Red Light Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to Enhancing Skin, Longevity, and Reducing Inflammation
Introduction | What is Red Light Therapy? | How Does Red Light Therapy Work? | The Benefits of Red Light Therapy | Studies and Potential Applications | Skin Rejuvenation and Anti-Ageing | Acne | Hair Growth | Inflammatory Disorders | Cold Sores | Rosacea | Eczema | Stretch Marks | Cellulite | Weight Loss | Thyroid Health | Sleep | Mood, Energy, and Mitochondrial Health | Muscle Recovery and Performance | For Pets | The Future of Anti-Ageing Treatments? | Enhancement Techniques | Amplify the Effects | Summary | Frequently Asked Questions
Red light therapy might sound like one of the latest technologies on the market. But the truth is, the healing properties of light therapy have been around for decades.
Light therapy was first used in the late 19th century to treat tuberculosis of the skin, and NASA used it during the 1980s to grow plants in space.
Today, red light treatments have become a popular option touted by skincare centres to treat a range of ailments and conditions, ranging from acne and eczema to cold sores, cellulite and more. Studies have proven it to be effective for improving skin texture and appearance, accelerating wound healing, and even treating inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis in the short term.
Here’s what you need to know about red light therapy, how it works, and how it can benefit you.
What is Red Light Therapy?
According to Healthline, red light therapy is a therapeutic method that uses low-level wavelengths of red light to treat a range of skin issues and other conditions.
But there’s a lot more to it than that.
During the late 20th century, NASA Researchers discovered that the light emitted from red-light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, aided in the growth and photosynthesis of plant cells, even in inorganic environments.
Later, red light therapy was studied for its potential uses in the medical field, and more specifically, to determine if it could increase the levels of energy within human cells. Researchers aimed to find out if red light therapy could provide a way to treat muscle atrophy and reverse bone density issues experienced by astronauts who experience weightlessness while traveling through space.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy goes by a range of different names, including:
- Low-level light therapy (LLLT)
- Photobiomodulation (PBM)
- Soft laser therapy
- Photonic stimulation
- Low-power laser therapy
Regardless of the name, there are a variety of different types of red light therapy (RLT). The various kinds include those used cosmetically and in medical settings to treat more persistent conditions like slow-healing wounds and psoriasis.
Red light is believed to work through its ability to cause biochemical effects in cells that stimulate and strengthen the mitochondria. Mitochondria create energy for the cells in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Increasing this ATP output may enable cells to operate and repair themselves more efficiently, leading to increased skin cell turnover.
Understanding IPL, LED And Red Light Therapies
Red light therapy differs from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy because it causes no damage to the surface of the skin.
Laser therapies work by inflicting controlled damage to the epidermis, which then stimulates the body’s natural tissue repair response.
Red light therapy directly stimulates this regeneration without causing damage, with RLT light emissions penetrating just 5mm below the surface of the skin.
LED light therapy is another non-invasive therapeutic treatment that is used to address acne, pigmentation, scarring and inflammation. According to Dermatec Skincare, it offers a range of different light spectrums to choose from, including red, yellow, blue and infrared, each of which is thought to offer its own benefits.
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The Benefits of Red Light Therapy
Healthline notes that red light therapy has been used to improve or treat a broad range of conditions, including:
- Slow wound healing
- Autoimmune disorders
- Athletic injuries
- Eyesight issues
- Side effects of certain cancer therapies
Other potential benefits include:
- Skin rejuvenation
- Hair growth
- Thyroid and hormone health support
- Improvement of mood and energy levels/ Mitochondrial Health
- Increase in muscle recovery and performance
Talking to the respected health publication, Michael R Hamblin, PhD, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine, also asserts that the range of conditions that red light therapy can treat is “expanding continuously”. Although he does note that the solidity of the evidence varies according to how many trials have been conducted.
Dr Susan Bard, a board-certified dermatologist working in New York City, believes that red light therapy can be helpful in reducing inflammation, stimulating wound healing after medical procedures, boosting hair growth in patients with alopecia, and stimulating collagen production in those who aim to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. Red light therapy may even offer relief for soft tissue injuries like sprains by promoting healing and reducing pain.
Studies on Red Light Therapy and Potential Applications
There have been numerous studies on the topic, and these are just some of the most enlightening:
Skin Rejuvenation and Anti-Ageing
Red light therapy is primarily used as a cosmetic treatment to improve the appearance of the skin. In a study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 36 patients received a total of 9 sessions of red light therapy over the course of 5 weeks. The patients noted a statistically significant reduction in wrinkles during this time, as well as an increase in skin firmness, smoothness, and softness. Researchers further reported the thickening of collagen fibres in the skins of patients treated with RLT.
