Red Light Therapy Benefits for Skin, Reviewed by Dermatologists
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Is it possible that there’s a treatment that aids in improving acne, inflammation, aging skin, and sore joints in one fell swoop? Perhaps you’ve heard that these are some red light therapy benefits. But the question is whether these claims can be substantiated with research and proven successes, or are merely anecdotal. While miracles are highly unlikely, can it be that red light therapy does indeed have positive health results? That’s the crux of what we’re addressing here with input from several board certified dermatologists. But first, what exactly is this skin care technology?
“Red light therapy is a low-level laser light therapy that exposes the skin to low wavelengths of light in order to address a number of skin concerns,” explains board-certified, New York City dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engleman. “The light causes cells to work more efficiently and regenerate and repair damage, without pain or downtime.”
Also known as low-level laser therapy, low-power laser therapy, cold laser therapy, or photobiomodulation, red light therapy stimulates tissues through deep skin penetration (one to two millimeters deep), as red light boasts longer wavelengths than other colors in the visible spectrum. “Red wavelengths are very useful light sources for many medical and skin applications due to the penetration depth,” explains Dr. Macrene Alexiades, founder of MACRENE actives and associate clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine. “They have been associated with benefits in wound healing, acne treatment, hair growth, and skin and tissue rejuvenation.”
Some are so taken with red light therapy that they use at-home devices, like various LED red light therapy masks or the handheld Theraface Pro device. And while celebrities from the Kardashians to Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba to Susan Sarandon have posted pics trying the treatment, the verdict is still out on red light therapy’s effectiveness since regular, religious use is imperative. Experts advise in-office professional treatments coupled with at-home upkeep to achieve the best results.
What else do the pros recommend in terms of red light therapy? Here, four dermatologists help decode the benefits of incorporating red light therapy into your self-care regimen.
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What Is Red Light Therapy and What Does it Do?
“Red light therapy involves exposing skin to specific wavelengths of red light — between 630 to 670 nanometers (nm) — and near-infrared light (between 810 to 850 nm), which act on the mitochondria, energizing cells and allowing them to function more efficiently,” explains double board-certified facial plastic surgeon Dr. Jennifer Levine.
Cells’ energy is created in the mitochondria, and red light exposure may produce a positive biochemical effect that strengthens the mitochondria, allowing cells to function more efficiently and rejuvenate and repair themselves. The results of this could range from faster wound healing to improvement in the look of scars, acne, wrinkles, and sun damage. The key to reaping the benefits of red light therapy is repeated exposure to low levels of red and near-infrared light for an extended period of time.
The history of red light therapy dates back more than a century. Although Danish physician Niels Ryberg Finsen received a Nobel Prize in 1903 for discovering that exposure to concentrated red light accelerated the healing of sores, it took decades for this type of treatment to be studied and developed. In the 1960s, Hungarian physician Endre Mester experimented with red lasers to successfully stimulate hair growth and wound healing on rats. Then, essentially by accident, NASA helped to legitimize light therapy as a medical treatment in the late 20th century. Used to grow plants and vegetation in space, red light therapy had a side effect of also quickly healing cuts and abrasions on the hands of NASA scientists who worked with the light.
New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank says he mainly uses red light therapy for anti-inflammatory treatment, though he acknowledges it can be effective for wound healing, acne, and other symptoms of skin inflammation. “Most commonly we use it in office for people post-treatment, like laser resurfacing or people who are undergoing acne treatments and may be sensitive to other topical agents and things of that kind,” explains Dr. Frank.
Dr. Alexiades is in the process of writing a textbook about photodynamic therapy, and through her research, she has found “red light therapy is reported to enhance blood circulation in the skin through angiogenesis.” She notes, “Improved blood flow can bring more oxygen and nutrients to the skin cells, promoting overall skin health and aiding in the repair of damaged tissues.” Dr. Alexiades also explains that red light therapy is reported to stimulate fibroblasts, the cells that synthesize collagen. “By promoting collagen synthesis, red light therapy may help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” she adds.
