Can Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Cause Skin Damage?

Compact Fluorescent Light BulbThat light bulb that’s supposed to be good for the planet and your electricity bill may be bad for your eyes and skin.

Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are considered by some to be a responsible choice for energy-conscious living because:

  • They produce the same amount of light as incandescent bulbs but with just one fourth of the energy use.
  • They are convenient since they fit into the same light fixtures as the old, energy-hungry incandescent bulbs.
  • Their energy efficiency saves you money on your utility bill.

At my house, we exchanged most of our halogen and incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent light bulbs. We felt good about it.

But, a recent scientific study published in Photochemistry and Photobiology took a hard look at whether CFLs are actually a good idea for our skin and eyes – and the results are disturbing!

First, some background on compact fluorescent light bulbs:

According to Homedepot.com:

Compact fluorescent light bulbs are an energy-efficient alternative to conventional incandescent bulbs. In an incandescent bulb, electric current heats a thin filament to the point that it glows. This design produces a warm, soft light, but the bulb loses most of its energy in the form of heat. In CFLs, electric current energizes argon and mercury vapor, which excites a glowing phosphor coating inside the bulb. This design loses very little energy to heat, which means it consumes much less power than an equivalent incandescent bulb.

CFLs use around 75% less electricity than an incandescent bulb with the same light output, while lasting about 10 times longer. Additionally, since CFLs produce less heat, they can help you save on cooling costs.

This means that CFLs are a practical choice for consumers who buy their own light bulbs and pay their own utility bills.

But, how do CFLs work this energy-efficient miracle?

The authors of the Photochemistry and Photobiology study explain:

Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs work on the principal of excitation of Hg (mercury) vapors and production of the Hg (mercury) emission lines that are used to excite the phosphor leading to light emission in the visible range. In addition to emission of visible light, the phosphor also serves as an absorber of the UV radiation from the Hg (mercury) vapor.

Translated, this means the UV light generated in the CFL bulb is supposed to be absorbed by the phosphor coating applied on the bulb glass, and that’s what protects us from otherwise harmful UV exposure.

Recently, however, people have begun to wonder if this UV protection mechanism really works. Medical articles, mostly out of the European Union, have documented the potential for CFLs to worsen photosensitive skin conditions (allergies to UV light) and skin cancers in susceptible people. Now this new study shows that commercially available CFL bulbs actually release UV rays that can damage healthy skin cells too.

What’s the reason that the UV protection mechanism may not be working and the CFLs might be releasing UV rays? 

Cracks! Yes, cracks in the phosphor coating of the bulbs allow UVC (a really bad, DNA-damaging UV ray that doesn’t even get to us from the sun) and UVA to escape from the bulb. It’s not just “cheap” bulbs either. Nope. Every bulb the investigators tested had the phosphor coating cracks that allowed UV light to escape - bad news!!

A deeper look at the issues will help you better understand what this means to you so you can make choices about your options.

Facts to consider:

  • It’s the curved geometry – due to the narrowness of the CFL tubing – that places undo stress on the phosphor coating, causing it to crack. This is less of a problem with the large tube fluorescent bulbs that we’re all familiar with (and that aren’t anywhere near as convenient).
  • This study was an in vitro study (meaning they tested isolated cell types in a petri dish), not a study on the skin of living humans. Intact living human skin is tougher and more complex, with better protection mechanisms. Nonetheless, this study tested for widely accepted signs of UV damage in these cells and found it after exposure of the cells to the CFLs.
  • To determine if the danger from this CFL UV exposure applies in a real life setting (i.e. your desk lamp) the investigators measured UV emission from CFL desk lamp light bulbs at 2.5, 7.5, and 35cm (about 1 to 14 inches). The results showed that in under 6 hours, using the worst of the light bulbs that they tested, and at a typical working distance of 14 inches, your skin and eyes are exposed to unsafe levels of UV rays. This level was defined as the Threshold Limit Value (TLV), which is what is considered safe and allowable in regulated workplace settings.
  • Incandescent bulbs did not emanate UV light and did not cause cell damage when tested in this study.

Bottom Line: My opinion is that the results have significance for your real life exposure and all of us need to pay attention to how close we sit to CFL bulbs. What’s even more disturbing to me about the data is that UVC is released from the bulbs. UVC is very powerful at damaging cell DNA. We normally don’t have to worry about UVC because even the sun’s UVC rays don’t reach us here on earth. UVC is bad news, and trust me, you don’t want UVC exposure!

The authors’ final sentence of their paper sums it up well:

… our results confirm that UV radiation emanating from CFL bulbs (randomly selected from different suppliers) as a result of defects or damage in the phosphorus coating is potentially harmful to human skin.

What am I, as a dermatologist, doing with my own CFLs bulbs?

Well, as I was typing this post I looked over at the CFL in the task light that sits about 14 inches from my face every day and replaced it with one of my old incandescent bulbs.

I’m also going to start asking my patients about the bulbs in their task lighting when I see inexplicable evidence of excessive UV exposure on their skin.

There are some additional questions that I can’t answer right now given the data and our understanding of UV light. I’m going to have to wait for more information before I can reach any additional conclusions. Questions such as:

  1. What about the CFL bulbs in ceiling fixtures? Are we far enough away from the bulbs so that the UV light exposure has dropped off to a negligible level?
  2. Does glass or plastic housing on a light fixture block enough of the harmful rays to bring the CFL bulb UV emission down to safe levels and, if so, at what distances? We know that glass blocks UVC and some forms of plastic block UVA, so the presence of protective housing may really help. Is there some magic material that can block all the UV rays that we want blocked? Sounds to me like a patent opportunity for some clever photo-science expert!

