If you're reading this after a couple hours of staring at your screen, you're probably feeling the effects of digital eye strain. It can make your vision blurry and your eyes feel like sandpaper. Given all the health PSAs about blue light and digital eye strain, you'd think staring at your computer screen was going to eventually blind you — but that's not the case at all, according to the experts.
What is blue light?
"Our eyes are sensitive to three colors: red, green, and blue," Tanya Khan, a board-certified ophthalmologist and oculoplastic and reconstructive surgeon in Austin, Texas, tells Allure. "Each color is picked up by cells in the back of the eye (calledcones) that are specific to those colors based on their wavelengths."Of those three colors, blue light is the shortest wavelength, which means it has highest energy.
That's not to say blue light is necessarily bad, though. "Blue light plays a critical role in maintaining good health, as it regulates our body's circadian rhythm — our natural sleep-wake cycle," Meenakashi Gupta, a New York City-based ophthalmologist, tells Allure. "Blue light also elevates mood and helps memory and cognitive function."
How does blue light affect our eyes?
Theoretically, this high-energy light has the potential to cause damage to certain eye tissues, says Khan. But these effects are probably being blown way out of proportion, she says. First of all, the blue light you're exposed to from your screens all day doesn't compare to the exposure you get naturally from the sun.
And more importantly, there's currently no evidence that your screen time is causing any eye damage, according the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Though, the long-term effects of blue light exposure haven't really been studied yet, adds Gupta.
The reason ophthalmologists aren't worried about blue light damaging your eyes is because your eyes have built-in blue-light filters. "As light enters the eye, the lens blocks some penetration of blue light, and the central retina further contains antioxidants that help filter blue light," Khan explains. In other words, your eyes have natural defenses against any of those theoretically damaging waves.
What to know about digital eye strain
There is a reason your eyes go all funny when you stare at your computer for too long. "Digital eye strain is more likely related to our prolonged exposure to smartphone and tablet screens, rather than blue light itself," explains Khan. "When we are using our devices, we forget to blink as often as we should (approximately 15 to 20 times a minute)," she says.
The zombie-like stare you develop when staring at your computer for hours can eventually cause your eyes to dry out, leading to that sandpaper feeling. On top of the blinking problem, staring at a screen also fatigues your eye muscles, explains Gupta. "Eye muscle fatigue leads to difficulty focusing, headaches, and blurred vision," she says.
When we are using our devices, we forget to blink as often as we should (approximately 15 to 20 times a minute).
"Digital eye strain does not cause long-term damage," says Jessica Lee, a board-certified ophthalmologist in New York City. To keep your eye muscles from wearing out, ophthalmologists recommend the 20-20-20 rule. "Every 20 minutes, look far into the distance about 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds," Lee explains.
For digitally induced dry eyes, remember to blink, says Gupta. "Blinking helps restore the natural tear film of the eyes, which prevents dryness and discomfort." (Using eye drops will do the trick, too.) "It is also important to maintain proper spacing between your eyes and screens — no more than 16 inches from your face," Gupta adds.
The bottom line? "Currently, there is no evidence that digital eye strain leads to chronic eye damage," says Gupta. "At present, the major issues associated with digital eye strain, such as dry eye, difficulty focusing, and headaches, appear to be temporary, treatable, and preventable."
How to protect your eyes
While blue light and digital eye strain likely aren't doing any real damage, UV rays emitted by the sun definitely are damaging. "Ultraviolet rays are the most harmful part of sunlight," says Gupta. "Too much exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun can lead to eye diseases, including cataracts, growths on the eye, and eye cancers."
Much like the sun causes skin cancer, the damage from UV rays can cause the creation of destructive molecules within the body, called free radicals, Khan explains. "These free radicals can then disrupt the tissues within our eye, including the lens and the retina."
Digital eye strain is more likely related to our prolonged exposure to smartphone and tablet screens, rather than blue light itself.
If you're forgetting to protect your eyes from UV exposure, you can also up your risk of developing skin cancer around the eyes, adds Lee. In fact, your eyes can literally get sunburned.
To keep your eyes protected, make sure you're applying SPF over your entire face, and wearing sunglasses with UV protection.
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