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How to Treat Your Acne Using Light Therapy (No Creams, No Gels)

Getty Images/Jasmin Merdan

Getty Images/Jasmin Merdan

Anyone who has deal with even the most mild case of acne—in fact, even those who have dealt with occasional pimples (so, everyone)—is probably able to recite the most common blemish-busting ingredients out there. You have your salicylic acid for unclogging pores, antibacterial benzoyl peroxide, anti-inflammatory sulfur, ... you know the drill. But in the battle against breakouts, it's not just topical products that deserve a seat at the table. Light therapy is an effective alternative option that dermatologists and estheticians boast as painless and effective. Ahead, board-certified dermatologists Dr. Rachel Nazarian, Dr. Charlotte Birnbaum, Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, and esthetician Elina Fedotova weigh in on how you can effectively use light therapy for acne.

Meet the Expert

  • Rachel Nazarian, MD a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
  • Dr. Charlotte Birnbaum is a board-certified dermatologist of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City.
  • Elina Fedotova is a celebrity esthetician and founder of Elina Organics Spas in Chicago and Kalamazoo, MI.
  • Marnie Nussbaum, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic and medical dermatology.

What is Light Therapy?

Technically called light-emitting diode (LED) therapy or phototherapy, this involves using artificial light in order to have effects on the skin at the cellular level, explains Dr. Birnbaum. Before we dive further into the nitty-gritty, a quick scientific refresh and flashback to your high school physics class. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, a form of energy that comes in various wavelengths. Those different wavelengths translate as different colors that we can see, and, as it pertains to skin, "these wavelengths of colors can cause intra- and intercellular reactions that offer different therapeutic benefits to the skin," says Dr. Nussbaum. And those benefits are legitimate and have been well-studied; a recent study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology underscored the proven positive effects LED therapy can have for a variety of dermatologic issues. "While light therapy has been used for many years, there's renewed interest in its benefits as the technology has evolved so that there are now at-home LED devices," adds Dr. Nussbaum. (More on those in a bit.)

How Light Therapy Works to Treat Acne

Of all the colors out there, blue light is generally considered to be the most effective option for acne, given that it has three different mechanisms of action that target breakouts:

  • Antibacterial Properties: "Blue light sets off a chemical reaction that eliminates acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes. That bacteria produces a protein called porphyrins, and when this protein is exposed to and absorbs blue light, a chemical reaction ensues, killing the bacteria," explains Nussbaum.
  • Regulates Sebum Production: Second, it regulates sebum production, and we know that excess sebum can clog pores and is a key component in the acne cycle.
  • Improves Inflammation: And finally, blue light also tones down inflammation and redness, a major boon when you're battling breakouts.

This all makes for a great and effective solution for those who have easily-irritated skin and may not be able to tolerate traditional topical treatments (say that three times fast). The experts we spoke with agree that yes, ideally using light therapy in tandem with topicals is the ideal approach (and Fedotova points out that the light therapy can also help deliver topical products deeper into the skin and intensify their effect as an added win). Still, LED treatments offer a great alternative to the standard topical and oral acne treatments out there.

The one caveat: Not all breakouts are created equal, and light therapy, specifically blue light therapy, may not be as effective for all. As a general rule, "light therapy is best for people with inflammatory acne lesions, the red and tender bumps and pustules," points out Dr. Nazarian, while Dr. Birnbaum adds that it likely won't be particularly effective against comedonal acne (AKA blackheads and whiteheads). 

While we've talked a lot about blue light, it's not the only color that can help. Red light also has anti-inflammatory benefits, which is why it's often used in conjunction with blue light for acne. Red light also helps to accelerate the skin's healing processes as well as the regeneration of collagen and elastin, which could be very helpful in addressing acne scarring, adds Fedotova. Similarly, "Green and yellow light help to balance melanin or pigment, and can help reduce discolored acne scars," she says.

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How to Use Light Therapy For Acne

To practice light therapy, you can use one of the following modalities, just note that professional treatment is recommended, and at the very least, you should seek approval and direction from a board-certified dermatologist before trying this one at home. And as always, if you choose an at-home modality, follow the instructions to a T (otherwise you risk damage to your skin and even eyes).

  • At-home full facial masks
  • At-home light pens (for spot-treating)
  • In-office treatments

No matter the light therapy method you choose, the consensus among derms seems to be repetition, repetition, repetition. "The benefits of light therapy are cumulative, so for LED treatments to be effective, there needs to be adequate time spent under the light for continuous periods of several weeks," says Dr. Nussbaum. To provide some context, one study found that after four weeks of bi-weekly treatments, 85 percent of participants had at least a 50 percent reduction in the amount of acne lesions. Blue light therapy is typically done two to three times per week for four to six weeks, followed by maintenance every three months, though this can vary based on a variety of factors, says Dr. Nussbaum. Those general guidelines apply for in-office treatments, but what about the onslaught of new at-home devices? They are approved by the FDA for safety reasons, but the FDA doesn't test their efficacy; they don't have the horsepower of in-office devices and it's hard to know what you're getting, cautions Dr. Birnbaum. And keep in mind that because they're not as strong as the professional treatments, you'll likely have to use one of these much more frequently. Still, your best bet is to follow specific product directions exactly and not go above what's recommended. When your skin is filled with a certain amount of photons (light particles), it stops responding, notes Fedotova. Excessive use can also cause damage to your eyes, which was the reasoning for this Neutrogena light therapy mask being voluntarily recalled by the brand.

Side Effects

All the experts we talked to agree that the risk of side effects is minimal, if that. While light therapy is safe for most skin types, there are a few light-sensitive conditions, such as melasma, which LED light can exacerbate, cautions Dr. Birnbaum. Dr. Nazarian adds that there are also rare conditions that can make your eyes sensitive to particular wavelengths, and underscores the importance of proper eye protection during LED treatments. And if you're going to be trying an at-home LED device, run it—and your current topical skin care plan—by your dermatologist first, since some ingredients may make your skin too sensitive for these treatments, notes Dr. Nussbaum. You'll also want to check with your doc before using these if you're pregnant.

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The Takeaway

Light therapy is generally safe and effective as an acne treatment for most skin types, with a few caveats (you should discuss your plan to begin light therapy with your dermatologist before you get started with a device or book an in-office treatment). In-office treatments guided by a dermatologist or esthetician are your safest, most-effective bet, but you can also see results from an at-home mask or light therapy pen—just keep in mind that you'll need practice light therapy a few times a week to see changes, as derms note that results are from cumulative use. If you opt for an at-home device, just follow the directions that come with it explicitly, as excessive or improper use can damage your skin and eyes.

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