Do Laptops Emit Harmful Radiation? Myths and Facts

We currently live in the “Information Age,” also known as the “Digital Age” or “Computer Age.” This is to say that you will be hard-pressed to walk for five minutes in any direction without bumping into someone with a laptop, a cellphone or some kind of handheld device that aids in connectivity.

Yes, we are attached to our electronic devices, and as convenient as they may be, they might just be harboring a hidden and unseen danger to our health in the form of EMF (Electromagnetic Field radiation).

So what is Electromagnetic Field (EMF) radiation, and what does your laptop have to do with it?

All mobile electronic devices, including some of your household devices such as your microwave and even TV, emit some kind of EMF. Simply put, EMFs are invisible force-fields of energy (they are also often referred to as radiation) that are typically associated with electricity and other forms of natural man-made lighting. There are two main types of EMF:

  • Non-ionizing: These are low-level EMFs that are considered harmless to your health.
  • Ionizing: These are high-level EMFs that can cause damage to your cells and are generally considered very harmful to your health.

So what does this have to do with your laptop? Computers typically emit non-ionizing radiation, which means that though they aren’t as harmful as ionizing radiation sources, there are still dangers to be aware of. Ultimately, your laptop is still an electronic device that uses electricity and as such, emits EMF.

That coupled with the fact that it’s probably often connected to the internet through Wi-Fi signals means that your laptop might just be a little more harmful than you think.

Let’s take a look at what kind of radiations your laptop emits, whether or not they are harmful to your health, and what you can do to protect yourself. Here are the myths and facts about the sort of radiation emitted by your laptop.

What Kind of Radiation Does Your Laptop Emit?

Your laptop emits two main types of EMF radiation: Radio Frequency (RF) radiation and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF).

Radio Frequency (RF)

You are probably using your laptop because it connects to the internet (among other important functions like creating documents and such). To connect to the internet, your laptop, and really any other portable electronic device such as tablets and iPads, use RF signals. RF signals include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G, and now, 5G. In order to make any of these connections, your laptop has a receiver and transmitter. This transmitter produces RF radiation.

Any time you place your laptop directly on your person, like on your lap, these RF radiations from that transmitter are emitted directly into your body, which, over time, could be harmful to your health.

Extremely Low Frequency

This kind of emissions are produced as the laptop converts electrical energy to perform a wide range of functions expected of it. This ELF is produced by the internal parts of your laptop and then radiated to the outer shell.

Think of functions such as processor activity, memory storage, operations run by the hard drive, and a host of other functions within the machine. Newer laptops are more efficient in these operations and therefore emit much lower levels of EMF. Older laptops, on the other hand, emit higher levels because these functions are no longer as efficient.

Apart from these two types of radiations, there is one other form of emission coming from your laptop: Heat or thermal emissions.

All these electrical functions running within your laptop generate heat. Your laptop has fans that expel this heat as hot air, which, in some cases, can exceed 110º Fahrenheit.

This expulsion of heat is necessary to keep the operating temperature within your computer stable enough to ensure efficient performance. Unfortunately, this exhausted air holds potential health risks to users such as yourself.

What makes the emissions from laptops so unique is that, since they are non-ionizing emissions, they typically would not be harmful to you – if used at a safe distance. The problem is that most people use their laptops extremely close to their bodies like on their lap.

The FCC actually recommends that you stay at least 20 cm away from your laptop whenever you are using it. At that distance, the kind of emissions produced by your laptop is considerably less harmful over time.

Are Laptop Radiations Harmful to Your Health: Myths and Facts

In a word – yes. Over time, these seemingly harmless, non-ionizing radiations from your laptop could cause a variety of health complications. Here are some ways through which your laptop might be harmful to your health.

Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation chart
Source: Genuis SJ. Fielding a current idea: exploring the public health impact of electromagnetic radiation. Public Health (2007), doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2007.04.008

Facts:

Fact 1: Laptop Radiations can be Harmful to Your Health

Laptops emit non-ionizing radiation that is known to be less harmful to humans. However, the proximity with which we use our laptops to our bodies nullifies this fact and instead puts us at a higher risk of a number of health concerns.

Additionally, there are studies questioning the common edict that non-ionizing radiation is harmless. At best, the current science is contradictory with some reports saying non-ionizing radiation is harmless and others showing different results.

And keep in mind, the FCC recommends that you keep your laptop at least 20 cm away from your body at any given time. Most people do not maintain that kind of distance and use their laptops on their laps. This creates a myriad of possible problems from the RF emitted by those laptops, as well as the heat exhausted by the fans.

Fact 2: Radio Frequencies Might Be Carcinogenic to Humans

It seems as though everything we touch can cause cancer nowadays. Back in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publically stated that prolonged exposure to RF or radiofrequency such as that emitted by your laptop when connected to Wi-Fi could be carcinogenic to human beings. The study found that this exposure increased your risk of contracting “glioma,” a type of malignant brain cancer.

Fact 3: Thermal Radiations from Your Laptop Could Affect Your Fertility

Man sitting on a gray chair with a laptop on his lap from a top down angle

As already mentioned, your laptop emits heat as it continues to operate. That heat, exhausted by your laptops fan, can, in some cases, exceed 110º Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). An increase of more than 2.7 degrees Celsius within an hour can cause an increase in your scrotal temperature which could lead to a reduced sperm count in men.

Fact 4: There Are Many Other Health Issues that Can Be Caused by Laptop Radiations

Research shows that there is a wide range of health issues that can be caused by EMF radiation from your laptop as well as other devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Increased levels of “programmed cell death,” also known as apoptosis. This can cause infertility and neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Negative effects on your DNA. Production of the single strand as well as double-strand breaks in your cellular DNA. These radiations can also produce oxidized bases in our cellular DNA, which in turn can lead to mutations or even cancer.
  • The radiations can lower both male and female libido, fertility, or even increase levels of spontaneous abortion.

