YouTube streaming star Valkyrae launches skin care line to controversy, ethical questions

YouTube streaming star Valkyrae launches skin care line to controversy, ethical questions
·9 min read

"I can't stop crying," Rachell "Valkyrae" Hofstetter, YouTube's most popular female streamer, wrote in a now-deleted tweet this week after announcing her new skin care line. The collection, RFLCT, promised to mitigate "blue light pollution" from computer and phone screens. "This has been a long journey with my team," she added. "This is just the beginning." Almost immediately, however, viewers and other streamers expressed skepticism: Blue light pollution, they said, is not a real problem and could be used to "scam" impressionable young viewers into buying products that don't work as advertised. Experts appear to agree: At the very least, there's not enough credible research on the subject to warrant product lines.

Blue light is a form of visible, high-energy light that is only slightly less powerful than ultraviolet light, which is emitted by the sun and can cause skin and eye damage over time. While some experts have suggested that blue light from screens might contribute to eyestrain, it's still an area of contentious debate. The notion that blue light might cause skin damage has even less scientific backing.

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"There is, at this time, inconclusive evidence as to whether or not screens can actually produce enough light to cause serious skin damage," Shari Marchbein, a New York board-certified dermatologist, told The Post. "A lot of companies are focusing on blue light protection because we know this comes from sun exposure, even if the evidence pointing toward devices isn't as clear."

These kinds of gray areas are where companies of questionable repute thrive, said Michael Hobbes, co-host of a popular podcast that debunks wellness misinformation called "Maintenance Phase."

"New technologies often produce minor moral panics about health (radiation from cell towers, microwaves cause cancer, etc.)," said Hobbes, "and it's easy for companies to capitalize on those by selling 'cures.' " Skin care, he added, is especially susceptible to wellness grifts because aging happens no matter what, and it's influenced by numerous difficult-to-measure factors. "It's the same reason multivitamins are scammy," he said. "How can you really tell if they're working?"

Joanna Coles, co-founder of Ideavation Labs, which collaborates with Hofstetter and RFLCT, addressed the critics of the new skin care line.

"On RFLCT's homepage we include references to academic studies citing the impact of blue light on the skin," Coles said in a statement to The Washington Post. "Anyone with a computer should read these. It's hard enough for young women to start a business in a male dominated economy. I am confident that if a male gamer had come up with RFLCT he would have been roundly applauded."

RFLCT joins a flotilla of products that purport to keep harmful blue light rays at bay.

"Whether that's your phone, computer, tablet, television, or any other device, all digital screens emit potentially harmful blue light waves that can be damaging to your skin," reads a blurb on RFLCT's website. "However you spend your screen time, there's a RFLCT product for you."

The website also contains numerous quotes from Hofstetter, a content creator since 2014 and current co-owner of esports organization 100 Thieves, who says that "all of that screen time started to take a toll on my body and my skin." That, she goes on to say, is why she spent two years co-founding RFLCT in conjunction with New York-based company Blue Mistral, LLC.

But as numerous streamers congratulated Hofstetter on the launch - with some expressing shock and concern about having a new skin care issue to worry about - viewers led the charge in questioning the efficacy of blue light skin products. In the wake of a popular Reddit thread on the subject, prominent content creators also began to critique Hofstetter's promotion of the product.

"I don't believe that blue light is destroying your skin the way the RFLCT product presents itself," political broadcaster Hasan "HasanAbi" Piker, who initially congratulated Hofstetter on the launch, said during a stream. "It's just f------ soap."

"I think this shows the extent of parasocial thinking in these kids," tweeted popular streamer 39daph (who has not shared her real name) after posting a GIF making fun of RFLCT and receiving blowback. "Playing one or two games together [with Hofstetter] doesn't make us good friends. I'm also not obligated to support or promote a product I disagree with."

Kathleen Suozzi, a dermatologic surgeon and director of Yale's aesthetic dermatology program, explained that concerns around blue light skin damage do at least begin with a kernel of truth.

"Blue light can induce pigmentation in the skin, particularly in darker-skinned individuals. Prolonged exposure to blue light - and we're talking about, like, blue light emissions from the sun - can induce hyperpigmentation," Suozzi said. "There was this sort of theoretical concern that patients who are prone to pigment issues - so this isn't just your average, fair-skinned individual with no pigmentary issues; this is someone who might suffer from a condition called melasma, or their skin is prone to hyperpigmentation or darkening - could be more sensitive to external triggers of blue light outside of sun rays."

