I first heard about red light therapy years ago and immediately thought that it sounded pretty “extra.” The device was nearly $7,000, hardly accessible to the masses, and was promoted by bio-hackers to improve mood, inflammation, mitochondrial function, circadian rhythm, and to combat aging. That all sounds great in theory, but I dismissed it as a fad that wasn’t super accessible to the majority.
Fast forward a few years, and red light therapy & LED (light-emitting diode) devices have diversified and are now available at many price points in different forms. Red light therapy uses red light (duh), and LED therapy employs light emitting diodes which appear in several colors (including red) and wavelengths, offering a range of benefits for health and skin. Each color emits a narrow beam of light linked to specific wavelengths which penetrate the skin at different depths.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a non-invasive, natural treatment also known as photobiomodulation. This therapy uses the power of light at a certain wavelength (red and infrared spectrum) to stimulate the healing power of the body; it basically improves skin biology via light penetration. It delivers concentrated natural light to your skin and cells during treatment. This is like the wavelengths of light your body needs from natural sunlight, but without the heat or UV rays that cause sun damage.
When red light is applied to the skin, photons penetrate your skin tissue. A chain of complex physiological reactions occur, particularly in damaged tissues, and the process of cell repair is activated and accelerated.
Red light therapy works by enhancing your energy production via mitochondrial support at a cellular level. Healthy, natural light stimulates the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, and enhances the cellular respiration process that makes ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy. Humans make ATP every day, and it fuels everything we do. The more energy our cells can make, the better our bodies look, heal, feel, and perform.
By improving cellular function, red light therapy has been shown to increase the production of collagen help with skin tone and texture as well as fine lines and wrinkles. Other colors such as blue, yellow, and green can help with acne, inflammatory skin conditions, hyper-pigmentation, dark spots, and redness/rosacea.
Red Light Therapy Benefits
Healthy exposure to light is crucial for good health. Most of spend far too much time indoors and don’t get nearly enough light exposure. The stat I read was most Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors 😳 (source). Light is needed for cellular energy production, and exposure to light and dark cycles improves your circadian rhythm function, thereby improving sleep, hormone health, and energy.
Red light therapy benefits include the following:
Energy Production: red light stimulates the mitochondria in your cells. This boosts energy production which improves overall energy. It may also improve thyroid function; your thyroid governs metabolism and energy. There are conflicting studies, but this one study does show enhanced thyroid function.
Improves skin health by increasing the effectiveness of fibroblasts which stimulate collagen production. Benefits to skin and anti-aging have become a main reason people seek red light therapy. It is anti-inflammatory and rejuvenates skin because it boosts blood flow which brings oxygen and nutrients to skin. Supposedly it also reduces fine lines. I’ve been using a red light LED mask for 5 weeks now, and the biggest change I’ve noticed is improvement in skin texture and smoothness. I think it’s also reduced my under eye circles a bit. Other touted benefits include more even skin tone, brighter skin, better elasticity. You need to use it continuously for around 6 weeks to start noticing results and continue the therapy. Main skin benefits include the following:
- Firms skin
- Reduces appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Eliminates acne forming bacteria
- Improves skin clarity
- Promotes blood circulation
- Promotes healing
- Calms skin irritations
- Reduces hyperpigmentation
- Increases production of collagen and elastin
Note that some of these benefits (like acne, hyperpigmentation) are best achieved using different color lights available in LED masks. I’ll discuss that below.
Acne & redness: I’ve seen quite a bit of info on red light therapy benefits for skin conditions, but I’ve seen more info on the benefits of blue light for acne specifically. I’ve also read that yellow light benefits redness and rosacea. Although red and blue light therapy are similar treatments, the effects of each light treatment are different. Red light penetrates the deeper layers of the skin, promoting healing and cell rejuvenation. Blue light therapy targets the harmful bacteria on the skin’s surface and penetrates the sebaceous glands, reducing acne, blackheads, and oil production. Some treatments use a combination of both to accelerate results.
May reduce pain & inflammation: Studies show that red light therapy can improve a variety of chronic pain symptoms and conditions, such as joint pain, back pain, neck pain and fibromyalgia. Also reduces skin and tissue inflammation.