Myths:

Myth 1: Your Laptop isn’t as Dangerous as Your Cellphone

While it is true that your laptop emits lower levels of EMF than your cellphone does, the greatest differentiator is the amount of time you spend on each device. Even though it doesn’t emit as much radiation, your laptop is probably still the greatest source of EMF to your body because of how much time you spend working on it right next to you (mostly on your lap). This makes it even more dangerous than your cellphone.

Myth 2: The EMF Radiation from your Laptop is Too Low Affect Your Health

2.5 milligauss. That’s the recommended amount of EMF radiation that is safe for human consumption. Laptops, on the other hand, can emit as much as 150 milligauss with constant use.

While it is true that the debate on just how harmful to your health your laptop can be, there are studies and research to suggest that the EMF emitted from our laptops can induce currents in the human body, which could lead to a myriad of health complications. This problem is compounded by the fact that we spend so much time on our laptops almost every given day of the year.

Granted, your laptop isn’t exactly a health hazard in the strictest of senses. These studies, however, give you enough reason to think about how close you place these machines next to your body when using them.

4 Reasons to Stop Placing Your Laptop on Your Lap

The common thread in all these studies is that your laptop is only harmful to you if you place it too close to your person. Working on your laptop from a desk that keeps it more than 20 cm away from your body is safe, but most of us don’t do that as we like to work from bed, the couch, or even on the toilet. All this while, the laptop will be placed directly on our laps. Here are several reasons why you need to stop doing that:

1. It Could Cause Back Pain

Apart from infertility and cancer threats, placing your laptop on your lap as you work has been known to cause other, immediately identifiable problems such as back pain. There is a study to suggest that using your laptop in this manner ruins your posture and can cause you both neck and back pain. You are advised to use a standing desk or place the machine on a table instead.

2. It Could Cause Problems with Your Pregnancy

Woman sitting on a chair looking at a laptop sitting on her lap

Aside from the obvious issue of space on your lap when pregnant, there are some potential health effects to consider when using a laptop when pregnant.

This study found that fetuses are exposed to significant amounts of electromagnetic radiation when the pregnant mother is using a laptop.

The Karolinska Institute, Department of Neuroscience in Stockholm, Sweden went as far as to recommend halting the production of wireless devices after identifying current scientific research on the impact on children and pregnant women is inadequate.

This 2019 study links EMF exposure in pregnancy to children to a risk of speech problems in their offspring.

The point is we don’t fully know the effect of EMFs on unborn children and until we do, it’s better to limit unnecessary exposure like that of a laptop.

3. You Could Get Skin Burns

There is a medical report that showed prolonged exposure of your skin to devices like a laptop could cause you to get something called “toasted skin syndrome.” This is where your skin begins to look unusually mottled or develop a rash thanks to the extended heat exposure.

This condition takes time to develop and is generally harmless, but it can cause skin discoloration in some cases. Its cure is quite simple: stop placing your laptop on your lap. Once further exposure is prevented the condition often resolves itself.

4. It Could Cause Sleeping Problems

The artificial light from your laptop’s screen could very well be suppressing the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. If you have realized that you have a bit of insomnia lately, maybe it’s time to stop bringing your laptop to bed and try a book instead.

Tips on How to Protect Yourself from Harmful Laptop Radiations

Yes, it’s true that the effects of your laptop on your health are still under extensive investigation. The fact that laptops emit RF, EMF, and thermal radiation only makes them relatively safe for use provided you keep a safe distance (20 cm) from the device at all times.

This is something that most people do not do. As such, it’s imperative to consider a few precautionary measures to ensure that you do not suffer the aforementioned possible consequences of using your laptop. Here are some tips on how to protect yourself from the potentially harmful radiations from your laptop:

  • Whenever using your laptop, place it at a safe distance on a table or a desk, if at all possible. In fact, you are advised to go as far as using a standing desk not only to prevent the potential fertility and carcinogenic issues that come from the radiations but also to prevent back and neck pain.
  • If you can’t help but place your laptop on your laps, be sure to use some kind of protective shield that can block ELF (Extremely Low Frequency), EMR (Electromagnetic Radiation), and RF (Radio Frequency) as well as heat radiation. There are many laptop radiation shields or cases online that you can buy and try out. I’ve checked them out and written an article about the best options here.
  • Avoid using a pillow as a buffer between your laptop and your lap. The pillow will prevent the free flow of air, which is intended to cool the laptop. As such, the concentrated heat will either find it’sway to your body anyway, or it will cause your laptop to malfunction which in turn will increase the thermal radiation from it.

You might also be interested in learning about the health benefits of turning off Wi-fi at night.

References

International Organization for Research on Cancer. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. Non-ionizing radiation, Part I: static and extremely low-frequency electric and magnetic fields. Vol. 80. Lyon: IARC; 2002.

Havas M. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: biological effects of dirty electricity with emphasis on diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Electromagn Biol Med 2006;25:259–68.

C. V. Bellieni MD, I. Pinto MS, A. Bogi PhD, N. Zoppetti MS, D. Andreuccetti MS & G. Buonocore PhD (2012) Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields From Laptop Use of “Laptop” Computers, Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, 67:1, 31-36

Mother’s Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields Before and During Pregnancy is Associated with Risk of Speech Problems in Offspring. Zarei, S., et al. Journal of Biomedical Physics and Engineering 9(1):61-68 (2019).