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Image of a old computer representing digital aging.

The truth about digital aging

Written by
Chloë James

From the sun to sugar, the list of things we’re told to avoid for the sake of our skin is as long as it is varied. But do we now need to add screens to the list? While technology kept us connected with work, school, and socialising during the pandemic, it seems all this extra time on our devices has exaggerated one common fear about its impact on our skin: digital aging.

The thinking goes that the hours spent staring at our phones, laptops, and TVs is accelerating the rate at which we develop fine lines and wrinkles. If true, the past few years have been critical for our skin. Screen time is thought to have jumped by 50 to 70 per cent over the course of the pandemic, bringing us up to an average of 13 hours a day. But can our devices really make a difference to our appearance? And if so, how can we prevent or reverse the changes?

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What causes digital aging?

Digital aging isn’t as simple as emerging from a Netflix binge with skin that looks ten years older. Just like most forms of skin damage, it’s thought to be a gradual process that happens over the course of several years – and is caused by several different things.

Blue light

There’s a lot of scaremongering over blue light, so let’s get one thing straight: your laptop is nowhere near as harmful as the sun. While both emit blue light – the light ray with the shortest wavelength and highest energy – our screens only produce a fraction as much as the latter.

But there’s still concern over what they’re doing to our bodies. Screens might be weaker, but they’re much closer than the sun. And while we need some blue light to maintain our sleep–wake cycle (AKA our circadian rhythm), too much of a good thing can take its toll on our mood, eyes, and skin.

When it comes to the latter, blue light isn’t specifically the issue. Instead, it’s the free radicals it generates in our skin over time. Free radicals are unstable particles – and the only way to stabilise themselves is by damaging other particles. Our bodies produce them naturally to fight off viruses and bacteria, but when we have too many, they start to attack the collagen and elastin in our skin’s defensive layer.

With less collagen and elastin to keep skin bouncy and strong, our chances of developing fine lines and wrinkles increase. We’re also more prone to dullness, uneven skin tone, and hyperpigmentation – especially if you have a darker skin tone.

Or so we think. Research into the connection between artificial blue light and our skin is still ongoing. For now, we don’t know exactly how many days, months, or years we need to spend in front of our screens before we start to produce a damaging level of free radicals.

What we do know is that the blue light of our devices majorly disrupts our sleeping schedule. A few extra hours on TikTok each night seem harmless, but soon eat into the time our skin allocates to its regenerative cycle. This is when cellular repair is at its peak – and cutting into that will only worsen any existing issues.

Bacteria

Water is the last thing you want near technology, so it’s unsurprising that our devices accumulate a lot of bacteria. And we mean a lot – the average laptop is home to 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, while our phones are thought to be one of the dirtiest objects we come in contact with every day.

It’s nothing to fear and nothing antibacterial wipes can’t fix. But think about how often we touch our devices and then touch our face. If you’ve ever noticed clusters of pimples on your cheeks, your phone might be to blame. And if you find yourself resting your face on your hand at your desk, that new breakout could be caused by bacteria hopping a ride from your keyboard to your chin.

Posture

Back hunched, shoulders tight, chin down – if you’re reading this on a screen, this probably sounds familiar. Muscle strain wasn’t invented with the laptop, but the time we spend slouching over desks and staring down at our devices has massively exaggerated our posture issues, especially for our neck.

That’s because when our bodies evolved to function the way they do today, they didn’t consider the invention of phones. Our necks are designed to bear the weight of our heads, not to support hours of scrolling. Sometimes known as ‘tech neck’, this position can cause regular aches and pains as well as accelerating the development of wrinkles.

Like most wrinkles, these come as the result of repeatedly folding and creasing the skin in the same way. What doesn’t help is the fact the neck is home to powerful muscles and extremely thin skin. This provides the perfect combination for deep and stubborn lines, which are normally horizontal because of the way our necks bend.

How do I protect myself from digital aging?

Realistically, we’re not giving up screens any time soon. But if you do want to minimise the impact, there are a few ways to shield yourself from these digital agers.

