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Flashlight in eyes: Can artificial light cause blindness?

flashlight shining in an eye

Can a flashlight damage your eyes?

The light from a standard flashlight with an incandescent bulb can’t damage your eyes. These types of flashlights (the kind you may have in your home) have a low lumen output. Lumens measure how bright a light is; the more lumens, the brighter the light.

Some flashlights are powered by an LED (light-emitting diode) bulb. LEDs are popular because they’re energy-efficient and affordable. While standard LED flashlights won’t injure your eyes, high-powered LED flashlights can briefly disorient you. If you shine a high-powered LED flashlight into your eyes, it can cause temporary blindness, and you could fall or have an accident until your vision returns to normal.  

Can a phone flashlight damage your eyes?

Like standard flashlights, phone flashlights typically have a low lumen output and should not cause eye damage. As with LED flashlights, there isn’t enough evidence to show that a phone flashlight is necessarily bad for your eyes. However, it’s best not to look directly into any light source, and if a certain light is causing your eyes discomfort, you should avert your gaze. 

What intensity of light can your eyes handle?

Your eyes are sensitive to both visible and invisible light. The brightness of the light and the length of time someone is exposed determine how much it impacts the eyes. However, even a dim light, such as a reading light, can lead to discomfort if you stare directly into it for more than a few seconds. 

For example, looking at the sun can damage the eyes, even during an eclipse. But permanent eye injury can also happen if your eyes are directly exposed to light that is not quite as intense over a longer period of time (days or weeks). This is called photo-oxidative damage and can lead to injury to the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. Here are some other eye issues and conditions that are related to excess light exposure:

Regardless of the level of brightness or intensity of light your eyes may be able to “handle,” it’s not worth the risk of potential damage to test your limits. Always wear sunglasses outside and protective eyewear when working around bright lights, flashes or other optical hazards. 

SEE RELATED: Is sun gazing safe for the eyes?

What about blue light? 

Blue light is in the high-energy, short wavelength range of the visual spectrum. Most of our exposure to blue light comes from the sun, even indoors. But, some blue light is emitted from smartphones, computers, tablets, and LED lights. 

Your eyes cannot filter blue light effectively, so it is important to wear sunglasses outdoors. Prolonged exposure to blue light from digital devices may lead to decreased visual comfort, which is why blue light glasses that filter high-energy blue-violet light have become popular recently. These glasses are able to filter different amounts of blue light depending on the tint.

Are ring lights bad for your eyes?

If you use a computer or phone camera for attending virtual meetings, making videos or posting photos to social media, you may be familiar with ring lights. A ring light diffuses light to get rid of shadows so you’ll look better on camera.

There is a wide variety of ring lights available to suit your needs, and they typically differ in size, brightness/dimmability and configuration. Here are a few examples:

  • A 6-inch ring light with a maximum brightness of 114 lumens (from 36 inches away) is about as bright as a 15-watt incandescent light bulb.

  • A 10-inch ring light with a maximum brightness of 240 lumens (from 36 inches away) is about as bright as a 25-watt incandescent light bulb.

  • An 18-inch ring light with a maximum brightness of 2,065 lumens (from 36 inches away) is as bright as a 150-watt incandescent light bulb.

Ring lights are made up of LED lights, so, similar to your phone’s flashlight, it’s unlikely you would damage your eyes using one. However, if you use the full 2,065-lumen brightness of the 18-inch ring light listed above, you may need to wear sunglasses to keep from squinting!

Can flash photography cause retina damage?

No, a camera’s flash cannot damage your retina. While the brightness from a camera flash can cause a brief loss of vision, the light isn’t strong enough to permanently harm your eyes. 

Even with a very bright flash from something like an explosion, your vision will start to return to normal in three to 10 minutes during the day. It will take longer at night when your eyes need more time to adjust

Can laser pointers permanently damage your eyes?

The more powerful a laser pointer is, the more damage it can do to your eyes. Lasers, especially those stronger than five milliwatts, can quickly cause serious and sometimes permanent damage to the retina, possibly impairing your vision long term. 

The main optical hazards associated with lasers include:

Symptoms of laser burn include:

  • Immediate headache

  • Excess eye watering

  • Rapid onset of eye floaters

  • Feeling like there is sand in the eyes

The level of damage depends on the strength of the laser and the length of time your eyes are exposed to it, meaning your eye’s blink reflex (or aversion response) is able to afford some protection.

The FDA requires that most lasers have a label showing how powerful the laser is, along with warnings about using it. Even with a warning label, it can be hard to understand just how powerful (and dangerous) a laser pointer is. Stronger lasers, known as “handheld lasers,” can look a lot like a five-milliwatt laser pointer but can be up to 400 times more powerful

To help avoid eye injuries, you should:

  • Never point a laser at anyone or shine it into your own eyes. 

  • Keep laser pointers away from children.

  • Only use laser pointers labeled as Class 2 or Class 3A, with no more than five milliwatts in strength. 

The FDA has information to help identify what kind of laser pointer you have, along with tips about using it safely.  

READ NEXT: How to prevent eye injuries

Can a flashlight harm your eyes? American Academy of Ophthalmology. February 2013.

Are LED lights damaging your retina? Cleveland Clinic. August 2019.

Age-related macular degeneration. National Eye Institute. June 2021.

Light and eye damage. American Optometric Association. December 2014.

Are bright lights dangerous to the eye? BrightFocus Foundation. July 2021.

Blue light and your eyes. Prevent Blindness. Accessed February 2022.

Protect your eyes from bright light, including blue. BrightFocus Foundation. August 2021.

Age-related macular degeneration. National Eye Institute. June 2021.

Best ring lights of 2022. GearLab. January 2022.

Is it possible to blind a baby with a camera flash? Yahoo News. July 2015.

Flash blindness. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. August 2021.

Laser pointer safety. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Accessed February 2022. 

Laser pointer safety. University of Washington. April 2017. 

Building blocks of laser safety.  Manual of Laser Safety. December 2020.

Laser pointer retinal injuries. Retina Today. April 2015.

Is your laser pointer dangerous enough to cause eye injury? American Academy of Ophthalmology. June 2018.

Illuminating facts about laser pointers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. June 2019.

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