Another study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that of the patients who underwent 11 red light therapy skin treatments, 90% reported a decrease in skin surface roughness and wrinkle depth without side effects. Research in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology confirmed these effects, noting that 91% of patients with photo-aged skin who received 9 RLT treatments lasting 20 minutes each reported an improvement in skin tone after a 12-week follow-up period.
An in-house study by LED Technologies focused on men and women between the ages of 39 and 66, and used red light therapy and near-infrared therapy on all participants for a total of 10 weeks. After the treatments, 77% of the patients reported a significant reduction in wrinkles. 69% reported a decrease in the appearance of crow’s feet around their eyes and an overall improvement in the texture and tone of their skin.
Red light therapy can also be useful in treating inflammatory skin conditions like acne. One study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology asked participants to self-administer red and blue light therapy treatments using a handheld device over a period of one month. By 8 weeks after the final treatment, the patients experienced a reduction of inflammatory acne of almost 70%.
Red Light Therapy for Hair Growth
According to Jose Diego Mier MD, PhD, the founder of the Heliotherapy Research Institute, red light therapy can be an effective tool in the treatment of androgenic alopecia, a hair loss condition that affects both men and women. This type of alopecia is associated with hormonal and genetic factors and is characterised by hypersensitivity to the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
According to Dr Mier, red light therapy can reduce sensitivity to DHT in the hair follicles, allowing hair to grow back healthier, thicker and stronger. It may also increase collagen production, helping to support the health and integrity of the scalp.
Dr Mier notes that red light therapy can also address alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that causes patchy hair loss throughout the body. This condition is caused by an immune response rather than sensitivity to a hormone and is driven by both environmental and genetic factors. Red light therapy may reduce the inflammation involved in alopecia areata by reducing immune activity and stimulating new hair growth through collagen support. Red light therapy is even used to treat chemotherapy-induced alopecia by stimulating the hair follicles’ mitochondria and boosting the production of ATP to fuel new hair growth and improve blood flow to the scalp.
If you are interested in using RLT to promote hair growth and treat hair loss conditions, start by finding a device that emits at least 630nm light wavelengths to penetrate the scalp. The ideal treatment size area for hair loss is around 4 inches in diameter. Use your RLT therapy device for at least 3-5 minutes per session, up to 5 times per week for best results. Dr Mier notes that you may begin to see new hair growth in as little as 6-12 months, especially if you are also using a hair growth-promoting drug like Minoxidil.
A 2019 study published in Pain Research and Treatment found that red light therapy could be helpful in improving the symptoms of clicking, pain, and muscle tenderness in patients with temporomandibular disorders.
Light treatments have even been assessed for limiting and preventing cold sore (herpes labialis) outbreaks. A 2018 systematic review of all clinical trials on cold sores and light therapy showed that RLT is effective in the management and prevention of recurring cold sore outbreaks, without side effects.
A trial of 46 patients saw volunteers treated with a combination of Oxymetazoline and one of four light therapies. After a period of 56 days, 90.7% of patients saw an improvement in facial redness associated with rosacea. 65.1% of patients overall were satisfied with their results and reported smoother healthier skin.
Another study treated patients with rosacea with a combination of red and blue light therapies to reduce the symptoms of papulopustular rosacea. After 10 light treatments, the study’s participants reported a reduction in itching and burning, as well as a reduction in erythema and papules.
A study published in AIMS Biophysics notes that red light therapy is particularly effective for reducing inflammation – a key marker of all types of eczema. Other research on 81 patients with atopic dermatitis found that RLT decreased itching in 63 patients with the condition while reducing skin eruptions in 57 of the 81 participants.
A review of studies involving red light for skin treatment found that RLT can activate stem cells, encouraging tissue regeneration and helping to lessen the appearance of scars and stretch marks.
Another study published in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery notes that laser treatments like RLT can be used to improve stretch marks – and especially early stretch marks – by promoting collagen synthesis and improving redness.
Red light therapy even holds promise for treating cellulite, a notoriously stubborn condition caused by fat accumulation under the skin.
A clinical trial on the effects of RLT on cellulite assessed 20 female patients between the ages of 25 and 55. The patients were split into two groups; one group was instructed to partake in high-intensity treadmill training while undergoing light therapy. The other group only engaged in treadmill training. Results showed that the treadmill and red light therapy group experienced a significant reduction in cellulite, while the control group did not.
