What is red light therapy? Benefits, uses and more

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If you’ve stumbled into red light therapy on social media, you have probably seen claims that it clears acne, de-ages skin, reduces inflammation and heals joints. You may have also heard that it does nothing at all, and is just another beauty fad.

SKIP AHEAD What to look for in at-home red light therapy tools | Expert-recommended red light therapy tools | How long does it take to see results from red light therapy?

Light therapy has been used in the medical and scientific fields for decades. It Is often used to combat seasonal affectiveness disorder, treat skin disorders, heal scarring and more.

Red light therapy, specifically, has the potential to assist in “treating acne, reducing inflammation, decreasing healing time after certain procedures, stimulating hair growth and general skin rejuvenation,” said Dr. Nkem Ugonabo, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City. However, red light therapy for skin treatment is newer and less studied.

“In terms of red light therapy for facial rejuvenation, we don’t really have many human studies to look at,” said Dr. Apple Bodemer, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “most experts say that they don’t know yet if red light therapy is effective for all its claimed uses. Most say that the studies so far show some potential,” but ultimately, more studies are needed to prove its efficacy.

Though the research on red light therapy is ongoing, it is safe and has been used in dermatology offices for over a decade. But only in the past few years has it become popular for at-home use. These at-home devices typically take the form of tools like wands, masks or lamps with dozens to hundreds of tiny LED lights attached. All of our experts recommended consulting your doctor before purchasing one of these tools and agreed that individual results vary.

Red light therapy remains exciting, however, because of proven positive effects of other forms of light therapy. Infrared light, for example, has been used for years to treat symptoms like joint pain, said Dr. Bodemer.

What to look for in at-home red light therapy tools

When shopping for a red light therapy tool to combat inflammation or rejuvenate skin, it’s important to keep the following features in mind:

  • FDA approval: When we asked our experts about specific red light therapy tools, all explained that you should seek out FDA-cleared devices. An FDA-cleared device signifies that the brand has gone through the process of submitting its information to the FDA for review, said Bodemer.
  • Single color LEDs: While it may be tempting to splurge on a device that offers a rainbow of available light colors, Dr. Bodemer said not to “get wowed by extra bells and whistles,” especially with the lack of studies done on combination lights like purple light. Devices that let you choose one light at a time are preferred.
  • Price: Red light therapy devices can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars. Generally, red light therapy wands are the most affordable, and you should be able to get a quality option for under $300.
  • Wavelengths: Wavelengths of light are measured in nanometers (nm), and help us understand color temperature at a glance. Red light is found between 620 and 750 nm. Red light therapy devices generally operate around 630 nm. Some devices offer multiple wavelengths of red light, including near-infrared light slightly above 750 nm.

Expert-recommended red light therapy tools

The experts we spoke to suggested speaking to your dermatologist before purchasing a red light therapy tool. If you do decide to buy an at-home product, use doctor’s guidance, check reviews online, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Below, we’ve rounded up dermatologists’ recommendations that are all FDA-cleared.

MZ Skin Lightmax Supercharged LED Mask 2.0

Dr. DeRosa recommended MZ Skin’s Lightmax LED mask as an FDA-cleared at-home treatment option with a mid-range price point. It uses 84 LEDs that can project red light (633 nm), near-infrared (830 nm), or blue light (415 nm) across the entirety of the face. Treatment with the MZ Skin mask has anti-inflammatory effects, according to the brand.

MZ Skin recommends using the mask for no more than 10 minutes a day, no more than 4 times a week. The mask is USB-C rechargeable.

Omnilux Contour Face

Dr. Bodemer mentioned Omnilux as a red light therapy brand with FDA-cleared options. Its Contour Face mask is more affordable than most, as it only offers red light and no additional wavelengths. It uses LED bulbs to emit red (633 nm) and near-infrared (830 nm) light for smoothing effects on wrinkles and redness, according to the brand.

Omnilux recommends using the mask for no more than 10 minutes a day, between three and five times a week. The mask is USB-C rechargeable.

LightStim for Wrinkles Wand

Dr. Bodemer also mentioned LightStim as a brand offering FDA-cleared red light therapy wands. Wands are typically more affordable than masks and can be a better entry point for people looking to try red light therapy.

The LightStim for Wrinkles wand works the same way a mask does, with 72 LEDs of varying red light wavelengths. Unlike masks, you hold the wand to a specific area of skin for treatment.

LightStim recommends using the wand for no more than three minutes per treatment area, between five and seven times a week. It is wired, so it must be plugged in to use.

Revive Light Therapy Lux Collection Glō Portable LED

LED Technologies’ Revive Light Therapy was another mentioned brand offering FDA-cleared red light therapy wands, at a very affordable price. Its Lux Collection Glo is smaller than most, making it useful for targeting very specific areas of skin. The LED can emit blue light and varying wavelengths of red light.

LED Technologies recommends using the wand for no more than three minutes per treatment area, no more than once a day. The wand is USB-C rechargeable.

Is red light therapy safe?

Our experts believe that red light therapy is safe, as long as you use an FDA-cleared device at its recommended dosage.

While most FDA-approved LED masks have cutouts for the eyes, some do not. For these tools, Dr. DeRosa suggested either wearing goggles or “at the very least, keeping your eyes closed during use.” Again, you should consult your doctor or dermatologist before trying red light therapy.

How long does it take to see results from red light therapy?

Our experts agreed that this is a difficult question to answer due to all the variables at play. You might see results immediately, or you may never notice a dramatic change. Different devices, the frequency of treatment and your individual skin can affect results. “Have realistic expectations, knowing that [red light therapy] might have great results for you and it also might not,” said Dr. Bodemer.

How is red light therapy different from blue light therapy?

Red light and blue light therapy operate at different wavelengths of light and interact with skin differently. Red light has been used to treat inflammation, skin roughness and fine lines, while blue light has been used as a treatment for acne due to the way blue light interacts with bacteria.

Some products allow you to use “combination light” by turning on both red and blue light at the same time. Our experts do not recommend this, as most scientific research and treatments have been done using individual colors of light, not combinations.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Apple Bodemer is a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
  • Dr. Nkem Ugonabo is a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm.

Catch up on Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay up to date.

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