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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 12:58 GMT
Is photocopying your face dangerous?
The Magazine answers...

Careful now
The mother of a five-year-old who had his face photocopied at school fears he could have been blinded. What are the risks?

It's the standard office prank to photocopy some part of the anatomy.

But the experience of Luke Wilson, five, has been anything but light-hearted for his family. Complaining of sore eyes, he told his parents his face had been photocopied at school. A doctor has diagnosed allergic conjunctivitis caused by strong light, and his mother fears his eyes could be damaged.

While not being a practice which would ever be advisable, what exactly are the risks?

Very low from a single exposure, says a spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive.

"We would not advocate people photocopying their faces but we think it's extremely unlikely that there would be any long-term damage from a single exposure."

Not all photocopiers generate ultraviolet light and most would be dissipated by the glass, he added.

BBC graphic
A feature to the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
Eye experts play down the risks of photocopying the face once or twice.

"It's not a good idea, let's face it," says Chris Inglehearn, Professor of Molecular Ophthalmology at Leeds University. "There are studies done on animals and if you shine a bright light into their eyes it can induce retinal degeneration, so there's evidence that very severe light exposure can damage eyes. But I suspect that this is not severe. You would have to do it a lot."

Triggering epilepsy would be more of a concern, he adds, because there's anecdotal evidence that this had happened in the past.


The eyes could be damaged by hours of photocopying, says Professor Neville Osborne, of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology in Oxford.

A one-off dose of UV through a glass photocopier is not going to do anything to your skin
Dr Geoff Fairris
"But if it is just one or two flashes then I can't see it being damaging. UVB could be detrimental and can affect the lens of the eye and there's a big story around that UV light of any sort can be damaging to the lens and retina."

But you would need to be exposed for long periods. Ordinary light could even damage the retina if a person had a "stress" condition such as glaucoma.

Professor Neville says the headaches and eye irritation experienced by Luke Wilson is not unexpected.

"Light can cause eye infections because it interacts with various components like mitochondria in the cells, and that interaction can result in irritation like conjunctivitis but not cell death."

But what about potential damage to skin?

Ultraviolet light is made up of UVA, which can cause skin cancer but cannot travel through glass, and UVB, which ages the skin and can travel through some types of glass, says dermatologist Geoff Fairris.

"A one-off dose of UV through a glass photocopier is not going to do anything to your skin," he says.

Sales reps who drive about 30,000 miles a year often have brown marks and red veins on their right cheek but not their left, he says, because UVB light travels through a car's side windows but not windscreens.

To prevent readers putting themselves at risk, the Magazine tried it and found it to be hot and bright.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Nanny state strikes again. It's a wonder children these days can have any fun. Parents these days should wrap their children up with cotton wool and watch them day and night. Heaven forbid that a child should experiment in life (and risk preparing themselves for adulthood).
Sue, UK

In regards to the last two lines, I take it this was all in the interest of science and public safety...
Jason, Southend

People have been misusing technology ever since some caveman found that when you bash two stones together, you get a sharp edge on one of them. Grow up and deal with it already! The human body has been surviving an incredible amount of abuse since long before there were any ambulance-following lawyers getting rich off other people's misfortunes.
AJS, Derby

When the first photocopiers appeared in the corridor for use by all the staff about 30 or so years ago, for fun I made a self-portrait of myself. With closed eyes of course. I used to call it my death mask. But I'm still going strong. Oh yes, my skin, you may ask. One of my nieces complimented me on how soft my skin was at 76. So one-time exposure through glass is not going to hurt you. After all, the biggest nuclear reactor in the world (the sun!) shines its UV, visible and IR light most days through my window. J. P. WARD
j. p. ward, vlaardingen netherlands

Oh my God! That must be the next thing to steal your identity...
Ramon Calvados, London

Is photocopying your bare bum a safe way to get a tan in a (relatively) private way?
William Fletcher, Bordeaux, France

I think that it's a black and white issue that we need to ban these dangerous machines in schools in order to prevent photocopycat incidents.
Andrew Rodgers, London, UK

Life is 100% fatal. Let's concentrate on real risks rather than this guff.
Fred, London

This story is the perfect example of the phenomenon of "if the headline of a story takes the form of a question then the answer to the question is almost certain to be No..." Nothing to see here, move along please.
Anna, London

I think the lesson here is to close your eyes when bright light hits them. Or is that just common sense? When I photocopied my face as a child (who with unsupervised access to a photocopier didn't?!) I closed my eyes...as did my sister and we're both fine.
James B, Sheffield, UK

I've just tried it & the resulting copy was not only horrifying to look at but took my staff 15 minutes to stop laughing at my resulting image!!
lee slaughter, St Austell

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