Red Light Therapy Benefits
“Studies have shown that red light therapy can reduce inflammation and increase blood circulation, leading to pain relief, and can alleviate chronic pain in conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis,” explains Dr. Levine. Due to its ability to reduce inflammation, red light therapy is effective to treat a range of conditions that are caused by inflammation in the body. And by increasing blood circulation, red light therapy helps promote cell turnover for smoother, more even-toned skin.
Depending on the purpose of red light therapy treatment, some mild results can be seen almost immediately, with continued improvement seen in weeks or months (eight to 12 weeks) following treatment.
- Reduced inflammation: Research published in the AIMS Biophysics Journal posits that red light therapy has anti-inflammatory effects, specifically to aid in treating skin inflammation such as redness, acne, and rosacea, as well as other health conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and other joint disorders. Supporting this claim, Dr. Engelman confirms that “the biggest benefit of red light therapy is [that] it reduces inflammation by triggering blood vessels to form and increase the production of collagen and fibroblasts.” Likewise, Dr. Frank finds red light therapy particularly useful for patients with poorly controlled inflammatory diseases or in recovery from procedures. “We find it to be the icing on the cake in terms of anti-inflammatory treatments,” explains Dr. Frank. “It’s not going to be the sole thing that helps wounds heal or the sole modality for inflammatory conditions of the skin, but we do find that it’s a nice supplement.”
- Fewer fine lines and wrinkles: “After age 30, we lose about one percent of collagen per year. In combination with sun exposure, pollution, and lifestyle habits like smoking, our collagen production dwindles, and there is a higher chance of developing aging, sagging skin,” Dr. Engelman explains. “Red light therapy stimulates collagen and elastin production and helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles, giving the skin a more youthful appearance.”
- Clearer skin: Both Dr. Engelman and Dr. Alexiades cite red light therapy’s effectiveness in targeting the sebaceous glands to help reduce the overproduction of oil and ameliorate breakouts. Plus, by reducing inflammation and stimulating collagen production, red light therapy improves the skin’s healing abilities to clear blemishes and acne. Dr. Engelman also finds that red light therapy can work in coordination with blue light therapy to target bacteria-causing acne and reduce redness.
- Improved skin texture: “Red light therapy may contribute to a more even skin tone and improved texture by stimulating cellular regeneration and turnover,” Dr. Alexiades shares. “This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with rough or uneven skin.” Similarly, Dr. Alexiades suggests that according to her research, red light therapy could help repair sun-damaged skin cells and improve the overall tone and texture of the skin.
- Faster wound healing: Cited as an “accidentally discovered benefit” of red light therapy when abrasions on astronauts’ hands quickly healed while working with red light to grow vegetation in space, red light therapy has been proven to expedite healing of cuts and wounds, as well as help to improve scars. Red light therapy works to speed wound healing by reducing inflammation and increasing the activity of repair cells. A study on mice published in the Journal of Dermatologic Surgery showed that red light therapy accelerated the healing of incisions but was less effective in healing burns. However, this treatment has been found to successfully speed post-operation healing — following procedures such as laser resurfacing — by promoting the repair of damaged skin tissue by enhancing cellular proliferation and migration, notes Dr. Alexiades, who adds that red light therapy has also been studied in the diabetes population for healing leg ulcers and in athletes to speed muscle recovery after intense exercise.
- Improved hair growth: When laser therapy pioneer Dr. Mester experimented with red light therapy on tumors in rats back in the ’60s, he coincidentally discovered that red light therapy stimulated hair regrowth in the lab rats. Dr. Alexiades supports this claim that suggests red light therapy can stimulate hair growth by promoting blood circulation in the scalp and encouraging the proliferation of hair follicle cells — she ran the FDA trial that attained FDA approval of red light therapy for hair loss (the LaserComb, which is sold under several brand names). Dr. Alexiades explains that in the FDA trials, red light successfully stimulated the hair follicles and induced regrowth. Though it should be noted that while there are several at-home laser devices that claim to promote hair growth, their actual efficacy is still being tested and not all options are FDA approved.
Red Light Therapy at Home
Successful red light therapy treatment hinges on consistent use. And at $150 to $300 per in-office treatment with a dermatologist or esthetician, red light therapy can add up to be a costly expense. Instead, some opt for at-home devices for red light therapy upkeep, first getting treated in a professional setting and then maintaining results with at-home devices.
