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Not all blue light is the same

Spring is in full swing and with it, it is again time to think more about sufficient sun protection. The fact that we need to protect our skin from the effects of UV radiation is well known and ingrained in many people’s minds. But other light sources are also suspected of causing skin damage. With the increasing number of hours, we spend in front of laptops, smartphones, or TV screens, especially in times of the pandemic, the number of speculations about the influence of such light sources is also increasing – most of them, however, with insufficient evidence. So, what is true?

In order to shed some light on the subject and to take a scientific look at it, we spoke to someone who should know: Dr. Ludger Kolbe, Chief Scientist Photobiology. A biologist specializing in immunology and experimental dermatology, he has been conducting research at Beiersdorf for 25 years. To date, he has registered over 400 patents worldwide and, together with R&D colleagues, has delivered valid findings on the effects of natural blue light from the sun versus those of artificial blue light. 

Dr. Ludger Kolbe, Chief Scientist Photobiology

Ludger, what specific expertise does Beiersdorf have in the area of sun protection?

Reliably protecting the skin from the harmful influences of the sun’s rays is a key topic for Beiersdorf and has been one of our major strengths for close to 90 years. We were, after all, the first to launch a special sun product in Europe back in 1936. But we’re not in the habit of resting on our laurels. We have spent decades conducting in-depth research into the influence the sun has on skin.

We want to firstly gain a detailed understanding of how the harmful effect of the sun’s rays unfolds, in order to secondly draw on this knowledge to develop innovative products that combat precisely these harmful mechanisms. And we have the best possible parameters for this. Because what characterizes Beiersdorf is first and foremost our extensive knowledge in the area of skin and our high level of research expertise. 

What activities underscore our expertise in the area of sun protection?

In addition to our internal expertise, we focus on collaboration with the strong external partners with whom we jointly engage in research, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA. What’s more, Beiersdorf has played a major part in our even being able to measure and assess how good sun protection is through our involvement in the Cosmetics Europe Sun Protection Task Force. The majority of people are probably familiar with this categorization due to the terms “SPF” or “sun protection factor.” We continue to jointly work on improving the evaluation methods.  

The UV-camera visualizes the effectiveness of sun protection.

What specifically is Beiersdorf conducting research on in the field of sun protection?

Again and again in recent years, our research has shown that the harm done to the skin by the sun is not caused by UV rays alone. These account for just 5% of the solar spectrum. There is also 45% infrared radiation as well as so-called visible light, which even makes up about 50% of solar radiation. And about one third of the visible light is blue light.

You can visualize the light spectrum like a scale: right next to UV radiation is the blue-violet portion of visible light, which means it is still very energetic, and thus potentially harmful. It is referred to as blue light or HEV light.

We already have a broad portfolio of effective products from NIVEA, Eucerin, and Coppertone that offer protection from the damage caused by UV rays. However, a light has only recently been shone on the effects of blue light. It penetrates more deeply into the lower layers of the skin than UVA radiation. Having a precise understanding of these effects is therefore very important and is something we are intensively researching.

What effect does blue light directly from the sun have on our skin? How harmful is it and how can I adequately protect myself from it?

The effects include e.g. accelerated skin aging and hyperpigmentation. Effective protection is offered by formulas containing plant-derived antioxidants which are specially tailored to blue light or UV radiation, like licochalcone A. This is the case with all of our Eucerin sun protection products - except special products, e.g. ACTINIC CONTROL LPF 100-, as well as with the sensitive and face care products of NIVEA SUN. 

But blue light isn’t just part of sunlight – it’s emitted by screens and monitors, too. How harmful is the blue light from these light sources?

 As we are spending more and more time with or in front of screens from computers, tablets, or smartphones, there are increasing concerns about the harmful impact of blue light on skin. However, we need to make a clear distinction here: when referring to these light sources, we talk about artificial blue light. Unfortunately, public debate regarding this topic is characterized by a lot of ignorance and supposed miracle cures that will protect the skin from the allegedly harmful screen light are touted. 

We tested the radiation onto the skin emitted by different smartphones and tablets from various distances. The result: the amount of blue light emitted during the conventional use of electronic devices is by far not enough to trigger harmful skin effects. To make this even more tangible: If you sat in front of a monitor uninterrupted for a week at a distance from the screen of approximately 30 cm, this would be the same as the blue light intensity of spending one minute outside on a sunny day in Hamburg at around midday at midsummer. If you hold a smartphone right next to the skin, the intensity does increase, but it would still take approximately 10 hours of uninterrupted use to match the effect on the skin of just ONE MINUTE of sunlight as described.  

The key-takeaway is this: The emissions from electronic devices are barely noticeable in comparison to natural blue light directly from the sun and are, thus, negligible.  

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Kathrin Erbar

About the editor: Kathrin Erbar

Kathrin takes us on a journey to the fascinating field of research and development at Beiersdorf. Before exploring Beiersdorf’s DNA, she was doing the communication for HR related topics, such as diversity, leadership or New Work. She also used to be responsible for financial communications at Beiersdorf for several years.