 

ReferencePhotochem Photobiol. 2012 Jun 23. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-1097.2012.01192.x. [Epub ahead of print]  The Effects of UV Emission from Compact Fluorescent Light Exposure on Human Dermal Fibroblasts and Keratinocytes In Vitro.  Mironava T, Hadjiargyrou M, Simon M, Rafailovich MH.

Photo: Thanks and Gratitude to Nioxxe

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10 Responses to “Can Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Cause Skin Damage?”

  1. Michelle August 15, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I just want to add that these bulbs are terrible for migraineurs such as myself. I have been replacing them with the expensive LED bulbs. They may cost more, but they will last longer and as far as I know, they don’t emit anything bad. Beside, you don’t have to worry about mercury exposure if you break an LED bulb like you would with the CFL’s.

  2. Alexandra August 15, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Thank you for sharing this information, Dr. Bailey. I’m so glad I found your blog and website a few months ago…the quality of information you provide about skincare is unrivaled by any other dermatology blog I’ve found online.

  3. Cynthia Bailey MD August 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Hello Alexandra,
    Thank you! I really appreciate your kind words. Writing about dermatology has become a surprising mid-career passion for me. I didn’t realize how much I was going to love it, and it wouldn’t be such a joy if you weren’t there to read what I write. Thanks you for sharing this adventure with me.
    Cheers,
    Cynthia Bailey MD

  4. Lynne August 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks, Dr. Bailey for the update. This is why I resent politics instead of science governing our decisions. I have long been an anti-fan of CFL’s. They hurt my eyes and I do not like the fact that they use mercury. Also I have had some skin cancer so I am definitely going to replace more of these CFL’s. Unfortunately some of my fixtures require these bubls in ceiling fixtures. I am hoping that LED bulbs can solve the environmental issues and health issues.

  5. Devra August 15, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    WOW,
    This was an eye opener of a blog post. Thank goodness you receive the latest information and pass it on to your readers. This really makes me wonder now if that darn energy efficient bulb
    next to my bed is why I am constantly getting brown spots after an IPL. I truly never, ever go out in the sun without my protective clothing.
    I was really shocked to learn that UVC actually escapes through very small cracks in the outer finish-this is scary for those of us that are truly hyper-sensitive to the sun.
    OK, I am on a mission my bulbs in my office, bedroom, and any other areas in my home. As much as I would like to be environmentally friendly and save monies I have to choose my skin care first.
    PS Dr Bailey love my new skin care products. Much Aloha

  6. peter dublin August 18, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    More about the Stony Brook research team, their
    study, and previous CFL UV studies, with spectral diagrams and
    information about UV radiation and skin disorders
    http://tonn.ie Search: Stony Brook (direct link a bit long!)

  7. peter dublin August 18, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    RE CFLs and savings,
    the same site covers why the supposed savings don’t hold up,
    in particular as regards society energy and emission savings.
    The Dept of Energy etc stats can also be seen here http://ceolas.net/#li171x

    One main reason is that much the same coal (the main “culprit”) is burned regardless of what bulb you use, for base load coal plant operational reasons, which is also why off-peak electricity costs less.

    Home Depot are also wrong in their heat assumptions, as can be independently verified.
    CFLs do indeed have a great 80% heat loss, but it is internalized in the base rather than radiated, ironically increasing the fire risk from such lighting.

  8. Brad Buscher August 24, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Safely recycling used fluorescent lamps and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) is important for the environment, but also for the health of consumers and handlers who come into contact with them. Exposure to mercury vapors can lead to significant risks including neurological damage. Despite the potential health issues, fluorescent lamps and CFLs are growing steadily in the industrial, commercial and residential markets. They are four to six times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, offer energy cost savings and deliver a longer working life. In order to safely dispose of and recycle used fluorescent lamps and CFLs, they must be properly packaged in an effective mercury-safe storage or shipping container that includes an adsorbent technology.

    A study by Nucon International, Inc., a world-wide leader in providing gas, vapor and liquid phase adsorption solutions for mercury and other contaminants to the nuclear and other industries, found that within mercury-specific packaging, vapor levels can reach over 150 to 300 times OSHA’s 8-hour permissible exposure limit. A new, patent-pending adsorbent technology, recently announced at the Air & Waste Management Association’s Conference & Exhibition, can significantly reduce the mercury vapor levels in these storage and recycling packages. Levels were reduced by nearly 60 percent in only 15 minutes and over 95 percent after 12 hours, according to the study. The adsorbent is impregnated with powdered, activated carbon and reacted with proprietary inert chemicals, allowing it to effectively capture and reduce the mercury vapor from shattered lamps to a safe level within the shipping and storage package. In addition, the adsorbent can accommodate the high volume of mercury vapor that is released when several or all bulbs in a full package are broken. This provides an added layer of protection against incidental mercury exposure, offering consumers and other handlers a safer way to recycle their used fluorescent lamps and CFLs. A small consumer-size recycling bag, now available, also features this technology and allows people to safely store three to four used lamps at home before taking them to a retailer or municipality that accepts CFLs for recycling.
    View a short animated depiction of the adsorption process at http://www.vaporlokproducts.com/capturedemo.

    Download a detailed White Paper on this technology at http://www.vaporlokproducts.com/capturewhitepaper.pdf.

    Purchase consumer CFL recycling bags at http://vaporlokproducts.myshopify.com/products/consumer-cfl-recycling-bag.

  9. uvb as a treatment August 31, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    UV light can be also a blessing when someone have psoriasis, or vitiligo, even severe acne, exposure under doctor’s observation at UVB 311nm lamp uv-light is the most effective and non-invasive skin treatment.

  10. Kevin September 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    Not only do CFLs give me headaches, they are hideous. The light looks artificial and creepy. I will stick with my old-fashioned bulbs.

    Thanks for a great website Dr. Bailey :)