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What Does Red Light Therapy Do For Skin

Based on current research, red light therapy may be beneficial in improving skin appearance, wound healing and pain control.

Red light therapy utilizes the therapeutic effects of light energy to aid in the healing of skin and muscle disorders such as scarring and tendonitis. By exposing the body to low wavelengths of red light (620 to 850 nanometers), red light therapy stimulates cells to produce more energy, resulting in numerous health benefits.

While there are studies showing the efficacy of red light therapy, more research is needed to fully determine its potential benefits. However, red light therapy has been used successfully in many different clinical settings.

Read on to learn more, including the potential benefits, side effects, and uses of red light therapy.

What Is Red Light Therapy?

When it comes to discovering the potential benefits of red light therapy, it’s actually thanks to a trip to outer space.

In October 1995, as part of a plant-growth experiment, a source of red light – part of the visible spectrum – made its space shuttle debut on the second mission of the U.S. Microgravity Laboratory’s Spacelab (STS-73, Columbia).

“Here, the astronauts tending the plant growth chambers noticed small scratches on their hands beginning to heal,” said Dr. Janis T. Eells, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a researcher in red light therapy. “Nothing heals in space, so NASA funded years of research using these lights for human trials.”

These studies found that red light therapy can be used intentionally as a form of photomedicine, which is the application of light for health and healing purposes. Visible light can penetrate biological tissues such as cells, muscle tissue and nerve tissue – red and near-infrared light penetrate deeper than green, blue or violet light.

“With red light therapy, you expose an area of your body to a specific wavelength of red light emitted by a device, which can range in size from handheld to full-body,” says Casey Kelley, M.D., founder and medical director of Casey’s Center for Integrative Health. “Essentially, red light stimulates your cells to work at a higher level.


How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

Dr. Kelly explains that red light therapy works by activating the mitochondria, or the powerhouse of the cell. With the activation of the cell’s energy centers, the cells are able to do their jobs, such as healing and growth, more efficiently. Dr. Kelly says, “Think of it like your morning coffee – red light therapy helps your cells wake up and get the job done!” .

Red light therapy and other low-intensity light therapies utilize a phenomenon called photobiomodulation, which is how different components of cells are activated or respond to different wavelengths of light, explains Erum Ilyas, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology in Pennsylvania.

To further explain the effectiveness of red light therapy, Dr. Ilyas says it’s helpful to compare red light therapy to traditional skin devices such as lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL).

Lasers cause controlled damage to the skin, which triggers an inflammatory response that promotes wrinkle reduction and redness. Conversely, red light therapy does not traumatize the skin, which means that there is not the discomfort, healing time, and possible reactive swelling associated with traditional lasers, resulting in positive results.

In other words, Dr. Elias continues, while red light therapy can penetrate the skin up to 6 millimeters below the epidermis, it doesn’t necessarily cause damage that would promote cellular activity.

Potential Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy has many potential uses and benefits.

However, according to Elaine F. Kung, M.D., founder of Future Bright Dermatology in New York and Assistant Clinical Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, it is important to keep in mind that many of the published studies using red light therapy have typically been small studies (fewer than 30 people), animal studies, or laboratory studies. As a result, most medical experts agree that high-quality studies with more human participants are needed.

However, preliminary scientific findings look promising. Here are some of the conditions that show potential for red light therapy treatment.


Improvement of skin and hair condition

Using light to affect positive changes in the skin is not a new concept. In fact, dermatologists have been using various wavelengths of light for more than 50 years, Dr. Kung explains.

With that in mind, one of the most commonly cited benefits of red light therapy is improved skin. “By stimulating collagen production, red light therapy can be used to eliminate signs of aging and skin damage such as fine lines, wrinkles and age spots,” says Dr. Kelly.

According to Dr. Elias, perhaps the most significant benefit of red light therapy is the improvement in the quality and texture of the skin.


Relief of chronic disease symptoms/pain relief

One potential application of red light therapy is the treatment of chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved FibroLux, the first and only laser to treat fibromyalgia. “When a healthcare professional administered three weeks of red light therapy three times a week with the FibroLux laser, patients experienced significant reductions in their fibromyalgia symptoms,” said Dr. Ells.

According to recent research, red light therapy can also reduce neuropathy pain.

In addition, it can reduce the side effects of certain cancer treatments. “For example, a phase III clinical trial showed that red light therapy reduced oral mucositis (swelling and irritation of the tissues inside the mouth) in bone marrow transplant patients when applied for just a few minutes outside the mouth (externally),” says Dr. Ells.


