before bed.
Beyond going cold turkey when it comes to the pre-bed scroll, it’s also important to cut down on your exposure to blue light during the day. If throwing your phone into the sea and eschewing blue light all together isn’t in your life plan (hey, going off the grid isn’t for everyone), there are a few much easier things you can do to shield yourself from its effects:
Wear blue light blocking glasses: Consistent exposure to blue light can cause eye damage and vision changes. Blue light blocking glasses are widely available, affordable, and most importantly they are specially treated to filter out blue light. You can tell they’re working if your under eye circles look yellow in the mirror when you have the glasses on. Just keep in mind that the glasses only block this type of light from entering your eye area.
Use a blue light screen shield: Using a blue light screen shield is another way to protect yourself during the workday. These shields fit right onto your tablet, phone, or laptop screen, so they filter the blue light directly at the source. Plus, once the screen shield is on, you don’t have to worry about it, so there’s no risk of running around before your Zoom call looking for your glasses (they’re on your head).
Try blue light blocking skincare: Veracity's BioEvolve Serum includes Garland Lily Extract, which protects skin from blue light. Putting it on at the beginning of the day will help protect your skin no matter how long you get stuck in virtual meetings. Other ingredients that naturally shield the skin from blue light are zinc and titanium oxide, often found in mineral makeup.
Choose a mineral sunscreen: While chemical sunscreens absorb UV-rays and convert them to heat, mineral sunscreens create a barrier that rays bounce off of. While there are a few chemical sunscreens on the market that block high-energy visible light (or HEV light, which includes blue light), most don’t. Plus, chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that can disrupt your hormones in other ways. The safest bet is mineral sunscreen, which is both free of endocrine disrupting ingredients and naturally protects you from blue light rays.
Switch to red light at night: I have a new baby at home and my pediatrician recommended that my husband and I use a headlamp with red light when feeding and changing our son at night. Red light has no effect on the circadian rhythm. As an added bonus, red light also doesn’t disrupt your night vision, so you won’t bang your shin at 3 a.m. on your way to the bathroom.
Every day we are learning more about the negative side effects of blue light, but the good news is a few minor tweaks to your daily routine can have you snoozing like a baby once again. Giving up the lullaby of the TV is a small price to pay for reclaiming nights filled with quality sleep.