Another study in Lasers Surg Med found that red light causes fat cells to ‘leak’ by creating small openings in their walls, allowing them to release lipids. The researchers found that 80% of lipids were released from treated fat cells after just 4 minutes of being exposed to red light. By the 6-minute mark, almost all the fat had been released from the cells.
How Red Light Therapy Can Aid Weight Loss
Right light therapy is also an emerging treatment for weight loss and is believed to remove fat from fat cells without invasive surgery.
When used to promote weight loss, the procedure uses a laser that emits red, blue, and infrared light wavelengths that penetrate around 1-2 inches into the skin. The light targets subcutaneous fat layers, temporarily breaking down the cell walls and allowing stored fat to drain out and be removed through the body’s natural waste elimination mechanisms.
A 2020 study put this theory to the test, administering LLLT treatments to 60 overweight adult patients with body mass indexes of 25-29.9 kg/m2. The patients were divided into randomised groups that received light treatments either 3 times per week for 4 weeks; 2 times per week for 6 weeks; or once per week for 12 weeks.
The patients who underwent red light therapy twice a week for 6 weeks saw the greatest reduction in weight, and noted the most significant improvements in quality of life, body appreciation, and body satisfaction.
The study suggested that LLLT therapy twice a week for 6 weeks could be an ideal duration and frequency for body weight management.
Red Light Therapy for Thyroid Health
According to Recharge Health, red light therapy works in three key ways to support optimal thyroid health and function.
Firstly, it can provide mitochondrial support and help to address the low cellular energy levels associated with hypothyroidism. Regular use of RLT has been shown to increase cellular energy production and improve the persistent fatigue that so many thyroid patients experience.
RLT enhances immune function, which may be compromised by many thyroid disorders, including autoimmune thyroid conditions specifically. It also aids in hormone regulation by mimicking the red and near-infrared light that regulates human homeostasis through exposure to the sun. Consistent RLT use, Recharge Health notes, can regulate the signals that promote thyroid hormone secretion in the brain, thereby promoting stable levels of thyroid hormone in the blood.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology assessed the effects of low level laser therapy in autoimmune thyroiditis cases, and to gauge the safety and actions of LLLT 6 years after the randomised clinical trial was completed. The study included 43 participants, 25 of whom were exposed to LLLT. The researchers noted that the group exposed to low level light therapy needed significantly lower doses of levothyroxine, a thyroid replacement medication, than the placebo group. Moreover, the study noted that LLLT is safe for the treatment of hypothyroidism in cases resulting from chronic autoimmune thyroiditis.
According to Julia Walker, RN, BSN at Paloma Health, you can use at-home red light therapy devices to enhance and support the health of your thyroid gland. However, she does recommend opting for the machines used in medical offices for the best results, as they are often more effective. Before using RLT to treat any medical conditions, she urges thyroid patients to approach their healthcare providers to ensure that red light therapy is the right treatment for their individual needs.
Red Light Therapy for Sleep
The Sleep Foundation asserts that red light therapy can aid people with insomnia, seasonal affective disorder, circadian rhythm sleep disorder, and even jet lag. According to the organisation, light therapy exposure can help to reset your circadian rhythms and promote healthier sleep cycles when used consistently per your doctor’s recommendations. Individuals that undergo light therapy may find it easier to fall asleep at night, to stay asleep throughout the night and to keep their energy levels consistent throughout the day.
At-home light therapy boxes and devices can be bought both at stores and online, and may be covered by health insurance plans under the right conditions. Some light therapy devices are designed specifically for sleep disorders and insomnia, so it’s important to approach a healthcare professional to determine which solution is best for your needs. Only devices that are designed to address sleep issues filter out UV light, so you will also need to ensure that your device of choice limits UV light generation to enhance your quality of rest.
Red Light Therapy for Mood, Energy, and Mitochondrial Health
In an article for Forbes Health, red light therapy researcher Janis Eells, PhD notes that exposure to light therapies like red light therapy can boost the respiration process in human cells and improve ATP production for more efficient functioning. She says that when cellular energy and mitochondrial function are stimulated, so is the body’s ability to effectively repair itself.
Not only can red light therapy be used to stimulate mitochondrial function and treat issues like musculoskeletal disorders and tendonitis, but it can also improve mood and energy levels. Dr Casey Kelley, MD, another contributor to the article, says that red light stimulates the cells to function at a higher level, which has direct implications on your energy levels and mental health.