But, she added, that's a "very specific subset of patients." Suozzi pointed to a 2019 study in which researchers exposed one side of participants' faces to the equivalent of blue light from a powerful screen and shielded the other side for eight hours per day, five days in a row.

"They found that there was absolutely no difference in the side of the face that was exposed to blue light," she said. "People who are not melasma-prone or pigment-prone are unlikely to have any even theoretical consequence from sitting in front of a screen for prolonged periods of time."

Suozzi added that, based on available information, walking outside in sunlight a few minutes each day probably causes more skin damage than eight hours in front of a screen. She conceded, however, that few trustworthy studies of blue light damage from screens exist, meaning that it's impossible to judge with absolutely certainty. Additionally, the long-term impacts of blue light on something like aging - which happens over the course of years and is influenced by an incalculable number of factors - are exceedingly difficult to study.

Marchbein concurred that it's currently impossible to say whether screens produce sufficient blue light to leave skin looking craggier and saggier, especially because our current understanding of the relationship between blue light and skin largely comes from the sun, which produces ultraviolet light along a spectrum of many different kinds of light. Blue light coming from a screen, on the other hand, is not ultraviolet light and is not regarded as the primary element of sunlight that causes skin damage. Still, Marchbein advised exercising caution in the face of high-energy visible light from better-understood sources like the sun.

"Antioxidant serums (like vitamin C, niacinamide, etc.) are one great way of protecting the skin from blue light damage [from the sun]," she said. "Another is using iron oxide pigments, which are found in tinted sunscreens." The RFLCT line of products - which includes a facial cleanser, moisturizer and eye mask - leans primarily on the former.

Suozzi took issue with the characterization of RFLCT's antioxidants as blue light reflectors, as the name might imply.

"When we use products like these - vitamin C is probably the quintessential antioxidant in skin pharmaceuticals - you're potentially mitigating some of that [skin damage]," she said. "But you're by no means getting rid of it completely, and it's not even a direct effect of blocking blue light. It's just having an impact on potential downstream effects of blue light, but that doesn't even get to the mechanism we know blue light can do, which is that melanocyte stimulation. So I mean to me, that's just a big waste of money."

She also pointed out that RFLCT's facial cleanser, which contains antioxidants as well, is limited in its usage because "anything that's a wash is pretty much getting onto your face and being washed straight off."

Suozzi went on to say that in terms of actually blocking or reflecting blue light, specifically, sunscreen and similar products won't work because "blue light [on its own] is not UV light." To live up to their name, she continued, RFLCT products would need to be significantly less glamorous.

"In terms of these blue light blockers, people have used ingredients like zinc titanium, but mostly iron - arguing that we're putting minerals on the skin that then are going to reflect off that light," Suozzi said. "But if you think about the physics of visible light, unless you had an opaque shield or some topical compound that looked completely white on your skin, you're not going to be reflecting off the light. Just by physics, it doesn't make sense. So that's where I think it becomes really misleading to patients. . . . That's so many degrees of misinformation."

On the upside, many of the ingredients present in RFLCT have also appeared in more traditional skin care products for decades, so according to Suozzi, it's "unlikely they're hurting your skin."

On Thursday, Hofstetter put out a brief statement in the form of a voice memo on Twitter. Sounding worn down, she began by saying it had been "a very, very long two days" before describing a communication breakdown.

"All of the hate and the doubt and the concerns and the criticism are all warranted and valid," Hofstetter said. "I understand completely where you're all coming from. I also was very upset and confused when I saw the [RFLCT] website and there were no links to the studies or credits to the labs or people who worked behind the scenes to make RFLCT happen. So yeah, it was very confusing and lacking a lot of information, but they're updating it now."

She added that she will stream and address her experiences with RFLCT in more detail after the site is updated. Neither Hofstetter's team nor RFLCT replied to requests for further comment.

This is far from the first time Suozzi has seen an unfounded trend take off like this. These days in health and wellness circles, it's par for the course. Now it's come to video games, where influencers with young audiences (who love to buy what their faves endorse) abound.

"I think this is what we see in the age of social media," Suozzi said. "There's some kernel of a fact, like this potential risk of blue light stimulating melanocytes, which then gets extrapolated to the risk of blue light on skin health in general and then correlated to the effect of the sun on the skin, and now you're just in territory where truth and facts are left behind. It's a snowball effect."

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