Enhanced Fat Loss

Although red light therapy has been touted for fat reduction and weight loss, the jury is still out. However, there is some research suggesting that red light may affect adipocytes (cells that store fat).

An earlier study published in the journal Obesity Surgery in 2011 found that when 40 overweight adults received regular red light therapy, their fat cells released triglycerides, which led to fat loss. Participants in this study lost about 2.1 centimeters of waist circumference in four weeks.

Another study of 64 obese women published in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine in 2015 found that red light therapy combined with exercise increased fat loss. In this study, two groups worked out for 20 minutes three times a week and then received either red light therapy or placebo light therapy. Those who worked out and then received red light therapy had greater fat loss, suggesting that red light therapy can improve metabolic inflexibility.


Accelerated exercise recovery and injury prevention

“Light accelerates cellular respiratory processes, increases ATP and other mechanistic factors,” says Dr. Ells. “You can energize cells and stimulate the body’s ability to repair itself.”

Because of this, red light therapy may hold great promise in treating and preventing a range of musculoskeletal conditions, including tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.


Promoting Brain Health

Dr. Kelly explains that there is a growing body of research showing the benefits of using red light therapy for dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and other brain disorders. Ongoing research has shown that photobiomodulation therapy for the brain can increase the metabolic capacity of neurons, stimulate anti-inflammatory and antioxidant responses, and neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons). This may be especially helpful for people suffering from memory or mood problems.


Red light therapy may also help people with Parkinson’s disease control symptoms and sleep/wake cycles. Because the risks are minimal, many researchers believe that red light therapy for brain disorders will be one of the most important medical applications in the coming years and decades.


Side Effects of Red Light Therapy

Dr. Elias and Dr. Ells say that, in general, red light therapy really doesn’t have any major side effects.

However, Debra Jaliman M.D., a New York dermatologist and author of the book Skin Rules, says that red light therapy should not be used by people who have photosensitizing diseases such as lupus erythematosus or who are taking medications that cause photosensitizing disorders: author of a book.

Dr. Kelly also warns that because the relationship between red light therapy and pregnancy has not been well studied, pregnant women are best advised to avoid its use at this time.

In addition, there have been clinical reports in recent years showing that visible light can induce melanin migration from the basal to superficial layers of the skin in people with darker skin tones. “This means that visible light, including red light, may aggravate hyperpigmentation and melasma in people with dark skin tones,” said Dr. Kong. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

Because of this potential side effect, Dr. Kong suggests that people should be careful about when and how often they use red light therapy, especially those with darker skin tones.


How to use red light therapy

Dr. Elias says that LED red light varies widely in intensity and quality, making it difficult to give blanket recommendations on frequency and duration of use. In general, each device provides safety guidelines based on the dose and power of LED red light.

Those looking to maximize benefits from red light therapy should first consider experiencing red light therapy in a clinical setting. Dr. Elias says that most studies are based on medical-grade devices in the office, which have calculable energy outputs and treatment durations.

However, trying red light therapy at home – possibly in the form of a mask, lamp or wand – may also be safe and effective.

“These therapies are not dramatic, but they are safe and convenient to use at home and gradually improve skin texture, so many people find it more convenient than going to a dermatologist’s office,” says Dr. Jaliman. She adds that as long as the manufacturer’s instructions are followed carefully, you should have no problem doing red light treatments at home three to five times a week. However, Dr. Jaliman stresses that it is important to use goggles, such as LED shields.

In addition, people need to be realistic about the benefits that personal devices can provide.

“Read the instructions carefully and don’t over-rely on home devices thinking that using them for longer than recommended will result in better results,” says Dr. Kung. “Above all, a home red light therapy device is a no-brainer, but be realistic – a device that sells for $200 on Amazon isn’t likely to deliver the same amazing results as a $180,000 laser.


Who to consult for red light therapy

“We are now discovering that light can and should be prescribed like any medicine – we call it ‘phototherapy,’” says Dr. Ells. “There are different prescription treatments for each condition to achieve a specific therapeutic effect.

Therefore, who you need to consult for red light therapy depends on the condition you want to treat. However, a good place to start is with a dermatologist or integrative/functional medicine physician who has experience with red light therapy.

“It’s a good idea to have another set of eyes to look at whenever you add something new to your health care regimen,” says Dr. Kelly.



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