Red Light & LED Devices
Red light therapy devices feature LED red lights used as handheld devices, LED panels, LED masks, or full-body beds or panels. The panels are by far the most expensive but supposedly work best, and you can get full body benefits since it’s easier to expose your body to the light. They can be quite large. The companies with the best reputations include Joov and PlatinumLED Therapy Lights.
In general, the LED masks worn on the face and the wands are not powerful enough to provide significant results compared to the larger panels, but they still work. There are tons of LED masks on the market currently in all price ranges. Some offer a full range of colors in addition to red that shave differing wavelengths and offer other skin benefits:
- Blue: has a wavelength of roughly 415 nanometers (nm) and reaches the top layer of the dermis. Anti-acne. Kills the harmful bacteria which leads to breakouts; decreases inflammation; and may also treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
- Green: has a wavelength of approximately 500nm. Anti-inflammation, hyper-pigmentation, dark spots, and oily skin.
- Purple: offers the benefits of both red and blue light. Stimulates collagen release for tighter skin, and smooths wrinkles and fine lines.
- Yellow: has a wavelength of 550nm. Balances skin texture, redness, and rosacea. Particularly helpful for reducing redness from the sun. Stimulates the production of red blood cells for healing and rejuvenating the skin. This color also promotes softer skin, decreases inflammation, reduces redness, improves lymphatic flow, and helps heal skin conditions like rosacea.
- Cyan: Reduces swollen capillaries and inflammation, calms irritation
- White: Anti-inflammatory, boosts skin metabolism and tightening/firming. Similar properties as red but at a deeper level and highest wavelength.
Red light has a wavelength of approximately 630nm.
I personally have been using an LED mask for 5 weeks and have seen mainly smoother & softer skin, better complexion, and possibly a reduction in fine lines. I’ve been using red light exclusively, but mine offers the whole spectrum of colors listed above, so I have to experiment with those to make a final decision. I’m mostly looking for anti-aging benefits.
How to Use Red Light & LED Therapy
LED and red light is good for all skin types, but be aware that some meds may make your skin more photosensitive.
When choosing a device, think about your goals and needs. If your main focus is mitochondrial/energy support, mood improvement, and/or pain & inflammation management, you may want a red light panel. For skin concerns, I recommend an LED mask that has different color and wavelength options.
When choosing a mask or panel, look for a device with the most bulbs you can find. More is better for best coverage and treatment. Choose a device that is FDA approved or medical grade. Many masks offer both face and neck and décolletage coverage so you get the same benefits on your neck too (this is where your thyroid is located, and red light may benefit thyroid.) You don’t want a handheld wand designed to be glided across the skin, as the skin needs time to absorb the light to have any sort of effect.
I did hours of research to find the LED mask I wanted, and I ultimately chose the Cleopatra mask (above) because it has seven light options, 4 power options, 192 LED bulbs, neck coverage so it targets & benefits neck skin, and it is cordless. The other I considered was the Omnilux, but it is red light only. Loved by celebrities, if that matters. This post is informative in helping you choose a mask.
If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. True LED will be on the pricier side of things (approximately upwards of $300) as the actual LED bulbs are not cheap.
Use your device on freshly cleaned skin. Do not apply any product prior to use after cleansing for best results. Once you complete the treatment, apply a serum and a moisturizer and go on about your regular skin routine. You can use the device as long as you like, but more is not better and will not fast track results. Experts recommend keeping treatments under 25 minutes, and overuse could actually lead to dryness or irritation. Use 5-7 days per week for best results.
Red light and LED therapy offer a number of benefits to skin and cellular health. Use red light panels for energy support, pain and inflammation reduction, skin health, and mood improvement. Use an LED mask with multiple color options to correct skin conditions like acne, wrinkles, redness, inflammatory skin issues, and hyperpigmentation. Red light and LED masks plump the skin and increase collagen production for better texture, elasticity, and smoothness. Also help smooth out fine lines and wrinkles.
These light therapies are incredibly safe with virtually zero side effects. Definitely worth a try to improve skin and overall health.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.