LED light therapy has grown in popularity in the past few years. We can thank celebrities like Kate Moss and the Kardashians for that. Still, the procedure is getting the buzz mainly because it promises—and spoiler alert delivers—a good fight against acne and signs of aging using just light technology. Pair that claim with cool fancy gadgets that make it look like you're in the year 2145, and you have a trendy beauty treatment everyone is dying to try.
If you deal with sagging, wrinkling skin, acne, and inflammation, you should try this. But how exactly can a device that emits bright lights help you get a clearer and more radiant complexion? We turned to dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, and Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Sheila Nazarian, MD, and asked them to give us the scoop on everything about LED light therapy. From what it is to how it works, they laid it all out in our comprehensive guide to this type of skin treatment.
Keep reading to see what LED light therapy is all about for the skin.
Meet the Expert
- Dendy Engelman, MD is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon with a focus on cosmetic enhancement procedures for both the face and body as well as skin cancer treatment.
- Sheila Nazarian, MD is a board-certified plastic surgeon located in Beverly Hills. Nazarian specializes in non-invasive surgery like CoolSculpting and invasive procedures such as tummy tucks.
What Is LED Light Therapy?
LED means light-emitting diode. "It works by emitting infrared lights (causing heat) in different wavelengths/spectrums, which have different skincare benefits," says Engelman. "Amber light stimulates collagen and elastin. Red light is most commonly used to promote circulation. White light penetrates the deepest and works to tighten and reduce inflammation. Blue light kills bacteria."
She explains that during LED therapy, devices send light waves deep into the skin to trigger natural intracellular reactions. Depending on the light, your skin is going to respond differently. "If [the light is] red, your skin responds by building, strengthening, and maximizing cellular structure. Red light is also believed to target oil glands to reduce cytokines, which cause inflammation and play a role in chronic acne. In the case of blue light, specific wavelengths stimulate the production of oxygen radicals that kill acne bacteria, all without damaging the skin," Engelman says.
Benefits of LED Light Therapy
- Smooths fine lines and wrinkles
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves acne scars
- Prevents breakouts by killing the acne-causing bacteria
- Promotes circulation
- Stimulates collagen production
- Brightens skin
"The red infrared lights are used for fine lines and wrinkles. The blue lights are used to improve acne and prevent breakouts. Also, blue light penetrates deep to [treat] cystic acne," says Nazarian.
How to Prepare for LED Light Therapy
For both LED light home masks or LED light in-office machines, the skin must be clean and without makeup. Experts indicate washing your face with a gentle cleanser that doesn't irritate your skin. You'll also be required to wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from the light.
What to Expect During a LED Light Therapy
If you decide to get an LED treatment along with a massage or facial at a spa, you don't have to do much but lie there. "We place LED panels a few inches away from the patient's face," says Nazarian. "Eye protection is also placed as the lights are quite bright. We treat [the skin] for about 15 to 20 minutes. At first, it feels warm, but patients report liking the feeling." The light doesn't cause any burns or skin damage. It's pretty much painless, and if you like lights, the colors can even be relaxing.
LED Light Therapy vs. Microneedling
Microneedling is another trendy procedure to rejuvenate the skin and fight against wrinkles and fine lines. The dermaroller needles and heat energy create a wound and, as a result, stimulate the skin, causing collagen regeneration and making the skin taut, and reducing fine lines. The benefits are the same as LED light therapy but a little more invasive. Most offices include the combination of LED light and microneedling in one visit to get the most of them to treat multiple skin concerns. "After microneedling or microdermabrasion, we finish with LED lights," says Nazarian.
The only downside is that microneedling is good for acne scars but not overactive skin infections such as cold sores or acne. The needles will come into contact with the already inflamed skin and may spread the bacteria.
At-Home vs. In-Office LED Light Therapy
More and more brands are coming out with at-home LED systems so that you can treat these skin problems on your own. "I always say that things done at home are like working out by yourself, and things done in the office are like working out with a trainer. Both are good. But you're not going to get as intense of a treatment at home," says Nazarian. At-home LED devices are easier and always available (you don't need to book any appointments).
"I think they can be beneficial in adding additional incremental benefits to your existing treatment, as at-home devices are usually at a fraction of the strength of in-office treatments. It's great for upkeep after you've completed a full session and for upkeep if you have to space out your sessions," says Engelman. "But I wouldn't recommend at-home LED treatments over in-office ones, as results are nominal, and we know we're treating you in a way that will offer results. With a first-time user, sometimes you're not using the treatment properly, and that's a waste of money."
Potential Side Effects
As a noninvasive procedure, LEDs are usually very safe for all skin colors and types. Side effects are rare, but note if you experience redness or increased inflammation. You might, though, want to talk to your doctor if you're taking any oral acne medications, which can cause skin sensitivity.
These treatments are usually add-ons to other treatments, but you can get LED therapy by itself. Engelman says costs are varied depending on where you go but generally cost from $150 to $300. Some good at-home LED masks approved by experts are Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare's DRx SpectraLite FaceWare Pro ($435), a three-minute device with a combo of 100 red LED lights and 62 blue LED lights; and MZ Skin's Light-Therapy Golden Facial Treatment Device ($578), which has five colored light settings and is hands-free.
LED light therapy is noninvasive, so no recovery time is required. You should be able to continue with your everyday activities once your treatment is over. Minor results are expected right after your first session, but it's more noticeable once you've finished all the in-office sessions.
"We typically recommend light therapy every one to two weeks if an important event is coming up," says Nazarian. "If it's just for maintenance, we treat with our patients' monthly microdermabrasion or micro-needling treatments."
The Final Takeaway
Although most say the results are fantastic, they're not permanent. LED light therapy—especially LED light masks—should not be seen as the only solution for all skin problems, nor a substitute for a doctor's appointment. In other words, think of it more as a complement to give that boost to your skincare routine.
Avci P, Gupta A, Sadasivam M, et al. Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2013;32(1):41-52.
Singh A, Yadav S. Microneedling: advances and widening horizons. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2016;7(4):244-254. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.185468