Why Is Everyone Suddenly Talking About ‘Blue Light’? An Explainer

05.21.19 1 month ago


For most people, our days go a little something like this: wake up, check your phone, get ready for the day, check your phone, head to work, stare at your computer, take breaks to go to the bathroom where you check your phone, stare at the computer some more, head home, eat dinner, check your phone, watch television or Netflix, and check your phone before fading off to sleep. That sentence isn’t an exaggeration, it’s understating the case. You know how often you check your phone. You know how much time you spend on screens.

Day after day, hour after hour, most of us stare at screens, and those screens are more than likely blasting us with blue light. All that time exposed to this shorter-wavelength light has both scientists and laymen alike concerned about the consequences. Too much exposure can lead to headaches, eye damage, and more, we’re told. We’re now being warned to limit our exposure to blue light — and there are even products that claim to filter the potentially damaging light.

But is it blue light itself that is actually bad for you, or is this another technological bogeyman conspiracy theory? Why is everyone talking about blue light all of a sudden, and what should you know?

We break it down.

First things first: what is blue light?

If you paid attention in science class, you probably remember that visible light exists within a larger spectrum of light (also known as the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation). All light is radiation, and that electromagnetic spectrum ranges from gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet (on the higher frequency, higher energy, shorter wavelength side) to infrared and radio waves (lower frequency, lower energy, longer wavelength).

Visible light is tucked right in between ultraviolet and infrared light, and just like the electromagnetic spectrum at large, the visible light spectrum ranges from high to low frequency, with blue light being high frequency, short wavelength light and red light being low frequency, long wavelength light.

Historically, our main source of light has come from the sun, which produces more yellow light than any other color, and our exposure to blue light has been quite limited, though humans have always been exposed to blue light in one way or another, and it is necessary for humans to function. Blue light helps regular mood, circadian rhythm (aka your sleep cycle), and boost your attention. There have even been studies that show that blue light therapy can help prevent skin cancer.

So, we’re already exposed to blue light. Why are people talking about it now?

Well, thanks to technological advances, we’re surrounded by more blue light than ever. Why? We can look, in part, to LED (light-emitting diode) technology, which produces quite a bit more blue light than traditional indoor lighting, for the answer:

  • LED lighting is more energy efficient.
  • It uses heat sinks to regulate temperature; cooler than traditional (incandescent or fluorescent) lights.
  • It has a longer lifetime than traditional (incandescent or fluorescent) lighting.

In other words: LED (and its newer, sophisticated cousin, OLED) is a net positive in terms of environmental benefits. But LED lighting is also everywhere now, and it’s the chief driver behind our increased exposure to blue light. You’ll find artificial blue light in the following ways:

  • Phones, laptops, tablets
  • Newer street lights
  • Car headlights
  • Energy efficient lightbulbs (and, hell, even traditional lighting, such as fluorescent bulbs)

Why are people worried about it?

The long and short of it: our exposure to blue light has never been higher. Computer screens, new street lights, smartphones, and more surround us 24/7. Practically speaking, because blue light is higher frequency, that also means it’s higher energy. Blue light’s shorter wavelengths penetrate the eye in a different way than longer wavelength light; blue light, like ultraviolet light, can pass through the cornea and lens and penetrate the retina, the sensitive innermost layer of the eye.

All of these technological advances have happened relatively recently (as in, in the last few decades), and we’ve made short work of surrounding ourselves with a high-energy light at almost all times of the day without really knowing what these levels of exposure will do to the human body.

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