Toasted Skin Syndrome: Limit Laptop Use on Bare Skin

Businesswoman using a laptop on bare skin.

Avoid toasted skin syndrome by not using your laptop use on bare skin.You might not think it’s possible to get bad skin from your laptop but research is beginning to show increasing cases of net-like hyperpigmentation caused by prolonged laptop use on skin. The medical condition is called laptop-induced erythema ab igne. According to a report by the University of Texas, Houston-Medical, and Tulane, erythema ab igne is condition where redness of the skin occurs on the surface due to skin injury from thermal radiation.  In layman’s terms, this is also known as “toasted skin syndrome” from your laptop.

Historically, lesions of this nature were witnessed only in individuals exposed to open fires or stoves that were hot enough to be warm but cool enough not to cause an immediate burn. More obvious heat sources were originally identified as culprits, as prolonged thermal exposure is required to produce long-term damage to capillaries and blood vessels that result in toasted skin syndrome. Only more recently have scientists and clinicians started to observe reticular hyperpigmentation in patients whom do not go near fires or stoves but simply, regularly use portable electronic devices, such as laptops or other electronic devices with bare skin contact. Literature reviews and other publications are beginning to document many cases where chronic low-grade heat exposure has caused a network of flat discolored splotches of red and dark colors in human skin.

Presently, the exact mechanism by which radiation may cause this splotchy skin disorder to occur remains unknown. It is hypothesized that heat exposure may induce damage to superficial blood vessels. This in turn may lead to dilation and deposition of hemosiderin, an iron-storage complex found naturally within cells, which may form a network-like distribution. The result is not pretty. Lesions can begin as transient net-like redness that gradually darkens over time. With chronic heat exposure, the lesions from erythema ab igne can become atrophic, hyper-pigmented, or ulcerated with scaling and widening of blood vessels. Luckily, for most, lesions are typically just ugly and unaccompanied by other symptoms. However, for the unfortunate few, burning and severe itching have been also reported in some individuals.

You may wonder how people can possibly develop skin rashes without noticing. Erythema ab igne is not immediately noticeable as it is a chronic condition, which takes time to become visible. Take, for example, this case study: A 21-year old woman went to the clinic to discover what had happened to her thighs. She noticed the gradual development of net-like hyperpigmentation on her legs. She did not take any medications and witnessed no other symptoms. Simply put, she looked down at her legs one day and noticed a big change. From physical observation of the pattern of the discoloration, it was noted that more hyperpigmentation occurred on her left thigh rather than her right.

Figure 1. Overhead view of erythema ab igne in a 21-year-old woman presenting as net-like hyperpigmentation on the thighs, more pronounced on the left.
Figure 2. Side view demonstrating clear proximal demarcation of hyperpigmented lesions of erythema ab igne with a reticulate pattern on the distal thighs.

Credits: Dermatology Online Journal, UC Davis

Further investigation revealed that the pattern of discoloration correlated with the laptop position, which the woman used to hold her computer on her thighs. From questioning, it was determined the patient was a college student. As typical for many college students, she would sit with her laptop on her thighs for prolong periods of time to do school work.

Having spent some time in the clinic, doctors evaluated the pattern and distribution of the skin discoloration. They also questioned the patient as to her normal behaviors. They looked into her past and present medical history. The patient had no other known skin conditions and was not taking medication. As the lesion borders were consistent with the position of the laptop on her thighs, doctors concluded that this was indeed a confirmed case of erythema ab igne.

Figure 3. Overhead view of a laptop positioned on the woman’s thighs; the area that the computer covers corresponds to the demarcation of the lesions.
Figure 4. Side view of a laptop positioned on the patient’s thighs corresponding to the distribution of her erythema ab igne lesions.

Credits: Dermatology Online Journal, UC Davis

Consequently, the patient was advised to stop using laptops on her thighs. Subsequent follow-up visits were scheduled to review the prognosis of the condition. Although the patient did stop using the laptop on her legs, doctors found that the skin lesions remained hyper-pigmented. Furthermore, the hyper-pigmentation remained localized to where her laptop had been. There was no decrease or increase in the severity of pigmentation after the laptop use was discontinued but the blotchiness of her skin remained. Her skin did not revert back to its normal state. Furthermore, recent research suggests patients with erythema ab igne may carry a long-term risk for developing other malignant skin conditions, such as cancer.

In the clinic, erythema ab igne is described as reticulated, pigmented skin lesions. Although the mechanism by which this disorder may occur is not well defined, it is known that the lesions result from prolonged or repeated heat exposure. Heat exposure from 110-115º F may cause the condition. Laptops typically generate temperatures in this range. Those with strong processors may even generate heat in the 50 degrees C range, which is also associated with burns. The effects of long-term exposure may be irreversible to-date. Therefore, it is recommended that the best way to prevent permanent effects of toasted skin syndrome is to avoid using laptops on bare skin or use a laptop radiation and shield.

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