Image of a eye protection glass representing digital aging

Block out blue light

If you can’t cut down on screen time – or just don’t want to, which is equally fair – there’s often a night mode or screen filter setting on your phone and laptop to eliminate blue light. If you wear glasses, you can also get lenses (sometimes named ‘computer glasses’) specifically designed to block out blue light for the hours you spend at your desk. Alternatively, you can get a physical transparent screen protector that does the same thing.

Image of an SPF based cream representing ways to protect digital aging

Apply SPF (even indoors)

The importance of SPF has (hopefully) already been drilled into you by this point, but we’re here to say it again: whether you’re indoors or outdoors, everyone should wear sunscreen, every day. While every sunscreen should protect you from the sun’s UV rays, physical – or mineral – sunscreens also offer blue light protection as they reflect it off the skin.

Image of skincare product bottles representing ways to protect digital aging

Antioxidant skincare

Free radicals create huge oxidative stress on your body, making antioxidants the perfect solution. Remember how free radicals attack other particles to keep themselves stable? Antioxidants work by giving them the electrons they crave, thus eliminating the need for them to wreak havoc – and preventing free radical damage in the process. Common antioxidant ingredients in skincare include vitamin C, vitamin E, niacinamide, and green tea.

Image of a woman from behind holding her head representing working on posture to protect digital aging

Work on your posture

This is easier said than done if you spend the bulk of your day at a desk. To reduce the strain on your neck, invest in a laptop stand – or even just prop your device on stacked books – so you’re not bending down. Ideally, your eyes should be level with the top third of your screen.

How do I reverse the effects?

Retinol

If there’s one ingredient dermatologists unanimously love for signs of aging, it’s retinol. A derivative of vitamin A, it’s been proven time and time again to promote collagen production, encourage skin renewal, even out skin tone, and improve acne. It’s incredibly potent, so it’s important to start slow with a low concentration. As your skin grows more tolerant, you can gradually increase your dosage. Just be ready to play the long game – visible improvement can take around three months.

RF microneedling

If it’s the loss of collagen that worries you about digital aging, RF microneedling can help to manually boost production. Using a fine needle device to create multiple micro-injuries and radiofrequency to heat up the issue, it tricks your skin into activating repair mode. Collagen production is amplified as a result, leaving you with fresher, rejuvenated skin after three to four sessions.

Botox

Botox works best when tackling wrinkles caused by movement and expressions. This makes it ideal for those created by repeatedly bending your neck. Injected into the muscle, it can relax the area and prevent – or soften – deep lines. As these muscles tend to pull down the jawline, it can also boost definition in this area. Results last anywhere between three and six months.

LED light therapy

Excessive blue light is potentially damaging to your skin, but don’t write off light completely. LED light therapy uses controlled wavelengths of light to target different concerns. Red is usually the colour of choice to generate collagen and repair damaged tissue as it penetrates skin the deepest, while blue (controversially) is used to kill acne-feeding bacteria.

Is digital aging just physical?

Not only do we spend so much time staring at our screens, but sometimes our own faces are staring back. Video calls provide a whole new opportunity to critique our appearance – and it’s easy to find fault in anything if you look at it long enough.

It’s no coincidence that countries across the world have reported a surge in demand for cosmetic treatments since the pandemic shifted our lives online. One study found that 11 percent of women are more interested in surgery now than they were pre-pandemic. Rhinoplasty replaced breast augmentation as the top procedure for the first time since 2006, while eyelid surgery and face lifts jumped to take second and third place.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular treatments are all focused on our face. The reality is that nobody looks their best on a laptop screen. Sitting so close to a camera has been proven to distort our facial features, and the quality is more likely to magnify fine lines and wrinkles. But how do we avoid over-scrutinising our appearance?

Ideally, try to spend as much time off camera as possible. If your life is Zoom-heavy, you can choose to hide your own camera view, or only turn it on when you need to be on screen. Another handy tip is to use the software’s video filter; this will soften your appearance and prevent you from picking out flaws.

Can I avoid digital aging for good?

In the grand scheme of things, the digital era has only just begun. While we know that our relationship with technology is taking toll on our bodies – both emotional and physical – there’s still so much we don’t understand. For now, the facts are that technology is an unavoidable part of all our lives and our bodies will age with or without a laptop. So, don’t add the guilt over your screen time to the list of things stressing out your skin.

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