It’s been said that cell phones carry 10 times more bacteria than a public toilet seat. (Just let that sink in for a minute.) And whenever we put our phones up to our ears for a call, a lot of that bacteria ― along with sweat, oils and possibly makeup residue ― comes into contact with your skin, and could potentially lead to breakouts. And the blue light emitting from our screens is rumored to prematurely age our skin, too.
Dr. Estee Williams, a board-certified medical, cosmetic and surgical dermatologist based in New York, told HuffPost that while the bacteria on its own won’t necessarily cause acne, all the other grime hanging out on your cell phone could harm your skin.
“If there’s a lot of buildup on the phone, theoretically that can clog your pores and that sort of plugging of the pores can trigger acne, but not because of the bacteria,” she said. ”[It’s] because of the grime on the phone.”
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told HuffPost that acne at its base level is caused by genetics, but agreed that something like a dirty telephone constantly sitting against the skin could be a factor to increase your risk of breaking out.
“The phone is held up to our face so oil, dirt and makeup can accumulate on the surface of the phone and if you hold the phone up at another time, that can be transferred back to your face, and contribute to inflammation and blocking of the pores,” he said.
If pores are blocked, the natural oils in our skin aren’t able to flow freely out of them, he added.
Both Williams and Zeichner noted that if they see patients with a breakout or cluster of pimples on only one side of the face, one of the most common things they ask about is the patient’s cell phone habits.
In order to prevent any potential breakouts, the doctors recommended cleaning phones regularly with rubbing alcohol to avoid the transfer of pore-clogging dirt and oils as well as bacteria. There are also devices, like PhoneSoap, that use UV light to sanitize devices.
For those who are already acne-prone, Zeichner stressed the importance of cleaning the skin with proper facial products, and perhaps opting for a bluetooth earpiece instead of bringing your phone up to your face. (This is a good practice for everyone, really.)
Aside from potentially triggering breakouts, there’s been speculation that the light emitting from our phones ― high-energy visible light, a.k.a. blue light ― is responsible for premature aging. A study from 2013 claims HEV light can have the same effects as UVA and UVB on the skin. But the study was commissioned by a skincare company, so as The Guardian points out, there may be some bias. (It should also be noted that there is no research to conclude HEV light is associated with causing skin cancer.)
“There’s some data to suggest that high-energy visible light may be associated with premature aging,” Zeichner said. He added that we don’t currently have great preventative treatments for the potential effects of HEV, as we do with UVA/UVB rays.
However, he said, “Rather than being able to primarily block it, we can help compensate for it by using topical products like antioxidants, which act like fire extinguishers. They help neutralize free radical damage that may be caused by a variety of sources, including high energy visible light.” (For what it’s worth, we’d recommend investing in a good vitamin C serum.)
At this time, there still isn’t enough research to concretely say that HEV light is damaging to the skin. In fact, HEV light is also present in daylight and it’s emitted by things like fluorescent lights, TV screens and computers, which makes it difficult to pinpoint our phones as the sole cause for any signs of aging on the face.
Beyond that, the amount of light that’s actually emitted from our phones is actually quite low, Williams noted, adding that she “wouldn’t even think twice about it.”
“In terms of skin-specific things, I’ve never come across anything that shows that using cell phones can cause brown spots or wrinkles or any skin problem,” Williams said.
If you are really concerned about your skin, though, you can visit a dermatologist who can help you find a skincare routine that’s best for you. But as long as you’re cleaning your phone regularly and taking care of your skin (cleansing, using sunscreen and protecting it with antioxidant-rich products) there shouldn’t be a reason to stress.
“I would say that technology certainly has its benefits but we’re finding that it now has some drawbacks too, in terms of potentially making acne worse and promoting aging,” Zeichner said. “And we just have to be aware of this and compensate with our skincare routine.”