October 5th, 2010
05:43 PM ET

Laptops toast and discolor skin

Warm laptops could leave behind unsightly skin spots for some users.

Take the case reported in this week’s journal of Pediatrics concerning a 12-year-old boy who had lesions on his left upper leg.

The young patient played computer games for several hours a day by propping his laptop computer on his upper leg.  The boy told his doctors at the dermatology department at the University Hospital Basel in Basel, Switzerland, that he felt the computer becoming hot on the left side. Dr. Andreas W. Arnold, the lead author and a dermatologist said having the battery or heat source on one side of the computer could leave the brown pigmentation on his skin.

The boy had what is known as erythema ab igne - a temporary discoloration of the skin after extended exposure to a heat or infrared source such as a heating pad. This type of skin condition, known as dermatosis, has been found in people who worked in front of open fires or coal stoves, used hot pads and blankets extensively or sat too closely to steam radiators or space heaters.

Prior to this case, nine other patients have been reported with laptop-induced dermatosis since 2004. This most recent case described in Pediatrics is the youngest of the 10 documented cases.

A laptop computer could heat up to 111 degrees Fahrenheit, which won't burn skin, but can produce the discoloration.

The mechanism of how erythema occurs is not well understood, Arnold said.

“If you perform a biopsy, you see the epidermis changes,” he said.  “It has to be in the upper dermis too.  We don’t know the exact mechanism, but it probably has to do with blood vessel or inflammation.”

People who get this skin discoloration usually don’t have any symptoms – although a few have reported itchiness or tingles. The discoloration takes months or even years to fade – it largely depends on the individual, Arnold said.  It fades quicker for children, he added.

To avoid laptop burns, Arnold’s suggestion is intuitive.

“Put a pillow beneath the lap, legs or the computer back," he said. "The clothes is probably not enough – the heat goes through.  You have to cover your legs with something which covers from the heat.”

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Andy

    A pillow is not a good idea as it will cause the computer to overheat because it blocks airflow to the computer. A better idea would be a laptop cooling plate or just a good big thick book on top of a pillow 😉

    October 6, 2010 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brother John of Dallas

      Right. That's why CNN should interview dermatologists about skin problems caused by using laptops on the lap and computer scientists about proper use of laptops. I'm available for your next article, CNN 🙂

      October 6, 2010 at 11:30 | Report abuse |
  2. J.Crobuzon

    Andy's right; they make pads with either fans or airspaces to prevent this.

    October 6, 2010 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Fernando Magyar

    "The young patient played computer games for several hours a day by propping his laptop computer on his upper leg. The boy told his doctors at the dermatology department at the University Hospital Basel in Basel, Switzerland, that he felt the computer becoming hot on the left side."

    Umm, maybe he should have been outside playing ball instead, eh?

    October 6, 2010 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sanjay

      well said. I am trying to to do that for my children. keep them active on outdoor sports and very limited (need basis) electronics/internet.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
  4. Megan

    Wow. How do you do that kind of damage to your skin without going "hm, maybe I should take this really hot thing off my legs".

    October 6, 2010 at 10:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. jim

    111 degrees is the temp when your skin burns. really.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KDW

      You need to work on your reading comprehension. "A laptop computer could heat up to 111 degrees Fahrenheit, which won't burn skin, but can produce the discoloration."

      October 6, 2010 at 14:09 | Report abuse |
    • She-YoXXi

      It states right in the artical that it will not burn but leave a discoloration in the skin. Not trying to be rude but did you even read that part before you started typing? Just asking, and again, not trying to be rude.

      October 6, 2010 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
  6. Mary

    Talk about a slow news day. When it gets warm-move it!

    October 6, 2010 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. jim

    having it on your legs is what makes it hot enough to burn your skin. the bottoms of laptops aren't inherently THAT hot (excepting some high-end gaming computers –alienware and the like) they are supposed to be on a flat surface so the little plastic feet keeps a space between the bottom of the computer and what it's on the let air flow in and out of it. why is this doctor giving computer advise. not to dismiss mechanics (both my adult sons are mechanics) but i wouldnt ask them if i need my tonsils removed.....

    October 6, 2010 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kalika

    I work for a computer OEM and 'laptops' are not advertised as such anymore because of the overheating/possible injury caused by having the fans and vents blocked by legs or soft surfaces.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. James

    .... or you could not put it on your lap.

    When did we lose the common sense to not keep hot things on us? Are people really forgetting hot stuff burns?

    October 6, 2010 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • She-YoXXi

      I think people are forgetting that main ingredient James, I really do.

      October 6, 2010 at 15:46 | Report abuse |
  10. Michael S

    OK, the solution is bad. It might be good for your skin, but very bad for a laptop. The cooling fan for the CPU and important curcuitry like the north bridge is often located on the bottom and vents out the sides. If you cover the fan from the bottom with a pillow, now it has to draw in air through the pillow. The bes option is to place a flat hard surface between your legs and the laptop. CVS, Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Target and so on sell laptop trays that have a pillow on one side and a hard platic surface on the other. Otherwise a good book will suffice.

    October 7, 2010 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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