What Is Red Light Therapy? Effectiveness, Benefits, Uses, Risks

You’ve probably seen or heard the term “red light therapy,” whether at your dermatologist’s office or on the shelves at your favorite beauty store—or maybe you’ve even noticed celebrities like Kate Hudson, Victoria Beckham, and Chrissy Teigan touting the skincare treatment, donning glowing, red light-emitting face masks or waving red wands over their faces on social media. But what is red light therapy, exactly, and how does it work?

According to Jodi LoGerfo, D.N.P., A.P.R.N., F.N.P.-B.C., D.C.N.P., a board-certified dermatologist at the Orentreich Medical Group in New York City, red light therapy (RLT) involves using light-light emitting diode (LED) devices that “produce varying wavelengths of light that treat a variety of skin issues, including acne, psoriasis, fine lines, and wrinkles.” Also known as low-level laser light therapy (LLLT), low-power laser therapy (LPLT), or photobiomodulation (PBM), this non-invasive treatment has become an increasingly popular option for its touted skin health benefits.

If you’re wondering if you should incorporate red light therapy into your own skincare routine, here’s what dermatologists say you should know—including the low-down on its touted benefits, safety and risks, and whether at-home treatments are truly worth it.

How does red light therapy work, and what is it used for?

Red light therapy usually takes the form of a face mask, light panel, or wand equipped with LED lights, which you place near your skin in order to let your cells “absorb” the light. “Red light therapy is theorized to work on the mitochondria of our cells—the engine,” explains LoGerfo. “This gives the cells of the body more energy, allowing other cells to function with maximum productivity. For the skin, this includes skin restoration and repair which can help increase new cell growth and intensify the restoration process.”

Specifically, red light therapy can increase circulation, decrease inflammation, and stimulate collagen to help rejuvenate your skin and treat skin conditions such as acne, hyperpigmentation, and psoriasis—and it may even help with hair loss to increase hair growth and density, too, says LoGerfo. “The LEDs can stimulate collagen production, helping reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” explains Diane Madfes, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “They also can decrease redness and help acne marks to fade faster.”

LED light therapy isn’t just limited to red light, either; various wavelengths can have varying effects on your body, says Dr. Madefes. “Blue light is anti-microbial, red light decreases inflammation and induces collagen remodeling, orange/amber and green light [is good] for soothing and calming,” she notes.

Is red light therapy safe? Are there risks?

Red light therapy is considered to be completely safe—as long as you make sure to wear eye protection goggles. “Damage to the eyes can occur from long-term blue or red-light exposure,” warns LoGerfo.

Side effects from red light therapy are minimal—and if there are any, they’re usually mild—but there are certain conditions in which it might be best to avoid the treatment. Specifically, anti-aging and regenerative medicine doctor Neil Paulvin, D.O. doesn’t recommend it if you have seizures or eye disorders. “Flicker (changes of frequency of light) at a high rate can lead to headaches, dizziness, and possible seizures at worst,” he notes.

Similarly, Dr. Madfes doesn’t recommend red light therapy for anyone with photosensitizing medical conditions, such as lupus, or anyone taking a photo-sensitizing drug (including tetracycline, doxycycline, hydrochlorothiazide, naproxen). You should also avoid it if you have any open wounds or lesions on your skin.

Does red light therapy work?

There is an emerging body of research that shows the potential of red light therapy to help improve skin health and treat certain skin conditions, including a small 2014 study that showed that light therapy led to improved skin complexion and feeling, reduction of skin roughness and wrinkles, and increased collagen density. However, more extensive research needs to be conducted. “Although there are some studies regarding their benefit, they are not abundant, and we are not entirely sure how they work,” says LoGerfo.

One thing that’s important to note about the effectiveness of red light therapy, says Dr. Paulvin, is that it may take consistency and time to notice results. Even then, Dr. LoGerfo says that you should have realistic expectations. “People should know that results you usually see with these treatments are mild,” she says. “They aren’t a game changer when it comes to fine lines, wrinkles, hair loss, etc.”

Still, red light therapy definitely shows promise in the field of dermatology, especially due to its safe, noninvasive nature and its minimal side effects.

Can I use red light therapy at home?

While red light therapy was once a treatment you could only get at a dermatologist or doctor’s office, there are now LED red light masks and handheld devices you can purchase and use at home. Keep in mind, though, that “the masks that are for at-home use are less powerful than the ones available at a dermatologist’s office,” says LoGerfo—which means you may not see the kind of results you might get from an in-office treatment.

Priori Skincare UNVEILED LED Mask

Priori Skincare UNVEILED LED Mask
Credit: Priori Skincare

If you are looking to purchase a red light therapy device to use at home, Dr. LoGerfo recommends looking for ones that are from a reliable company and are labeled as “FDA approved.” A personal favorite of Dr. Madfes is the Priori Skincare UNVEILED Face LED Mask, which she says is not only backed by science for efficacy, but is portable, rechargeable, and comfortable to wear.

When undergoing red light therapy, Dr. Madfes advises cleansing your face prior to using, and always applying an antioxidant serum immediately after your session.

How often should you get red light therapy?

“Typically, the LED face masks are left on the skin for 20 to 30 minutes-the treatment can be done 2 or 3 times a week,” says LoGerfo. “If you are using a handheld device, it can be used 3-5 times a week for 10-20 minutes each time.” Dr. Paulvin himself recommends undergoing red light therapy 4-5 times per week, ideally, as it takes consistency to get more noticeable results. “There is no maximum or limit to exposure,” he adds.

The number of treatments you need may vary depending on the specific red light therapy device you’re using. If you’re using an at-h0me device, you should always be sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

The bottom line:

Red light therapy is a promising and emerging treatment option for rejuvenating skin and treating conditions such as acne, psoriasis, hyperpigmentation, and even hair loss. It’s generally considered to be safe with minimal side effects, and can also be safely practiced at home, in addition to standard in-office treatments. However, if you have severe acne, skin disease or hair loss, you should always consult a healthcare professional, says LoGerfo.

LightStim for Wrinkles LED Light Therapy Device

LightStim® LightStim for Wrinkles LED Light Therapy Device
Credit: Lightstim

Contour FACE

Omnilux Contour FACE
Credit: Omnilux

4-in-1 Facial Wand

SolaWave 4-in-1 Facial Wand
Credit: SolaWave

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