Dr. Levine acknowledges that there are effective at-home red light therapy products, but says it’s important to select a device that you’d be inclined to use consistently in order to achieve desired results. She suggests starting a treatment in a professional setting to ensure that an effective device is being used that’s specifically customized to your individual goals. For example, she says, “if a patient’s goal is to reduce dark spots, then the provider may use a combination of treatments that will produce results faster than red light therapy alone.” However, she adds, “Because red light therapy treatment should be done regularly and consistently to achieve results, at-home red light therapy may be more convenient.”
Dr. Engelman offers a similar opinion regarding at-home versus pro red light therapy treatments. “For those looking to get the full benefit from red light therapy, I recommend considering a clinical setting with in-office medical-grade devices,” she says. “In a professional setting, LED therapy is often coupled with other skin procedures as an add-on to facials, peels, or microneedling. Typically the skin care professional will use a combination of different types of light for maximum benefits over the course of about 20 minutes.”
But she also thinks there are worthy at-home red light therapy options that are safe and easy-to-use. “Some of these treatments do not yield the same results as in-office devices, but are great for consistent use that gradually improves the skin’s texture, tone, and quality,” Dr. Engelman says, cautioning, “As always, research your at-home red light therapy device, be mindful of your usage, and read the instructions.”
But Dr. Frank is not totally convinced at-home red light therapy treatments are effective. “In terms of the at-home therapies, I find they are of limited use unless people use them very regularly,” he stresses. “I tell people: Try it, and if you find that it helps and it serves you, like any skin care treatment, you can continue it.”
As an entry point into at-home red light therapy treatment, consider a device that’s a bit more budget-friendly before committing to a more expensive purchase. Luckily, there are several convenient devices, including LED face masks and portable handheld facial tools that deliver red light therapy at home.
Therabody Theraface Pro
The Theraface Pro offers red light therapy along with facial massage and microcurrent treatment options. The LED ring encircles the device’s entire head, so you can cover a lot of facial real estate fast, and you can choose your LED light therapy color — red, blue, and red + Infrared light — to reduce wrinkles around the eye, banish acne and blemishes, or a provide warming sensation to temporarily reduce irritation and discomfort.
Price upon publish date of this article: $399
HigherDose Red Light Neck Enhancer
HigherDose creates buzzy wellness devices like top-of-the-line infrared sauna blankets, and the brand recently expanded its red light therapy offerings to include this décolleté-focused mask. The tool wraps around the neck and covers the chest area, delivering red and near infrared light to help boost collagen and soften fine lines.
Price upon publish date of this article: $349
Current Body Skin LED Light Therapy Mask
“I love the CurrentBody LED Light Therapy Face Mask because it is powered by red and near-infrared light,” says Dr. Engelman. “It is lightweight and convenient and works by accelerating collagen production and increasing blood circulation. It reduces inflammation and signs of aging overtime on your own time in your own home,” she explains. “Using the device for a minimum of 10 minutes three to five times per week helps minimize inflammation, improve skin tone and texture, and repair skin damage.”
Price upon publish date of this article: $380
Hooga Full Body Red Light Therapy Device
For red light therapy lovers, a full body panel is an efficient way to reap the technology’s benefits from head-to-toe. This splurge-worthy oversized panel is great for treating wrinkles, discoloration, uneven texture, and acne on the neck, chest, hands and back.
Price upon publish date of this article: $1,200
Dp Dermaceuticals LED Face Mask
Dr. Levine cites Dp Dermaceuticals Red Light Therapy LED masks as a viable option to help potentially reduce fine lines and wrinkles, age spots, sun damage, and pigmentation while improving skin texture.
Price upon publish date of this article: $395
Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons
While it’s not accurate to hail red light therapy as the magic cure-all, based on substantial research, red light therapy has some benefits as a non-invasive treatment for conditions that have to do with inflammation. And red light therapy treatment has shown to have few side effects, so dermatologists consider it to be a relatively safe treatment for a range of skin issues. Calling red light therapy a “low-risk” procedure, Dr. Frank advises, “The best way to decipher benefits versus myths is to try it for yourself. While it may not be a miracle worker or assist in weight loss, it can be a great addition to treating the skin for its anti-inflammatory benefits.”
