- Red light therapy shows promise for multiple skin concerns, from acne to wrinkles
- It’s administered through therapeutic devices such as beds, panels and masks
- For best results, you should seek professional treatments rather than use at-home devices
Red light therapy (RLT) is a noninvasive, gentle treatment for a range of skin concerns. While more research is needed in the field of light-based therapies, this treatment has proven anti-acne and anti-aging benefits. It has an excellent safety profile and demonstrates a great potential to improve skin health.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
RLT treats a range of skin issues using specific wavelengths of red or near-infrared light. It was first developed to treat muscle atrophy, slow wound healing and bone density problems. Today, it’s become popular as a dermatological and cosmetic treatment.
This uncomplicated therapy involves exposing the body to low-level red light produced by tiny light-emitting diodes (LED lights). These wavelengths are absorbed by mitochondria in skin cells, causing them to produce higher levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy. This energy gives cells a greater capacity to repair and rejuvenate themselves.
RLT is known by many different names including:
- Cold laser therapy
- Laser biostimulation
- Low-level light therapy (LLLT)
- Low-level laser therapy
- Low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
- Photobiomodulation (PBM)
- Photonic stimulation
- Soft laser therapy
This therapy is painless and only produces a feeling of warmth in the treated area; it is considered safe for all skin tones.
Does Red Light Therapy Work?
RLT has been studied and shown to be effective; however, it remains controversial for two reasons.
First, the exact mechanism of action regarding therapeutic benefits is not well understood, and there are multiple competing hypotheses about how it works on the molecular level.
Second, the specific wavelength, type of pulse, strength and timing of the light all factor into the treatment’s effectiveness and vary considerably depending on the issue being addressed. Incorrect choices can be either ineffective or cause negative results.
Additionally, the benefits only start to appear after multiple treatments; a single session will not generally have a visible effect.
Red Light Therapy Skin Health Benefits
RLT offers a wide range of benefits to your skin, most of which relate to rejuvenating skin and treating acne.
Fights signs of aging
Collagen and elastin are two proteins that are vital to skin health. After the age of 30, the body produces less of these proteins; this results in loose, sagging skin and fine lines, folds and wrinkles.
RLT has been shown to increase levels of collagen and elastin to firm and strengthen skin making it a powerful tool in the fight against aging.
This therapy has demonstrated anti-aging benefits including:
- Firmer, thicker skin
- Improved skin elasticity
- Increased blood circulation
- Protection from sun damage
- Reduced wrinkles
- Smoother skin texture
In addition, one study found that patients who underwent RLT experienced improved skin texture, with less roughness and an overall improved complexion compared to the control group.
It can also effectively treat hyperpigmentation, a condition in which patches of skin are darker than the surrounding area. Some common types are sunspots, melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which results from skin injury.
A small pilot study of patients with melasma demonstrated that in a split-face study, RLT administered after microdermabrasion controlled inflammation to reduce pigmentation over the course of several weeks.
The same study also found that RLT likely induced UV resistance in the test subjects’ skin to protect against UV damage.
Near infrared light therapy has been demonstrated to be an effective acne treatment, especially in combination with blue light therapy. Whereas blue light kills acne-causing bacteria, red light reduces inflammation, heals damaged skin and lightens postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
RLT can treat any type of mile-to-severe acne. It may be especially advantageous for people with hard-to-treat, severely inflamed acne because it doesn’t cause the side effects associated with oral antibiotics and prescription-strength topical products.
RLT’s anti-inflammatory properties have the potential to be an effective treatment for skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and vitiligo. However, more research is needed as there is a paucity of clinical trials on this topic.
Other red light therapy benefits and uses
This therapy’s benefits are not limited to the skin. Although evidence is still minimal in most cases, it shows promise in treating a wide range of conditions including:
- Achilles tendinopathy
- Autoimmune thyroiditis
- Hair loss conditions such as androgenetic alopecia and lichen planopilaris
- Chronic, nonhealing wounds
- Chronic pain
- Diabetic ulcers
- Muscle injuries
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Spinal cord injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
Red Light Therapy Devices
FDA-approved red light therapy devices are available for anyone to purchase and are offered at many places of business.
However, if you have a serious skin concern, professional treatments will be more effective than because a dermatologist will have the skill and experience to determine the correct light treatment for you. Then, if RTL becomes part of your regular skin care routine, it may become more cost-effective to buy your own device.
Red light therapy beds
Resembling tanning beds in shape, red light therapy beds let your entire body benefit from low-level red light. These FDA-approved devices are generally found at gyms, tanning salons and day spas. While technically available for home purchase, they typically cost thousands of dollars.
Red light booths
Another popular option is a red light booth. Similar in appearance to tanning booths, they’re lined with LED light panels. Like RLT beds, they’re often found at health-oriented places of business. You can also purchase red light panels to build your own enclosure for home use.
Masks and Lamps
LED-lined masks and curved panel lamps are some of the most popular devices for both home and professional use. They’re placed closely over the face, so the LED lights are at an optimal distance from the skin.
Many of these products emit multiple wavelengths of light to treat different skin concerns; for instance, they may emit both red and blue light to address acne. At dermatologist offices and medical spas, these panels are used in LED facials to manage signs of aging and acne.
Reasonably priced, FDA-approved versions of these products are also available for anyone to purchase.
A variety of handheld red light devices are now available for home use. These devices are calibrated to treat different concerns, such as wrinkles or acne. They can be easily placed anywhere on the body; however, their compact size means that they can only treat a small area of skin at a time.
Is Red Light Therapy Safe?
This therapy is considered safe, provided it’s administered correctly. When seeking professional treatment, you should only undergo RLT under the supervision of a board-certified dermatologist or other skin care specialist. If incorrectly administered in the treatment of medical problems, RLT can potentially worsen the symptoms you’re trying to correct.
If you’re trying it at home, be sure to purchase an FDA-approved device and follow all instructions for use. The most common problem among people using at-home devices is falling asleep under the lamp and suffering blisters or burns.
Do not try this therapy if you:
- Are pregnant
- Have epilepsy
- Have low blood pressure
- Take medications that cause photosensitivity
It’s not yet known whether you should wear eye protection while undergoing RLT. Although it’s used therapeutically for some eye diseases, prolonged exposure to the light may be harmful to eyes.
Can red light therapy cause cancer?
There is no evidence that RLT can cause cancer. In fact, low-level light is used in photodynamic therapy, a treatment for certain types of skin cancer.
RLT isn’t the only type of light-based therapy that can benefit the skin. Other specific wavelengths of light have their own advantages. These treatment options include:
- Blue light: kills acne-causing bacteria
- Ultraviolet B light: treats psoriasis, vitiligo and certain types of dermatitis
- Green light: treats pigmentation, broken blood vessels and sun damage
- Amber light: increases collagen production, fights wrinkles
These therapies haven’t been definitely established, and some may be of questionable efficacy.
Red light therapy is a little-understood but promising solution for many skin concerns. It addresses wrinkles, acne, hyperpigmentation and inflammation, among other cosmetic issues. While more research is needed, RLT shows potential in treating many inflammation-related diseases and health conditions.
RLT booths, beds, lamps and handheld devices are found at many health and wellness establishments, and are available for purchase at a wide variety of price points.
This therapy has no adverse side effects and is safe for all skin types when administered correctly. However, if you have a serious skin condition, seek medical advice from a board-certified dermatologist. Visiting a licensed provider will generate the best possible results and lower your risk of adverse effects.
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