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The healing effects of light therapy are nothing new—it was first used in the late 1800s to treat skin tuberculosis (TB), and NASA used it in the 1980s to grow plants in outer space. Fast forward to the modern-day, and light therapy seems to be popping up everywhere in professional skincare treatments and at-home devices.
Below, we break down everything you need to know before going under the red lights.
What is Red Light Therapy, and How Does It Work?
Red light therapy uses a specific natural wavelength of light for therapeutic benefits, both medical and cosmetic. It is a combination of light-emitting diode (LED) that emits infrared light and heat.
Dermatologist Lindsey Zubritsky, MD, explains that there is a spectrum—ranging from ultraviolet (UV) rays and infrared (things we can't see) to visible light—when it comes to wavelengths of light (colors of the rainbow). Red light therapy utilizes low wavelengths of red light as a treatment because, at this specific wavelength, it is considered bio-active in humans cells and can directly and specifically affect and improve cellular function.
(It's important to note that this particular type of light is not the same as UV rays from the sun or what is found in tanning beds, and there is no increased risk of skin cancer or UV damage.)
Red light can penetrate our top layer of skin and into the deep levels of skin called the dermis. This is where our collagen, elastin, and other essential proteins reside. Red light photons are absorbed by our cells and converted to energy. This energy produced can then stimulate the production of collagen, elastin, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which creates more energy for your cells to use. It increases oxygenation to your skin and improves circulation while also repairing damaged tissue; this leads to improved skin texture from increased collagen production and oxygenation. Red light also has the unique ability to decrease inflammation and bacteria, and even treat pre-cancerous lesions says Zubritsky.
What Are the Benefits of Red Light Therapy?
Often acne is accompanied by a fair amount of inflammation. Red light therapy helps to calm and decrease redness, and minimize oil production and bacteria on the skin. Zubritysky says it is ideal for the mild to moderate treatment of acne.
According to one study, "acne and sensitive skin are often associated due to the involvement of an impaired skin barrier in both conditions, which can be further aggravated by certain topical acne treatments. Therefore, a non-topical treatment that is well tolerated by patients with sensitive skin for use in the treatment of acne is highly desirable."
One of the most popular uses of red light therapy is for its anti-aging benefits, and for good reason: There are an abundance of studies to support its positive anti-aging effects. A 2019 study from The Journal of The American Academy Of Dermatology found that red light therapy increases production of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid in the skin. This, in turn, can help with skin laxity, fine lines, pore size, texture, and wrinkles, making low-level red and infrared light treatments ideal "opportunities for daily, at-home treatments for patients with photo-aging and photo-damaged skin."
Have a scar you would like to fade? Red light therapy can help minimize scar tissue as it helps boost circulation and brings more oxygen to the area.
If you deal with reoccurring cold sores (oral herpes simplex virus), red light therapy can help accelerate healing time and decrease pain associated with these lesions. Though the science is not yet fully understood, one hypothesis is that low-level light therapy “seems to enhance the natural immune response against skin infection by increasing primary cytokines that are activated promptly after bacterial or viral intrusion."
For alopecia—specifically androgenetic alopecia, also known as male and female pattern hair loss—some studies support red light therapy as an effective treatment. It may not work for everyone, and is best used in the earlier stages of hair loss and for less severe cases. Once the hair follicle has been scarred, it is unlikely to be effective.
What to Expect During a Red Light Therapy Treatment
Unlike some beauty treatments, you don’t feel a whole lot with red light therapy. Once the light warms up, you will feel some heat on your skin, but most find it to be very tranquil and relaxing.
At-Home vs. Professional
Red light therapy can be performed in a professional setting as part of a dermatological procedure, as part of a facial treatment by an esthetician, or with an at-home device. You may even see red light therapy treatment booths pop up at your fancy gym. Both professional and home tools come in a large variety of devices, but are most often found in a single or tri-panel handheld wand, mask, or even a full-body bed or stand-up panel. Keep in mind that the at-home version may be less potent than the professional version, but they are still very beneficial.
If you plan on using red light therapy at home, make sure you do your homework while looking for devices, especially with so many on the market. The sweet spot for both therapeutic and cosmetic benefits is between the mid-600 to 900 nanometer.
The jury is still out on the exact ideal frequency for red light therapy, but it's most commonly recommended that the lights are pointed at the skin several inches away for a number of minutes, depending on the manufacturer's instructions. The treatments are painless and require no downtime. The benefits are cumulative, so it's essential to be consistent to reap all the benefits, which can often take four to six weeks to show.
Does It Really Work?
Yes; it can be useful and effective when used appropriately, realistically, and in some cases under the supervision of a board-certified dermatologist, Zubritsky says. For example, it can be an excellent complementary treatment for mild acne cases in combination with other acne treatments like topical products or medications. However, it cannot totally clear particular types of acne like cystic acne.
Many studies support red light therapy as an effective treatment modality in treating pre-cancerous lesions like actinic keratoses. It's typically used with a topical photosensitizer to be effective.
Potential Side Effects
Red light therapy is generally considered safe. As with anything, there have been some mild side effects reported like eye strain, so you may want to consider using proper eye protection when using a full face panel or mask device.
If you are receiving a professional red light therapy treatment, it could range anywhere from a $25 facial add-on all the way to $200 for an individual treatment. Some providers may even include it as part of their treatment price. It also depends on if you are treating just your face or you doing an entire body paneled bed.
If you are interested in a home facial device, they can range from $65 to $600 depending on factors such as light energy output (irradiance), surface area covered, frequency emitted in nanometers, and the variety of features and treatments the device offers. And if you want to go wild and purchase a full body panel or bed, they are priced in the $2,000 to $12,000 range.
The Final Takeaway
All in all, red light therapy can be used on all skin types, including the most sensitive, and the science behind it promising. Realistically, you can expect a gentle way to correct specific skin conditions while simultaneously slowing down the signs of aging.