- Low risk with few side effects: “Red light therapy is generally safe as it exposes the skin to low levels of light that are not harmful to the skin. There are virtually no side effects from undergoing red light therapy when it is administered by a professional or board-certified dermatologist,” says Dr. Engelman, who believes it’s appropriate for all skin types. “However, be sure to monitor your skin’s reaction as well as how long and how often you are using red light therapy.”
- Has shown to alleviate inflammation: Red light therapy has shown positive results to relieve symptoms of skin inflammation (acne, psoriasis, and rosacea) as well as other health conditions due to inflammation, such as arthritis or tendonitis.
- Can help improve skin tone and reduce wrinkles: Due to its ability to restore and rejuvenate skin on a cellular level by stimulating collagen and fibroblasts, red light therapy can help to improve the skin’s appearance due to age, sun damage, and environmental stressors.
- Requires regular use in order to see any results: Red light therapy is not an instant gratification type of treatment. Three to five sessions per week are suggested to see results within eight to 12 weeks of regular treatment. That’s a huge time and financial commitment, especially for those receiving professional treatments.
- Can cause minimal side effects: Though the dermatologists we consulted consider red light therapy to be relatively safe, there’s always the risk of red light therapy causing minimal side effects such as eye sensitivity, headache, skin irritation, thermal burn, or worsening of skin conditions. “Like with all treatments, make sure to always communicate with your provider on any concerns you have and to use proper eye protection,” urges Dr. Frank. “Falling asleep under a red light or using it without eye protection always has a risk of burns or eye damage, which is why I usually recommend it be done in a professional office.”
- Shouldn’t be used by those with photosensitivity: “It’s important to let your provider know if you have any light sensitivity to avoid any burns or excess discomfort,” Dr. Frank stresses. Those with Lupus, light sensitivity, or someone taking a photo-sensitizing drug or certain antibiotics should not use red light therapy. Others who are not good candidates for red light therapy include individuals with epilepsy, recent burns, hyperthyroidism, and cancer, and pregnant or lactating people should also consult their doctor prior to treatment, notes Dr. Levine, who adds, “If you have any skin conditions or take medication that may make you sensitive to light, consult with your doctor first. As with any new skin routine, start with shorter treatment sessions and increase gradually from there.”
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Meet the Experts
Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a board-certified, award-winning, New York City dermatologist, Mohs surgeon, and media expert who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery and American College of Mohs Surgery.
Dr. Macrene Alexiades, MD, Ph.D., FAAD, is a double board-certified dermatologist in the EU and the U.S., and is certified to practice medicine, surgery, and dermatology. She holds three degrees from Harvard University: a BA from Harvard University, MD from Harvard Medical School, and a PhD in Genetics from Harvard University. She was also a Fulbright Scholar with a research award year in Europe and has been named as a Castle Connolly Top Doctor since 2014. Today, she provides editorial expertise to multiple medical journals, and she delivers expert patient care at her bustling, high-profile New York City dermatology practice.
Dr. Jennifer Levine, MD, is an award-winning, double board-certified facial plastic surgeon, world-renowned beauty expert, and steadfast innovator. She has always had a profound appreciation for beauty, precision, and mathematics, solidifying her career in aesthetic medicine. In addition to running her private practice, Dr. Levine is an attending plastic surgeon at Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital.
Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon, skincare consultant, and founder of the bespoke aesthetic healthcare brand PFRANKMD. In over 20 years of private practice, he has become a world-renowned expert in minimally invasive cosmetic surgery. He is also a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Meet the Author
Danine Alati is a celebritiestalks contributor who boasts over two decades of experience covering the beauty, wellness, and interior design verticals. Alati also specializes in writing luxury lifestyle and home improvement pieces, and has penned stories for InStyle, Architectural Digest, DuJour, Galerie, Brides, Hamptons, Art Basel, and Worth magazines, and many other outlets. Alati interviewed four leading dermatologists and conducted extensive research to write this article on the benefits of red light therapy.
Red Light Therapy Benefits for Skin, Reviewed by Dermatologists