Working, reading, or playing computer games with your laptop resting on your lap or knees could lead to permanent discoloration of the skin – a condition known as toasted skin syndrome – on the upper legs following prolonged use, and in a worse case scenario could even cause cancer, according to a case study published in the scientific journal Paediatrics in 2010.
What is Toasted Skin Syndrome?
Toasted skin syndrome is a mottled brownish skin discoloration that results after prolonged exposure to heat that is radiated from a laptop computer. This particular case study focused on that of a twelve year old boy who developed a strange discolored patterning on his thigh after prolonged use of his laptop while it was resting on his lap. The boy, who acknowledged that he felt a high level of heat discomfort on one side whilst using the laptop, developed the condition after he had played computer games for just a few hours a day over several months.
The condition, which was first recognized in 2004, has been reported by at least 10 patients, with the boy being the youngest case at the time the study was conducted. All ten patients reported having lesions on the upper part of either one, or in some cases both legs, which developed after using the laptop for between 6-8 hours a day over several weeks or months. Toasted skin syndrome can result in permanent pigmentation to the skin, and in severe cases can lead to skin cancer.
What Causes Toasted Skin Syndrome?
Laptops give off heat, which is generated by the optical hard drive or the battery, or dispersed by the cooling fan in an effort to keep the computer cool to prevent it from overheating and malfunctioning. This heat is typically radiated out through the base of the laptop, and because air circulation under the device is restricted, heat can build up on the exterior of the laptop case. According to the researchers, even mild to moderate levels of heat (109.4 – 116.6°F) can burn the skin, but temperatures of 111.2°F can result in toasted skin syndrome.
Because laptops have optical hard drives located on the lefthand side of the device, computer-induced burning to the skin typically occurs on the left leg. Furthermore, when a user works with a laptop on their lap, the cooling fan exhaust vents may be partially or even completely obstructed, allowing a rapid build-up of heat.
The authors of the paper stress that the incidence of toasted skin syndrome is likely to increase in the future due to the growing popularity of laptop and notebook computers. They also point out that in this case the 12-year old patient had only used his laptop for a comparatively short period, which suggests that a child’s skin is likely to be more heat sensitive than that of an adult, which is something that parents should consider when purchasing computers for their children.
While some manufacturers, such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett Packard, include warnings of the dangers of using a laptop on the lap in their user-guides, the authors recommend that all laptops should carry warning labels alerting users of the potential dangers. However, they also note that the condition is preventable by placing heat protection between the laptop base and the users’ body.
How to Prevent Toasted Skin Syndrome
In mild cases the mottled discoloration is temporary and typically causes no other side effects, although some patients reported an itching or burning sensation. However discoloration can become permanent with prolonged use, and can develop into burns when temperatures are high enough. Although the chances of the condition developing into skin cancer are low, doctors recommend that patients with extensive skin damage should be closely monitored. To prevent toasted skin syndrome, they also suggest that it would be prudent to take preventative action by using a laptop heat shield to eliminate the heat source in the first place.