More and more research is proving the effects of using light therapy for mood and memory-related conditions as well, including stroke, anxiety, depression, dementia and seasonal affective disorder. Dr Kelley notes that brain-based photobiomodulation therapies can improve the metabolic capacities of neurons, reduce brain inflammation, and boost it antioxidant response. It also supports neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons and connections in the brain.
RLT may even be able to assist patients with Parkinson’s disease, both to control their symptoms and to regulate their sleep and waking cycles. As RLT carries a low risk, Forbes notes that many researchers now assert that red light therapy will become an essential tool for treating brain disorders in the years to come.
Red lights vary considerably in terms of quality and strength, so it’s best to approach a medical professional for guidance on the duration and frequency of their use. Ideally, if you are looking to address mood disorders and energy-related conditions, you should experience RLT in a clinical setting using a medical grade device. With that said, you can also use a light therapy device safely at home, although your results may not be as predictable as they would in a clinical office. Remember to always use eye-protective equipment like LED shielding eye goggles when using an at-home red light therapy device.
Red Light Therapy for Muscle Recovery and Performance
Red light therapy researcher Janis Eells, PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee notes that red light therapy can accelerate sports recovery and may even assist in helping to prevent injuries. She cites RLT’s mitochondrial- and ATP-boosting mechanisms for these effects, and also says that the therapy can improve cellular respiration for enhanced performance.
Dr Eells believes that RLT may be a promising treatment for many musculoskeletal conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other inflammatory conditions that often affect sportsmen and women. Additionally, red light therapy can even be used to successfully treat chronic pain conditions that affect athletes, including fibromyalgia and neuropathy, according to recent research published in the journal Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.
Practical Pain Management notes that light therapy treatments are usually administered for muscle recovery twice a day, and as often as every 6 hours if required. The organisation says that the more treatments a patient receives, the quicker they will recover and optimise their athletic performance once again, so home-based RLT devices are often the best option for this use. Speak to a qualified medical or sports professional to find the right treatment duration and frequency rate for you.
Red Light Therapy for Pets
There are many studies that show that red light therapy can be a safe and effective health intervention for humans and pets alike. For instance, a study published in 2018 which assessed the efficacy of RLT for treating dogs with osteoarthritis found that the dogs exposed to red light showed significant improvements in pain and lameness scores and medication dosages needed.
All three of these metrics showed significant improvements compared to those of the dogs that were exposed to placebo light sources. After a 6 week treatment period, 82% of the dogs in the near-infrared light group needed at least 50% less medication and also ranked lower on their pain scores. The dogs in the placebo group did not experience improvements in their scores.
More research from 2017 assessed the use of RLT on dogs that were scheduled to undergo bone surgery. One group of dogs received red light therapy before their operations, and the other was given a placebo treatment. At the 8 week point following their surgeries, the dogs from the RLT treatment group had healed more rapidly than the placebo group, despite the fact that the treatment group contained older dogs on average.
Another study from 2016 showed that sterile pyogranulomatous pododermatitis – a condition that causes painful, inflamed lesions on pets’ paws – responds positively to light therapy. Dogs who received RLT healed quicker and experienced fewer recurrences of the condition than dogs treated with conventional medicines. None of these studies noted any adverse effects of RLT on animals.
LightTherapy.org notes that while red light therapy won’t cure all pet-related health conditions, it can help to improve some, including joint and back pain, sprains, muscle injuries, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, skin inflammation, hip dysplasia, infections, wounds, and more. There are many light therapy devices designed specifically for pets, including the LumaSoothe, the B-Cure Laser Vet, and several others. Consult your veterinarian to find the best treatment devices and schedules for your pets.
Red Light Therapy: The Future of Anti-Ageing Treatments?
There is a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that red light therapy offers a highly effective, safe, and low-side-effect treatment option for a wide range of signs pertaining to skin ageing and damage.
A comprehensive review in the journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery found that this treatment has a wide range of applications in dermatology. And specifically in situations where skin healing, inflammation reduction, and rejuvenation are needed.
The review found that LLLT was effective for:
- Treating burns
- Reducing the appearance of hypertrophic scars and keloids
- Producing de-pigmentation in cases of vitiligo
- Treating herpes virus lesions
- Protecting the skin against UV damage through the triggering of protective and repair responses
- Reducing active acne lesions while lowering associated inflammation at the same time
The fact that a single treatment can enact such a broad range of positive effects for an equally large spectrum of skin complaints and disorders is hugely promising. It shows that it could hold great potential as a futuristic anti-ageing therapy with no notable side effects and a high efficacy profile.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Red Light Therapy Sessions
RLT is a powerful treatment that has been proven to treat and address a wide range of conditions, including signs of skin ageing and inflammatory skin conditions.
