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Woman using a red light therapy device
Woman using a red light therapy device

Radiant, youthful-looking skin, no wrinkles, acne, scars, or signs of aging: these are things that everyone wants. But to what extent are we willing to go to achieve this?There are countless treatments available, from acupuncture to cryotherapy and Ayurvedic therapies to drugstore picks.

While you can find a solution to suit your needs at every drug store, spa, or even on the internet, it can be challenging to determine which ones are worth all the hype. Take a recent wellness trend—red light therapy or RLT—as an example. It’s an alternative therapy becoming an increasingly popular treatment for skincare issues from wrinkles to aging. You may have read about the treatment or about all the celebrities raving about the LED masks that use it.

Although scientists and dermatologists are still researching the efficacy, it’s getting more and more attention as of late. So, what exactly is red light therapy? Read on to find out what we know so far.

What is Red Light Therapy?

Woman using a red light therapy device

Red light therapy (RLT) is a technique that utilizes low-level wavelengths to relieve pain and inflammation and treat numerous skin issues such as acne, acne scars, redness, and even wrinkles. RLT goes by many names, and is also often called photobiomodulation therapy or low-level laser therapy, low-level light therapy, and soft laser therapy. 

Researchers know that sun exposure is an excellent way to boost vitamin D levels in the body, but ultraviolet radiation from sun rays can also age your skin prematurely and cause sun damage, leading to redness, inflammation, wrinkles, or even skin cancer. To treat these issues, scientists began to research whether different types of light (red, white, and blue light) could benefit your skin and reduce these skin issues.

In red light therapy, red light photons are thought to work by increasing cellular production, migration, and adhesion, reducing the activity of sebaceous glands, aiding in blood circulation, stimulating collagen production, killing bacteria, and reducing inflammation.

While this type of therapy is said to treat cosmetic issues such as stretch marks, acne scars, and wrinkles, some medical offices or dermatology clinics may also use it to treat wounds or other issues like psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis. It has also been shown to positively affect mood and even improve the longevity of your vision and eyesight.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work for Skin Health?

Woman using LightStim red light therapy

After scientists discovered RLT in the 1960s, this type of therapy became a popular skin treatment. It’s not surprising, given research demonstrating that it does not damage your skin surface and can have many benefits that promote skin health.

But how does it work? Simply put, it penetrates the skin at different levels of depth until it reaches the mitochondria of the targeted cells. The mitochondria is the part of the cell where nutrients get converted into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is an energy-carrying molecule.

The rays of red light therapy produce a biochemical effect in cells that are believed to enhance enzyme activity, promote or increase ATP production, and increase reactive oxygen species. This promotes cellular proliferation, which may help treat acne, improve skin texture, firmness, and resilience, increase lymphatic system activity, and reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and superficial hyperpigmentation.

Light therapies like RLT work by causing a controlled impact on your skin to promote tissue repair, rejuvenate your cells, and stimulate regeneration. Because this sort of light therapy doesn’t penetrate the skin more than five millimeters, it’s believed not to cause any long-term damage.

LLT targets the fibroblast cells and enzymes, which stimulates the production of collagen. Collagen is a protein involved in the recovery of damaged skin caused by acne, scarring, or photo-aging. Red light therapy also activates stem cells that work on tissue repair and healing wounds such as burns or deep scars.

4 Potential Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Man getting full body red light therapy

Now that we understand how red light therapy works, let’s learn more about the research into its potential health and wellness benefits for skin health, mood, vision, and even hair loss prevention. Here are four potential benefits of using red light therapy.

May Promote Wound Healing

Red light therapy may help promote wound healing by repairing damaged tissue and promoting collagen production, in this manner reducing psoriasis and acne lesions. Wounds can also cause inflammation, and red light therapy may be able to reduce this sort of inflammation.

May Support Skin Regeneration

Because it stimulates energy production in the cells, red light therapy is also believed to support skin regeneration through the collagen production mentioned above, boosting skin elasticity and preventing wrinkles.Some believe this therapy may reduce cellulite, though there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that it works. 

May Promote Hair Growth

Red light therapy may improve hair growth, especially for people who suffer from alopecia, which is a condition that causes hair loss. While more studies are still needed, researchers in one study found that treatment involving red light on hair follicles was found to promote hair growth in the study group.

May Improve Vision Longevity

Morning exposure to red light has also been linked to improved vision and can help with declining eyesight. Researchers found that a single three minute long session was enough to see these results, which lasted for up to a week, suggesting that this type of treatment may have significant benefits for individuals with declining vision.

How Light Therapy Can Support Your Health

Other research has shown that light therapy can have other important benefits, such as improved mood and even improved blood glucose regulation. Light therapy has long been known to show positive benefits for improving mood, and has been used as a potential treatment for people with anxiety or depression.

However, interestingly, light therapy may also have benefits for insulin sensitivity. Some research suggests that using light therapy in the form of a daily 30 minute session may offer both mood improving benefits as well as improved insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes.

Keep in mind, however, that the benefits of light therapy are not limited to artificial light sources. As Dr. Andrew Huberman stated in his newsletter issue titled “Using Light for Health”, viewing natural morning sunlight can have similar health effects, and can also help reduce cortisol levels, reset your circadian clock, and improve your daytime energy.

Is Red Light Therapy Safe?

Light therapies are usually thought to be safe, especially if they are short-term treatments. As it only penetrates the skin for five millimeters, the risk of burning is very low. Long exposure may cause cell and tissue damage but is safer when done by a specialist.

You can also purchase an FDA-approved red light home device, but practice caution here. Pick a reputable brand, and consult with a healthcare provider before you start using one since the laser light can damage your skin and eyes.

Five Popular Red Light Therapy Devices

Five popular red light devices: Dennis Gross, Light Stim, SolaWave, Hooga, Trophy

Professional red light therapy services are often the best way to get this treatment, but there are also at-home devices. Although red light therapy is an FDA-approved treatment, it’s best to get a recommendation from your healthcare provider if you’re considering using an at-home red light therapy device. Still, it’s nice to know what’s out there!

Here are some popular options for different skin types—remember to consult with your doctor or dermatologist to check whether they’re the right option for you before investing in them.

1) Dennis Gross Skincare Spectralite Faceware Pro

This FDA-cleared mask is ideal for all skin types and especially good for acne-prone skin. It also claims to help with redness and wrinkles.

2) LightStim for Wrinkles

This small handheld red light therapy device has a built-in timer and automatic shut-off, and it comes with a cute beauty bag! It promises to smooth fine lines, reduce wrinkles and plump up your skin.

3) SolaWave 4-in-1 Facial Wand

This face-and-neck red light therapy device claims to help with fine lines, dark circles, collagen production, and overall skin health.

4) Hooga Red Light Therapy Device

This is a portable RLT device that claims to be suitable for beginners. It emits red and near-infrared light and also has an in-built cooling fan.

5) Trophy Skin

Called the RejuvaliteMD High-Power Ageless LED Treatment, this device looks like a lamp but functions as a red light therapy device. It also has yellow, amber, and infrared light and claims to target sun damage, fine lines, and other skin conditions.

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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.

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