Red light therapy seems to be popping up everywhere. From dermatologists’ offices to spas and high-end gyms, the low-wavelength light promises to cure all of your body and skin woes almost instantaneously. No chemicals, no needles, no downtime. But, as with most cure-all and fountain of youth claims, you have to wonder: is it legit? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy (RLT) is a therapeutic technique that uses red, low-level wavelengths of light to treat everything from aging skin and acne to hair growth and pain relief. When exposed to red light therapy, the body generates a biochemical effect that increases the amount of energy stored in cells. This reaction helps cells function more efficiently and repairs damage, which is why it’s also been used to treat scars and wounds.
But, as with so many other procedures, red light therapy really took off in popularity when it was shown to be effective in combating fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and other signs of aging skin. And because the RLT wavelengths penetrate deeply–to protect existing collagen and elastin, while also stimulating new collagen production–they’re more effective than a wrinkle-reducing cream or serum.
There are several different types of red light therapy. The red light beds that can be found in spas and salons are said to help address cosmetic skin issues, such as wrinkles and stretch marks. When red light therapy is used in a medical office setting, it may be used to treat more serious conditions, such as slow-healing wounds, psoriasis, and even the side effects of chemotherapy.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy works by delivering concentrated wavelengths of natural light into your skin–up to 10 millimeters deep–where it’s absorbed by your cells. This stimulates the production of elastin, collagen, and fibroblasts. RLT also boosts circulation, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to your cells and tissues.
When your cells are hit with the red light wavelengths, regenerative effects occur, which lead to several potential benefits, such as younger-looking skin, diminished scarring, and enhanced muscle repair.
As the evidence for RLT’s benefits mounts, so do your options to try it out for yourself. Professional wellness spots—your local spa, dermatologist’s office, or high-end gym—offer a variety of options, from full-body panels to smaller devices for more targeted treatments. You can also give it a try at home with a handheld device, or even an RLT bed if you were so inclined. If you buy a home device, be sure to check the output intensity. Better yet, it’s probably a good idea to consult with your dermatologist to guide you on the most effective choice.
It’s not just any red light that delivers optimal results. Two wavelengths in particular—660 nanometers and 850 nanometers—deliver the body’s best response. 660 nanometers is more quickly absorbed by the skin, which makes it the RLT of choice for cosmetic treatments. In contrast, 850 nanometer wavelengths penetrate deeper into your body to aid in muscle recovery, joint pain relief, and full-body wellness.
What Are the Benefits of Red Light Therapy?
While you can always count on the internet to be abuzz with news about miracle treatments for just about anything, red light therapy isn’t a cure-all for everything. RLT is still considered to be an experimental treatment for most conditions, including the following.
At the core of many of RLT’s benefits is its potential to reduce pain and inflammation. Researchers have found that exposure to red light therapy can help reduce pain for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis knee pain, general knee pain, meniscus tears, and back pain. RLT has even shown promise for relief of dental pain.
Muscle Repair and Recovery
Evidence suggests that red light therapy has benefits when used both pre- and post-workout for muscle repair and recovery. Yet another 2014 study showed that the therapeutic technique led to less muscle soreness, reduced muscle strength loss, and fewer range-of-motion impairments for up to four days after exercise.
Accelerated wound healing is just one of the many touted benefits touted of red light therapy—and there’s quite a bit of research confirming that it really does help you heal faster. A 2014 study found that RLT promoted “increased tissue repair and healing…plus beneficial effects on wrinkles, acne scars, hypertrophic scars, and healing of burns.”
One of the most popular uses of red light therapy is to address skin issues such as acne because it is well-tolerated by all skin types and tones. RLT also helps decrease bacterial levels and oil production in your skin with no drying effects and without the use of harsh chemicals. Red light therapy treatments for acne are fairly easy to find in most dermatologists’ offices.
So, let’s get back to the fountain of youth thing. There are plenty of studies to support red light therapy’s anti-aging powers, many of which have determined that users of RLT experienced an increase in collagen and significantly improved skin complexion. Not only does red light therapy seem to protect existing collagen and boost new production, but it also helps with tone, texture, pore size, and wrinkles.
What Are the Side Effects of Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is generally considered to be safe and painless. RLT is a natural process that exposes the skin to levels of light that are not harmful—unlike UV light from the sun. However, there is a potential risk of damage to the eyes. Although RLT is safer on the eyes than traditional lasers, proper eye protection should be used while undergoing red light therapy.
While there are very little risks of side effects from undergoing RLT, a practitioner with inadequate experience or anyone who exposes themselves to too much of the treatment may cause cell and tissue damage. Products meant for use at home may also lead to misuse, causing burns or damage to the skin and unprotected eyes.
So is red light therapy a magic bullet? Not quite, but the science behind RLT is promising. Based on the current research, you might find that RLT is beneficial to your current skincare regimen.
While you can easily purchase RLT devices online, it’s always best to get a doctor’s opinion on any symptoms before you attempt to self-treat. It’s also important to remember that red light therapy is not yet FDA-approved for most conditions or covered by insurance. Any serious conditions, such as arthritis, psoriasis, or slow-healing wounds, should always be evaluated by a doctor or dermatologist.
More research needs to be done regarding the exact dosage needed for optimal effects in various treatments, but RLT is generally safe and may be an effective option for people seeking to keep their skin healthy or make smaller changes in their skin’s appearance.