Here are our top tips for making the most of your red light therapy sessions:
- Opt for regular treatments. When you spend the optimal amount of time experiencing red light therapy, you will be able to maximise the benefits you experience from it. Ideally, you should aim to have red light therapy treatments between 3 and 5 times per week and at a time of day that corresponds to the condition you are using RLT for.
For instance, if you want to promote recovery after workouts, you should aim to have therapy after you work out for the best results. If you want to reduce the signs of ageing and enhance your skin’s texture and appearance, however, you can use RLT whenever it is most convenient for you.
- Maximise exposure. RLT works best when there is nothing hindering its ability to penetrate the skin. Clothing is an obvious barrier but considers also that lotions and creams, makeup, and sunscreen can also affect how effective your red light therapy may be.
- Avoid RLT if pregnant or breastfeeding. Although red light therapy has not been proven to be dangerous for pregnant and breastfeeding women, there is little to no data on its safety for these groups. As a result, we recommend avoiding red light therapy if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Track your progress over time. Red light therapy works slowly but steadily over the course of multiple treatments. Tracking your progress will allow you to see the results this therapy has produced, depending of course on what you are using it for.
You can take weekly photos of your face or body, measure your workout performance after sessions, or even keep a diary of your symptoms like pain and stiffness to see how RLT is benefiting you with each session.
If you are using this therapy to improve the appearance of your skin, be sure to take photographs regularly in bright daylight every time, which will give you a clear picture of how the treatment is working.
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How to Amplify the Effects of Red Light Therapy
One of the most popular supplements used to enhance the effects of red light therapy is Methylene Blue, a blue substance that plays a wide range of pharmacological and microbiological roles. Methylene Blue is now considered a promising photosensitiser for specific types of red light therapy and offers a peak performance of absorption at 660nm red light wavelengths.
According to Dr Michael Lam, PhD, a medical photosensitiser like Methylene Blue can be used to support the effects of red light therapy on the cells and tissues and is often used as part of photodynamic therapy (PDT) treatments for cancer, parasitic infections, and other serious medical conditions.
For everyday use in treating injuries, inflammation, pain and more, using a photosensitiser like Methylene Blue is not usually necessary. Instead, you can combine red light therapy with an innovative delivery system such as an infrared sauna to maximise the benefits you receive from your treatment sessions.
Red light therapy has a vast range of applications and benefits when it comes to supporting cellular and metabolic health, treating sports injuries and improving performance. It also helps with rejuvenating the skin, improving sleep quality and thyroid health, and even boosting the wellbeing of your pets.
As with all technologies, RLT systems come in a variety of styles, mediums, strengths, and levels of quality, which can affect the level of benefit you experience when using them. We highly recommend speaking with a qualified treatment specialist or a medical professional to find the optimal RLT solution for the needs of yourself and your family!
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the best wavelengths to use?
Red light wavelengths that range between 620nm and 750nm have been shown to deliver the best results for light therapy applications.
Is red light therapy safe?
Yes, red light therapy has been proven to be safe and does not carry the risk of any adverse effects, as long as it is used as advised by device manufacturers and medical professionals.
How often should I use red light therapy?
Speak with your doctor or a qualified healthcare professional to find the best red light therapy regime for your individual needs.
Can I use red light therapy at home?
There are many at-home red light therapy systems that provide access to the full spectrum of benefits that RLT has to offer.
How much does red light therapy cost?
RLT can cost between £25 and £200 (or more) per session. The price will depend on where the treatments take place, the nature of the treatments, and their duration and frequency.
What should I expect during a red light therapy session?
Your red light therapy session should not cause any pain or discomfort, but mild eye strain can result from exposure to the light. Be sure to wear protective eyewear and to only use home treatment devices for the manufacturer’s recommended period of time, or as recommended by your doctor.
Can red light therapy help with anxiety and depression?
Yes. There is many research to show that RLT can help to address mood conditions by promoting neurogenesis and reducing inflammation in the brain.
How long does it take to see results from red light therapy?
The results you see will depend on the frequency of your treatments and the conditions you are aiming to treat. While some people experience new hair growth in as little as 24 weeks after RLT treatment, it could take up to 6 months to see results for other conditions like pain, inflammation, mood disorders and skin ageing.
Most red light therapy experts recommend undergoing 2 or 3 sessions each week for a period of time recommended for your specific condition. If your symptoms reappear, you can also continue with treatment to keep them under control.