What is blue light and how do I protect my eyes?

Q: I am seeing ads for glasses with “blue light protection.” What is this?

A: Although this issue has been in our medical journal for a few years, it seems the public is now seeing stories on television and ads and so forth dealing with “blue light.” I am glad for your question, and glad the public is becoming aware of this issue.

“Blue light” is essentially just a part of the spectrum of light, like ultraviolet or infrared radiation, that is being studied as a possible cause of retinal damage. Most of the spectrum of light is colored and visible to us, but at the lower and higher end of that range are wavelengths of light that the human eye cannot see. Most people generally know that ultraviolet radiation is bad for our skin and our eyes. This is just part of the spectrum of light, but because we cannot “see” ultraviolet light, we call it radiation. All light is actually “radiation.” Similarly, blue light is a part of that spectrum (actually right next to the ultraviolet portion) but we cannot “see” blue light. Whether we can “see” this radiation or not, it enters our eyes and may be causing damage. The current studies are inconclusive about how dangerous this is, and how much blue light is too much.

In medicine, we commonly err on the side of caution, and this is true with blue light also. In our practice, we have been recommending or prescribing blue light filters in the lenses of our patients’ eyewear for quite a while. This is especially true if our patient spends more than four hours a day on computers/tablets/

phones. This four hour “rule” is arbitrary, and many patients come in already aware and wanting blue light protection in their glasses, just as they have wanted ultraviolet protection for decades.

Blue light exposure is mostly from the sun, but is also by looking at our computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone screens. And who has the most potential exposure? Children! Most kids are already spending a lot of hours staring at screens, both at school and at home. So just as children are getting the most UV exposure (and need sun protection) so too are they receiving the high levels, and for a lot of years to come, of blue light exposure.

I would add a caution, in that I am seeing some ads for blue light “blocking” glasses sold very inexpensively in stores. Because no agency is overseeing or testing those claims, I have serious doubts that those over-the-counter blue light blockers actually give much protection. At this early stage of understanding the actual risks, I would recommend you talk to your eye doctor about your personal exposure level and appropriate protection. And, of course, parents should be considering blue light protection for their children — whether they wear prescription lenses or not. To be clear, we are seeing more parents purchasing blue light filtering glasses for their kids, even when the child has no vision problem.

Be proactive about this and continue to read more as the science tells us what risks we are facing. Good news is that blue light protection does not add any color or tint to your glasses, so having protection built in does not make your eyewear look different or odd. We all live in a digital world these days, and our eyes are being exposed to risks we did not have 25 years ago. New risks may require new protections.

DR. THOMAS STOUT, OD, FAAO is an eye physician in private practice at Morgantown Eye Associates. Info: MorgantownEye.com.

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