Blue light is the gluten of the visible spectrum. Ten years ago, I had no idea what it was, and now there’s a fair number of companies telling me that it may be destroying my life — and hoping to sell me something in the process.
The new moral panic over blue light plays into one of the basic anxieties of our era: We spend a lot of time looking at screens, and we don’t know what that does to our eyes or our brain. The argument against blue light goes like this: Our brains are hardwired to expect certain types of light at certain times of day. Blue light is normally found mainly in sunlight, therefore we’re not meant to see it during non-daylight hours. TVs, computer, and phone screens all emit blue light and ostensibly slows melatonin production, wreaking havoc on our sleep cycle. More dire warnings about blue light claim that it can cause or exacerbate macular degeneration. There are software hacks to prevent our eyeballs from soaking in the stuff; both iOS and Android offer modes that reduce blue light after sunset, and programs like f.lux can do the same for your computer monitor.
Then there’s the hardware solution. Felix Gray is the Warby Parker of “computer glasses,” lenses meant to block blue light and prevent eye fatigue associated with staring at screens for hours. Unlike the bright-yellow lenses you get from companies like Gunnar Optiks or Uvex, Felix Gray sells lenses that appear to be clear, and closely follow Warby Parker’s tweedy aesthetic. Curious about computer glasses and subject to the same anxieties as everyone else about how much time I spend staring at a screen, I tried out a pair of Felix Gray computer glasses for two weeks.
The problem of even attempting to test something like this, of course, is that beyond some baselines — my prescription was filled correctly, the glasses fit well, and at no point did my eyes start spontaneously bleeding — it’s very difficult to say whether Felix Gray’s lenses worked. When you first start wearing the glasses, you’ll notice that they have a very, very slight yellow tint to them; putting them on is like using the world’s most subtle Instagram filter. There’s also some anti-glare coating on them, which is pretty standard at this point with prescription glasses.
I noticed that my eyes did feel slightly better on the first few days of wearing the glasses. Were the lenses working as advertised, or was that just the effect of wearing new, scratch-free lenses and taking the time to wipe them down with a cloth when they got smudged? On the other hand, I’m wearing the Felix Gray lenses as I type this, and my eyes have a slow, pulsing ache where the stringy bits of my eyeball connect to my brain. Is that because the glasses are hokum, or just that I slept poorly last night? In practice, I found it very hard to tell the difference between wearing the Felix Grays and wearing my regular glasses (or no glasses at all).
The science on all of this is very much up in the air. Felix Gray has a whole section of its website dedicated to “digital eye strain,” and the Vision Council, an industry trade group for the optical industry in the United States, details how eyeglasses can help prevent this. But the American Academy of Ophthalmology states flatly: “There is no evidence that the kind or amount of light coming from computer screens is damaging to the eyes,” and it “does not recommend any special eyewear for computer use.” A lot of the claims about blue light that you see tossed around are given by individual ophthalmologists or optometrists. Initial research into blue light’s effect on the body are scattershot and usually based on very small sample sizes — to date, there aren’t any large-scale or longitudinal studies about blue light. (There’s also research suggesting that blue light may positively affect memory, cognitive abilities, and mood; by wearing blue light–blocking eyeglasses, am I possibly making myself dumber and sadder during the day?)
I don’t doubt that looking at a computer or smartphone screen for the majority of my day messes with my eyes and my brain on some level. And there does seem to be broad scientific consensus that electrical lighting in general, and perhaps LED-lighting specifically, alters our circadian rhythm. But I remain skeptical that glasses are the answer. A life with less screen time would be great, but for reasons both economic and personal, I don’t see the amount of time that I spend looking at screens or under artificial lighting changing much in the near future.
If you’re worried about your eyes from too much computer time, by all means try out Felix Gray glasses. They aren’t much more expensive than a pair of regular prescription lenses, there’s a 30-day return policy if you end up disliking them, and even if it’s mainly a placebo effect, your eyes may feel better at the end of the day. But just as you can overeat gluten-free food, blue light–blocking glasses can’t stop you from staying up too late, reading your phone at 2 a.m. Eyeglasses can filter what you see, but ultimately you still end up choosing what to look at.