Topical products to protect the skin against infrared (IR) and blue light, or high energy visible (HEV) light, are heating up the marketplace. But why? Are consumers taking sun protection to new levels? Possibly. Has science made new findings warranting these forms of protection? The jury’s still out, but signs point to yes.
First, a caveat. As estheticians or spa owners, no doubt you are aware that some light therapies produce positive outcomes in skin. In fact, knowing this, protection against IR and/or blue light may seem counter-intuitive. Many studies seem to agree, giving good reviews to IR for healing skin and blue light for treating depression and acne. But new research points to their potential to cause damage. So, why the discrepancy? What’s the truth?
As it turns out, in the case of IR, the answer may be nearer—or farther—than we think: near-IR (NIR) appears to impact skin differently than far-IR (FIR). As a point of clarification, IR, or thermal radiation, falls between 780 nm–1 mm on the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. It can be further segmented as IR-A (or NIR, 780 nm–1.4 µm), IR-B (1.4–3 µm) and IR-C (or FIR, 3 µm–1 mm) (see Electromagnetic Radiation Spectrum).1 However, as Tom Mammone, Ph.D., vice president of skin physiology and pharmacology for The Estée Lauder Companies, explains,2 the science is not yet precise enough to claim one portion of IR is safe and the other is not. So most products are designed to protect against all IR.
Blue light ranges from 380–500 nm and can be further divided into blue-violet (380–450 nm) and blue-turquoise (450–500 nm). Thus, one-third of all visible light is considered HEV or blue light. As noted, blue light, such as that produced by LED devices, has therapeutic uses but more recently, exposure to blue light from computers, tablets and smart phones has been shown to damage skin. The reasons for these contradictions are unclear; however, exposure time could be implicated.
Consider how LED treatments are typically performed in under 20 minutes;3 in contrast, the body is continuously exposed to natural blue light and ever-increasing amounts of artificial blue light. During the day, “normal” levels of natural light are good for brain functions, keeping us alert and happy. But added constant exposure to artificial blue light, especially at night, is negatively affecting the skin and eyes, and even interferes with circadian rhythm and melatonin production.4, 5
Here, we review the latest research of both the positive and negative effects of IR and blue light on skin. We also call out ingredients designed to protect against the negative effects and profile the latest spa products focused on IR and blue light protection.
The Good News
According to the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology, low-level light therapy, which uses red and NIR wavelengths (600–100 nm), can positively affect skin,6 benefiting neural stimulation, wound healing and even cancer treatment. While this study hinted at the possible involvement of IR in photoaging, it concluded a better understanding might improve therapeutic effectiveness.
In relation, work published7 in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) explored FIR therapy to inhibit the effects of photoaging. These authors found FIR increased procollagen type I and inhibited the production of skin-damaging MMP-1 and MMP-9, reversing the negative effects of UVB.
“Life has changed so rapidly, and just how our environment has changed, our skin needs have. We need modern skin care to address environmental aggressors that didn’t exist 10–15 years ago." - Howard Murad, M.D.
FIR radiation therapy has also been used for soothing effects in wound treatment, as a study8 in the Journal of Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine described. And, interestingly, from an evolutionary standpoint, early morning IR-A has been shown to pre-condition skin against midday, damaging UV exposure.9
The International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment reported10 that red, blue and NIR light are effective for wound healing, reducing fine lines and wrinkles, and improving collagen density.
IR radiation is definitely doing something, even if the heat for which it is known is removed from the equation. One study11 showed that compared with heat alone, IR increased the activation of immune cells in skin.
What about blue light? Collective evidence suggests it can be used to treat circadian and sleep dysfunctions, as well as provide antimicrobial activity in biofilms.12, 13 It is also well-known to treat acne.14
The Bad News
As stated, research is conflicting, which may be due to differences in test models, exposure scenarios9 or actual results. So, for the flip side of this story, according to Principles and Practice of Photoprotection,15 blue light can induce transient erythema, persistent pigmentation, free radical production and DNA damage. Similarly, IR can induce erythema, oxidative stress and DNA damage, plus thermal pain, photoaging and cytotoxicity.
In relation, research in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology16 found that IR at near physiological temperatures forms free radicals (FRs) in the skin; at higher temperatures (65°C or 149°F), it degrades collagen. Interestingly, these researchers also concluded the formation of FRs did not depend on heat. To counteract these negative effects, phospholipid nanostructures based on β-carotenea were developed, which imparted protective effects.
Another study, in the Journal of Dermatological Science, tested IR-A unfiltered and filtered through water to simulate natural light. At temperatures of 39–42°C (approx. 102–108°F), the filtered IR-A caused no significant changes in procollagen, or MMP-1 or MMP-3 levels—but the unfiltered IR-A did.17 This illustrates the importance of knowing how tests are performed for a given conclusion because although negative effects were observed, unfiltered IR-A is not a typical daily exposure scenario for most individuals.
Research published18 in Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine tested the effects of IR alone and in combination with UVA and visible light on solar urticaria lesions. Initially, UV/IR induced erythema and whealing but when IR was blocked, no lesions were observed in three of the four subjects; the fourth developed only a small wheal.
