Blue Light vs UV: Hidden Hazard of the Tech Era?

Time for this blog to get sciencey: If you work for many hours a day at a PC (or Mac), this post is for you. Recently, I dealt with a skin cancer diagnosis. After months of investigation, I would like to share some findings as well as advice on what you can do to protect your health, without compromising your productivity.

Time for this blog to get all sciencey.  If you work for many hours a day at a PC (or Mac), or know someone who does, this post is for you. Especially if that involves multi-monitor setups and/or LED technology. You see, this past year I dealt with something nobody wants to hear: a skin cancer diagnosis. After months of investigation, I would like to share some findings as well as advice on what you can do to protect your health, without compromising your productivity.

Pretty much everyone is aware by now that UV radiation over extended periods of time damage skin. This is seen most easily when we receive major burns, complete with redness and peeling. While I love the sun as much as the next person, I’m usually fairly careful with how much exposure I get. And I certainly don’t lay on a beach for hours trying to get a tan; usually I’ll be under the shade of a tree with a hat and a good book.

The dermatologist diagnosed me with a pre-melanoma lesion. It took two rather painful surgeries to remove completely, and has regrettably left my nose a touch crooked. The more vain or insecure among us might view such as a major setback in life. As I approach 40, that’s really the least of my worries. But I asked the surgeon: “How many of these type of operations do you perform per week?”

“Between four and six…” he answered after a pause as he worked, tugging flesh from cartilage with aid of his scalpel. “…and the patients are getting younger and younger.”

I thought about this statement for some time. To really begin to make sense of it according to what the science and medical community tells us today, we would first have to believe that a. Sun exposure among the youth of Sweden (or any northern nation) is significant, and b. That something is very wrong with the ozone layer above this particular region. Not that it isn’t – but the picture doesn’t quite add up to me. For one thing: For 7 months of the year, the UV Index in Sweden and really, any country at this latitude, sits at or below 5 (usually WAY below). Today for example, May 17, not so far from the summer solstice, we can see levels across the country as follows:


And for a reference of how dangerous that is:


Between June and August, there are usually somewhere between 5 to 10 very high danger days. When the UV Index is very high, it means that skin damage can occur in <15 minutes, or even less than that. And of course, even at lower UV levels, given enough exposure, similar damage can occur. That particular fact will be worth remembering for later. We also know that getting 5 bad sunburns, on average, doubles a person’s chances of skin cancer. Then of course, there’s also no disputing that the young have the habit of using other devices such as tanning beds etc in order to look “hot”. So, I’m not disputing the importance of tanning safety! But what does “double” really mean, and what are we comparing it to, exactly?

It’s far more likely to me that the real reason for accelerated formation of skin cancers and thus patients getting “younger and younger” involves a multi-step process where high level damage weakens our defenses, and other exposures and processes contribute to cellular mutation. I will focus on one particular long-term exposure which happens to relate very much to UV and yet, for whatever reason, has flown under the radar.

Let’s talk about how the collective consciousness of society is convinced that this word “UV” is all that matters. What is UV light? It is a classification of a specific range of light wavelengths. As these wavelengths decrease (or become more compact), they penetrate further into the body.

In order to not freak us out, since so many of us willingly use technologies of all kinds for hours and days on end, safety commissions tell us that in order to be cancer promoting, radiation must be ionizing, which is defined by overlord Google as:

…radiation consisting of particles, X-rays, or gamma rays with sufficient energy to cause ionization in the medium through which it passes.


The above image demonstrates the penetration capabilities of various wavelengths, with Ultraviolet sitting squarely at the molecular level. The idea is that a wave between typical microwave and radio ranges should simply flow over, or be blocked by a human body, while waves at molecular scale can “invade” through the skin’s natural barriers as they weaken and grow damaged.

Google’s definition of ionizing radiation makes no mention of UV, but the following visualization would suggest it is, as should be obvious. We should note that all forms of ionizing radiation damage DNA, and once that damage is done, it’s difficult to repair:


Ultraviolet light consists of a frequency range between approximately 200-400 nm (nanometers). This is precisely how it sounds; the waves oscillate at intervals of between 200 to 400 nanometres. Let’s compare this to collagen, one of the important barriers in human skin; Each triple-stranded collagen molecule is 300 nm long*.
*Molecular Cell Biology, 4th Edition.


Of these ranges, UVB is sometimes considered the most dangerous, as the “key” fits this “keyhole” of the skin’s collagen and other defenses, though UVC obviously does as well.

Now, there are many factors we could get into which might affect a person’s susceptibility to various forms of radiation: genes, age, lightness of skin, dermal thickness, and who knows – perhaps even things nobody has bothered to investigate, such as pore size or factors which have nothing to do with our biology – like diet. The bottom line is that we all know all about UV, and thus can and usually do take precautions specific to that. Few take precautions against what is as of yet unproven or not even postulated.

You might be able to tell where I am going with this; all the above graphics show us that even within the visible light spectrum, there is a range of light radiation right next door to UV, which nearly all of us are exposed to for hours upon hours, noses mere inches away, whilst reading websites or writing documents against bright white backgrounds. And though its intensity is not remotely that of the sun, keep in mind the time factor. You might also be surprised to know how bright LED setups can really be.

Though the color we process on screen is “white”, what we are actually looking at is light, and depending on the calibration of a given screen, it is somewhere between a “blue” or “red” temperature – “cool” or “warm”. Most of the time, monitors are calibrated to be cool temperature, or to put it in a slightly more primal way, to resemble the appearance of daylight we have evolved to be psychologically comfortable with. “Warm” or red light, when emitted from a computer screen, can put an odd color cast on images, which makes accurate reproduction of color impossible for designers, as well as making it appear, ironically, sun-worn. So we tend to prefer a slightly blue cast, which looks neutral to our eye. – which focuses mainly on the effects of blue light on vision, and not skin – defines the range thusly:

Blue light has a wavelength of between approximately 380nm and 500nm; making it one of the shortest, highest-energy wavelengths.

