Q. Can compact fluorescent light bulbs cause skin cancer?
A. Energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have been steadily replacing traditional incandescent bulbs used in household lamps and other lighting fixtures.
CFLs emit very low levels of ultraviolet A (UV-A) radiation, the kind that penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin and are often associated with allergic reactions, such as a rash. UV-A rays damage the skin and can lead to skin cancer. However, the amount emitted by CFLs is so minuscule as to be almost meaningless, so it’s highly unlikely that the bulbs cause skin cancer.
Concern about CFLs causing skin cancer may have spiked in the wake of a 2012 study at Stony Brook University in New York in which skin cells in petri dishes changed after exposure to CFLs, which may have been because of cracks in the bulbs' protective coating that let out UV light.
Researchers at New York University decided to measure emissions from ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights in office environments. They concluded that a person spending a year working under the bulbs would be exposed to the equivalent of 20 minutes of direct sunlight in September—not enough to cause any damage.
If you’re still worried, you can install Plexiglas covers over CFLs to block UV-A rays and keep some distance between you and the bulbs. But the energy is so low you likely don’t need sunscreen for protection from CFLs. You should, however, always protect yourself from sunlight’s more powerful rays and apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater every day.
Learn more about the dangers of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers.