Red light and infrared light both have therapeutic benefits
New light therapy treatments are flooding the market—and we’re all about the potential benefits, including better skin and faster recovery and healing.
You're probably seeing ads and social posts daily on these light therapies. Whether it's a new infrared sauna spa that you can just drop in for sessions, or red light therapy panels you can purchase for at-home treatments...infrared and red light therapy is everywhere right now.
Red light therapy and infrared light therapy hit mainstream.
Light-emitting diodes (LED) were originally pioneered by NASA for plant growth experiments in space. Now, energy-efficient, long-lasting LED lighting is replacing traditional incandescent bulbs. But this new light source has also acquired a very different, therapeutic use for skincare and muscle healing.
In the ‘90s, studies on Navy SEALs found that application of LED light therapy helped heal musculoskeletal training injuries, dramatically reducing wound healing time and even reducing pain. So people started wondering: If low-level light therapy works so well for healing wounds, then what could it do for healing and calming skin?
Light therapy: types and benefits.
Now, three different types of light therapy have been developed—each with increasing depth of penetration and each providing very different benefits:
- Blue-light therapy (415 nm). Shallow waves penetrate the outer layers of tissue—the epidermis—killing acne by targeting the bacteria that lives in the first few layers.
- Red-light therapy (633 nm). Red-light therapy goes deeper, reaching the second layer of skin, the dermis, and stimulating the production of proteins, including collagen. Purported benefits include anti-aging and smoothing applications.
- White-light, or near-infrared, therapy (830 nm). This therapy uses the longest wavelengths to reach all the way through the epidermis and dermis to the innermost layer of tissue, the hypodermis, increasing blood circulation, reducing inflammation, and healing deeper wounds.
It’s a well-established fact that humans need more sunlight. Sun exposure makes us happier, helps us sleep better, and even works as an acne treatment!
LED light therapy, or photobiomodulation, isolates stimulating wavelengths and sends them directly to the skin without harmful ultraviolet rays produced by direct sunlight.
Light therapy seems like a no-brainer, and it’s joined microneedling, laser therapy, and chemical peels as the latest-and-greatest in skincare technology. But does the treatment itself really live up to all the hype? We looked into the research on low-level light therapy so you could see for yourself.
What the research says about LED light therapy.
Is LED light therapy legit? The short answer is yes. With NASA and the Navy behind successful studies, it’s hard to dispute that light therapy has many proven therapeutic benefits. Let’s get into the specifics.
An accidental application of red light in the ‘60s led to the discovery of low-light therapy. A Hungarian scientist trying to treat tumors discovered that application of a red laser increased hair growth and accelerated wound healing. But as new applications were discovered, some began to see LED light therapy as “snake oil,” a cure-all solution that didn’t live up to its claims.
Luckily, research continued, and now we understand how isolated wavelengths work in the body, producing effects that last “for hours, days or even weeks.” Many beneficial effects happen when the skin is exposed the low-level light:
- Nitric oxide is released. This molecule dilates blood vessels, increasing blood flow, and boosts immune system function. It also attacks bacteria, helping heal wounds and acne.
- Stem cells are activated, increasing tissue repair and healing.
- The light also creates a photochemical reaction with porphyrins, substances within acne, destroying bacteria and reducing sebum secretion and inflammation.
According to NASA, “Biologists have found that cells exposed to near-infrared light from LEDs, which is energy just outside the visible range, grow 150 to 200 percent faster than cells not stimulated by such light. The light arrays increase energy inside cells that speed up the healing process.” Cells literally grow and heal faster when exposed to LED light!
Red and infrared light therapy results with the skin organ:Our largest organ finds huge benefits from light therapies, from reversing what the sun does to it on the daily, to treating skin disease and trauma.
- Significant aid to healing scars and keloids
- Treatment of vitiligo, photodamage, and hyperpigmentation
- Significant reduction in acne after blue- and red-light therapy
- Longer remission periods for herpes outbreaks
- Decreased burning, redness, swelling, and peeling for burn patients, with a 50% faster healing time
- Fast resolution of psoriasis and rosacea
- Skin rejuvenation, reducing lines and wrinkles and resulting in noticeably softer skin
Internal healing using red light and infrared therapy:The therapy is also being tested for many novel uses, including as a method for reducing the side effects of cancer treatment, fending off fungal infections, lowering chronic inflammation, and more.
- Quicker healing from a sprain injury
- Relief from pulled muscles
- Aiding repair of broken bones
- Pain relief from arthritis, as well as less swelling and more mobility
- Improved lymphatic drainage for those with lymphodema
- Additional focus PLT therapies are even being used to treat long-term side effects from chemo treatments.
Massage plus light therapy treatments.
Lucy Haney, owner and practitioner at The Massage Studio in Roswell, Georgia, weighed in on the topic. She's been using light therapies in her practice for over three years, all with amazing results.
"I am focused on the muscular, structural, and organ treatment with polychromatic light therapy (PLT) in my practice. I have achieved great success using LED light therapy with sprains, pulled muscles, and even a broken foot. My clients with arthritis have less pain and swelling after the infrared therapy, and over time, achieve better mobility."
Before Lucy became a local magician with her hands, she bent her petite frame as a professional ballerina. She's acutely in touch with the human form. As an early adopter of light therapies combined with massage, she's transforming what a typical massage studio looks like. A consultation with her at The Massage Studio takes into account all of your pain points before determining the best mix of massage and light therapies to begin to heal you from the inside out.
Safety of LED light therapy.
Not only is LED therapy effective, but it’s also safe. “When LED phototherapy is used alone, patients do not experience redness, peeling, blistering, swelling, or pain,” dermatologist Glynis Ablon notes in a review of the research. There are no known adverse effects associated with LED light devices, although users do have to make sure they use the right wavelength of light, depending on the results they’d like. And the therapy is effective for all skin types and colors.
Know before you go.
Before you say, “Sign me up!” there are a few things you need to know.
LED light therapy is still typically provided by dermatologists and estheticians, who use red, blue, and near-infrared light alone or in targeted combinations. Some will have you lie down under a light, while others will use a handheld wand over the treatment area. Each treatment typically lasts about 20 minutes.
Newer options make at-home treatment possible. You can purchase at-home masks, wands, and panels to use on your own. For example, Joovv offers FDA-approved, easy-to-use light therapy devices. The treatment doesn’t hurt or burn—you are essentially bathing your skin in healing light.
Most providers recommend a series of 10 treatments or more, until the desired effect has been met, spaced about one week apart.
At-home devices aren't cheap, with costs anywhere from $250 to $2500. Treatment at a spa or studio offer an affordable point-of-entry to these therapies, with single sessions running between $25 and $85.
We won’t deny that LED light therapy has amazing therapeutic benefits. Whether it’s worth the cost in time and money is up to you—and your budget. Light therapy is just one of many natural therapies, and while it’s a great treatment option for those with specific goals, that doesn’t mean you have to drop the big bucks right away.
Find a local option to try out either blue light therapy, red light therapy, or infrared light therapy. A few sessions in, you'll know whether to continue with single appointments or take it to the next level with home investment. If you've had great success with any of these treatments, let us know in the comments—we'd love to hear how you're using light therapy in your health routine.