28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part X

Blue lights are more abrasive on the eyes than red ones.

The advent of the light-emitting diode has changed the way electronics communicate with users. Looking around my room, I can count over 20 LEDs currently either flashing or glowing steadily, from my phone to my webcam to the lights inside my computer box, informing me as to whether an item is powered on, ready to use, whether batteries are charging or fully charged. I didn’t really have a say in the colors of lights that would accompany my electronics, and the majority of these are either blue or green.

All light is a result of certain wavelengths of light traveling rather quickly through the air. The smaller the wave, the closer to violet its color; the larger the wave, the more red it will appear.

If you imagine beams of light as sewing needles moving through space, the red beams would be the widest needles, maybe the kind meant for embroidering. If you’ve ever pressed the tip of an embroidery needle into your skin, it likely didn’t do any damage at all. On the other hand (and the other side of the spectrum), violet would be represented by much smaller needles–roughly half the width of the red ones. These would be much easier to sink into your skin, and therefore the most destructive needle within these bounds.

Beyond the visible spectrum, we have ultraviolet rays–so called because they’re smaller than violet wavelength of around 380 nanometers. Everyone’s heard of these rays, because they’ve been doing terribly destructive things to our cells since birth. Blue and violet rays come closer to being small enough to passing through our cells–not close enough to actually do anything, but much closer than red beams.

Blue LEDs are emitting some of the smallest wavelengths still visible to our eyes, which means that while the rays aren’t penetrating our cells the way harmful radiation would, they still cause more damage to the receptors inside our eyes than wider rays. From a design standpoint, blue seems to be a more attractive, less gaudy alternative to red–after all, red dominated the faux wood-panel clock radio market for years, and who wants to be reminded of that?

I used to have a computer with a bright blue LED on the front, which happened to be right next to me as I slept. I ended up slapping a piece of tape over it to stop the beam from bothering me at night, but I didn’t know until later that the blue light could actually harm the eye. I’m sure it didn’t do any real lasting damage, but the abundance of blue LEDs in computers, car consoles, and other electronics seems to be a bad idea if other colors–amber and green, for instance–have less of a tendency to disturb users and cause headaches, if not long-term problems.

I don’t want to imply that the lights coming from your clock will cause cancer, but on a much more superficial level, blue lights are generally more prone to causing discomfort for users, especially in darker environments, due to their smaller size. About ten years ago I predicted that LED usage would decline as designers realized how annoying a room full of brightly glowing lights can be, but it seems the opposite has proven true. With the exception of products like Apple’s iBook, which diffuses its LED to give it a softer glow, electronics are largely ignoring the discomfort that accompanies these lights. I’d love to see some more creative, less headache-inducing solutions for this problem.


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