In relation, The FASEB Journal published on the effects of visible light in skin.19 Skin exposed at 23°C (73.4°F) or 43°C (109.4°F) for 30 minutes every other day for 13 days showed increased epidermal and dermal thickness. However, the heat exposure induced by the visible light suggested anti-aging effects.
Other work,20 featured in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, considered the well-known effects of UVA to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) and assessed visible light for similar effects. Here, blue light was found to produce oxidative stress in skin, especially in the mitochondria. However, green, red, FIR and IR did not; NIR was not addressed. These results suggested blue light contributes to skin aging similar to UVA.
Clearly, there’s at least some evidence to warrant protecting against these wavelengths, and cosmetic ingredient suppliers are on top of it. For example, one company developed a marigold-derived ingredient containing luteinb with blue light-absorbing capabilities. Another extracted an ingredient from the green algae Scenedesmus rubescens,c which demonstrates both UV and blue light protection.
For IR, a Polygonum aviculare (knotgrass) extractd was designed to oppose photoaging and “infra’aging” by improving skin firmness and elasticity. And the patent literature reveals cyclodextrin can expand the effects of UV absorbers by boosting them into IR wavelengths.21
IR protection is radiating throughout professional skin care, often by strong antioxidant ingredients. Similar to the research sector, however, blue light protection is still in its infancy—although some professional brands offer one or both of these protections, often in conjunction with UV protection.
Murad offers both IR and blue light protection in its City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50. This sunscreen is formulated with lutein to defend skin against blue light from devices. Lutein is a carotenoid extracted, in this case, from marigold petals. This ingredient imparts antioxidant properties. The sunscreen also contains iron oxides to protect against IR radiation, and the company’s Environmental Protection Technology to shield against 89% of artificial blue light and 52% of IR.
Howard Murad, M.D., puts this product into context. “Life has changed so rapidly, and just how our environment has changed, our skin needs have. We need modern skin care to address environmental aggressors that didn’t exist 10–15 years ago. These aggressors, such as blue light emitted by digital devices, pollution from cars and smog, IR radiation, etc., can cause visible signs of aging. That’s why Murad developed City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50—a revolutionary, multi-active, 100% mineral sunscreen that goes beyond sun defense to offer complete protection. It shields skin from five environmental factors: blue light, pollution, infrared radiation, UVA and UVB.”
SkinCeuticals uses 15% vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) in its C E Ferulic product to neutralize free radicals induced by UVA/UVB, IR-A and ozone pollution (O3).
HydroPeptide also uses antioxidants to protect skin from IR in its new Solar Defense Non-Tinted SPF 50. This product adds titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection.
Neal Kitchen, Ph.D., vice president of strategy and development for HydroPeptide, explains “Photoaging goes beyond UV damage. Extensive exposure to infrared wavelengths can lead to inflammation and cellular damage. Venuceanee is a great ingredient to prevent this damage and improve the health of skin.”
SkinMedica protects against UVA, UVB and IR-A rays in its Total Defense + Repair Broad Spectrum Sunscreen. The company’s SOL-IR Advanced Antioxidant Complex combines three extracts for antioxidant protection: Polygonum aviculare, Physalis angulata and Dunaliella salina.
IR protection is provided by a deep sea bacterium in Janssen Cosmetics’ Face Guard Advanced. This product is formulated with Thermus thermophillus ferment, an enzyme that acts as a strong antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals, combats IR-induced damage, prevents IR-induced stress and fights IR changes in skin. It reportedly becomes more effective as the temperature increases.
Finally, Dermaquest combines broad-spectrum UV protection with IR protection in its Youth Protection SPF 30, which also contains Polygonum aviculare extract to inhibit cathepsin G and MMP-1 activity by protecting fibrillin-1 from UV damage and tropoelastin from IR damage.
As stated, science is still chasing Mother Nature’s rainbow of effects on skin. Once it catches up, however, don’t be surprised to see gold-standard levels of protection and innovation in the end.
- Ibid Ref 3
Electromagnetic radiation spectrum
a Bicotene Antiox (INCI: Water (aqua) (and) Lecithin (and) Hydrogenated Phosphatidylcholine (and) Lysolecithin (and) Glycine Soja Oil (and) Phenethyl Alcohol (and) Caprylyl Glycol (and) Tocophyeryl Acetate (and) Caprylhydroxamic Acid (and) Disodium EDTA (and) Daucus Carota Sativa Root Extract (and) Beta-Carotene (and) Tocopherol) is a product of Bicosome.
During the day, “normal” levels of natural light keep us happy.
b FloraGLO Lutein Topical (INCI: Xanthophyll) is a product of Kemin.
c Pepha-Age (INCI: Scenedesmus rubescens extract) is a product of DSM.
d Elix-IR (INCI: Polygonum Aviculare extract) is a product of Lucas-Meyer/IFF.
e Venuceane (INCI: Thermus Thermophillus Ferment (and) Glycerin) is a product of Sederma.
“Just as our environment has changed, our skin needs have.” -H. Murad, M.D.