If 380nm sounds conspicuously familiar, it should. That overlaps just into the top end of the UV range. So can we say definitively, that the light emitted from our technology, despite not being classified or advertised as UV or ionizing, or anything more than a nuisance to our circadian rhythms, is not contributing to skin cancer risk? The answer is no. We cannot discount it. And the more one digs, the more one can see how its contributions should not be overlooked.

A few days ago, I ran across an AMA or “Ask Me Anything” thread by Newcastle University Professor Mark Birch-Machin on Reddit. It read: “My research focuses on the response of human skin to ultraviolet radiation, particularly within the context of skin ageing and cancer. AMA!”

One user posed the question: “I am a glassblower and consistently get sunburn on my face from sodium flare coming off of the glass I’m working in the flame. I wear sunscreen sometimes is there anything else I can do to reduce the risks associated with uv radiation? I do this everyday so its not like the sun where you can just go inside.”

Mark’s answer was intriguing, and helped a realization to gel within the recesses of my fog-riddled gray matter:

“The sodium flare suggests it is another type of radiation that is causing the effect on your face. Different types of radiation, as you probably know, have different wavelengths and therefore different protection is required. It will be important for you to ascertain the wavelength of radiation that is coming from the sodium flare to match the protection.”

I did a little digging and found an article about High Energy Visible (HEV) light, which Blue and Violet light fall into, and glassblowers. I wanted to know, for reference, what kind of lumens levels we’re talking about. Lumens is a standard used to measure the total amount of visible light to the human eye from any given source. What I found is pretty interesting:

For the purposes of this article, HEV is defined as luminescence in excess of 10,000 lumens. 1 lumen is the luminescence of 1 candle. A 100 watt light bulb emits approximately 120 lumens. Sunlight on a white sand beach can range from 8,000 to 10,000 lumens. Fresh snow on a sunny day can have a luminescence as high as 30,000 lumens.

The author was, in essence, making a statement about typical exposures of people in that profession, regardless of the specific “color” of light. As the AMA clued us into, even non-blue visible light can burn the skin, it just takes more time! So one can extrapolate that in terms of PC screen and LED TV exposure, we need to be even more careful.

Translating their statement into something we can accurately measure against computer screens, tablets, smartphone displays or perhaps most important of all, Smart LED TVs, proves difficult for many reasons. Among others, and for reasons currently beyond me, the above tend to be measured in candelas per metre squared, rather than the standard used for everything else. To do a conversion involves some complex mathematical equation, which I am not about to do at this time. An LED display manufacturer sort of describes the difficulty in a comparison between LED screens and projector displays:

Light from a projector is measured in ANSI Lumens which is a measurement of light reflected and is much less powerful than the brightness of LED screens. A quick test to prove the point – look directly at a light bulb and then look at it reflecting off a white surface – it is much weaker. In fact, a 5000 NIT LED screen would be approximately 3.5 times brighter than a 5000 lumens projector, which is a very powerful and expensive projector.

It seems to me that they are saying that the image projected from a bulb projector rated at 5000 lumens, is just going to be a small fraction of that brightness, and that LED is significantly brighter than anything that could ever be projected. Which is pretty bright, but how bright? And if candelas per metre squared is somehow relevant, then does that imply that area greatly amplifies total lumens? I may need to find some expert to field these questions. Anyway, the alternative insinuation would be that the brightest LED screens out there emit up to 17,500 lumens. Which, if I’m right, would burn holes through your retinas within a few seconds. So, pretty sure that’s not it.

Either way, as we tend to work (especially those of us in the artistic fields) hunched over large drawing display tablets, or squinting at code and instructions on separate screens, it is my guess that skin absorbance is rather increased. Power user designers and programmers are almost all universally guilty of the urge to use as many big screens side by side as possible in order to effectively multitask. Or perhaps worse, as I have done from time to time, park a 40 or 50 inch LED tv on the desk. Either way, we essentially create an extended-use sunlamp of sorts. And remember, blue light being of higher frequency means it takes less, far less than a sodium flare. So that 10,000 lumen theoretical number may not even remotely matter. Maybe the magic number is 1000. Or 500. or 50. Or maybe it all depends. Consider that we are admonished to take care even on cloudy days, as UV penetrates cloud and only becomes more diffused.

Since my diagnosis, surgeries, and hopeful return to health, I’ve studied, ruminated and theorized all I can in order to not only help myself but others. I’ve also cringed a little every time someone tries to warn me in a motherly way “I hope you’ll be more careful in the sun so this doesn’t happen again!”

I’m not saying that they are wrong. But I have noticed, in the time since I began to heal from the surgery, that in general I am prone to redness in my skin, even in winter, and more so at particular times. I have attempted to ascertain why, and this is where all roads lead, to my regret.

Helping my body’s natural healing mechanisms with supplementation, including getting the glutathione system functioning as well as it can, has appeared to help a bit. And yet, some redness, a sign of immune irritation, has persisted to some degree. It was with no small degree of hesitance that I began to consider that perhaps my greatest enemy was not the sun, which I can and do, like many young people today, easily avoid, but another far more frequent companion.

As I have presented a large amount of information to absorb already, the second part of this piece, including my advice for how to make your office space safer for your skin, will follow in the very near future. If you found this post valuable, please consider liking my Facebook page, where you will automatically receive updates of future posts to your feed. Also please consider becoming a patron. For a measly $1 a month, you can help me to continue to help others. Thanks!