If you're an avid Byrdie reader, you know there are a lot of dermatology procedures and treatments out there. One treatment in particular that's been gaining in popularity is blue light therapy, which is different from the protective sprays many people use for screen exposure—instead of blocking it, this procedure takes advantage of the best properties of blue light.
Dermatologists often use blue light on its own to treat acne, but it also can work alongside a broader, more complex therapy regimen to treat precancerous, sun-damaged skin. But how well does blue light treatment for sun damage actually work, and what should you know before considering it for yourself? Ahead, two dermatologists share all the details.
Meet the Expert
What Is Blue Light Therapy?
Blue light is a specific wavelength of light that's part of the visible light spectrum—yes, the same light spectrum you learned about in science class back in the day. But more than just its visibility, blue light actually has effects that experts have come to discover benefit skin in certain ways.
"[Blue light] can be used therapeutically during in-office treatments for acne to kill acne-causing bacteria, which is how it is most commonly used," says board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Hale, MD. Additionally, when blue light therapy is combined with photodynamic therapy (PDT), it can be used to remove precancerous, damaged cells—more on both treatments below.
Benefits of Blue Light Therapy
Blue light therapy can be used in a couple of different ways to treat skin conditions. Both are in-office treatments performed by many dermatologists.
To Treat Acne
In a dermatologist's office, blue light therapy can be used to kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin. This is an FDA-approved treatment for acne vulgaris, which is the technical name for the condition that's more commonly referred to simply as "acne."
"The bacteria associated with acne produces [compounds called] porphyrins in the bacterial cell," says board-certified dermatologist Jessica Weiser, MD. "When exposed to blue LED, these porphyrins are photosensitized to produce oxygen, which kills the anaerobic bacteria."
To Treat Damaged Skin
When combined with photodynamic therapy, blue light therapy can help to remove precancerous, sun-damaged areas of skin called actinic keratoses. These areas of skin often appear as scaly, red patches that may later turn into skin cancer. The treatment involves applying a medication called a photosensitizing agent to the skin, letting it soak in for up to two hours, then shining blue light on the skin. The blue light therapy works by killing and destroying the atypical, precancerous skin cells that have absorbed the photosensitizing agent. The damaged skin may later flake off.
Can Blue Light Therapy Help Treat Sun Damage?
Blue light therapy alone isn't used to treat sun damage, but when combined with another form of treatment called photodynamic therapy, it can be used to get rid of precancerous, damaged skin cells, Hale says. In short, this means blue light treatment for sun damage does have the potential to be effective, but you should always talk to your dermatologist about what plan would be most helpful for your specific situation and needs.
Potential Side Effects
As an acne treatment, blue light therapy is pretty simple and doesn't carry many side effects, dermatologists say. However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you're considering treatment. The first is that people who take medication that increases light sensitivity may be more sensitive to blue light treatments. Additionally, Hale says that people who regularly use retinol or other retinoid products may be more sensitive to all forms of light, including blue light therapy. "It's important to note that people should stop any light-sensitizing medications one week before any in-office treatments," Hale says.
When blue light therapy is combined with photodynamic therapy to treat damaged skin, more side effects are likely to occur, the most notable being severe skin sensitivity that can last for about two days after treatment. Additionally, damaged skin may turn red and look like it's peeling or flaking for anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks. "This is a much more intense form of treatment and not considered a basic blue light therapy," Weiser says.
What to Expect During Blue Light Therapy
When used to treat acne, each blue light therapy session usually takes somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes. The treatment is painless with no downtime afterwards, Weiser says, and your skin will not be visibly red, warm, or irritated after treatment. Multiple sessions may be necessary to achieve the best possible results.
Blue light treatments for sun damage can vary in duration depending on a number of factors, including the size of the area being treated. The blue light may be applied for anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes.
Blue light treatment for sun-damaged skin or acne may or may not be covered by insurance. Like with many other medical costs in the United States, the actual price can vary widely depending on which practitioner you see as well as your health insurance plan, if you have one. Be sure to ask your medical practitioner about cost estimates prior to treatment so you don't receive a hefty, unexpected bill afterwards.
Some products can help protect your skin from blue light. Hale recommends using Meaningful Beauty's Anti-Aging Day Crème with Environmental Protection SPF 30 ($65), a moisturizer and broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen specifically designed to reduce damage from the sun's rays as well as infrared and blue light.
The Final Takeaway
Blue light treatment can be useful for sun damage, but only when used in combination with another another form of treatment called photodynamic therapy. On its own, however, blue light therapy can help treat acne. For both uses, multiple treatments may be necessary. Before trying blue light therapy—whether for sun damage or for acne—it's a good idea to speak with a dermatologist to learn more about the treatments and whether they make sense for you.
Cleveland Clinic — Blue Light Therapy for the Skin — https://health.clevelandclinic.org/blue-light-therapy-for-the-skin-what-can-it-do/