Red Light, Good Light

By Monica Hand – June 1, 2020

For some, red light therapy (also known as photobiomodulation  or low-level light therapy) can sound like a dream come true. With benefits allegedly ranging from a cure for muscle soreness to slowing the signs of aging, it can also sound like it’s too good to be true. But there are actually promising studies out there that support some of the major claims about the light treatment, so knowing what it’s all about can help anyone navigate the red light therapy trend.

What is RLT?

While the benefits of RLT are still being researched, there are many studies that have promising results for a plethora of cosmetics and a few medical conditions. Originally, RLT was used to help plants grow in space. Researchers found that wavelengths of red light promoted energy metabolism in the cells which allowed for plant growth and photosynthesis without proper sunlight.

It was then that the light techniques were studied for use on human cells, in hopes that the light would promote cell growth and energy the way it did for plants. They hoped that this could not only help medical issues on Earth but also help astronauts who experience abnormal cell functions and bone density loss while in micro- to zero-gravity situations.

Since then, the red light has been tested against numerous medical and cosmetic issues with various levels of success.

How Does it Work?

Red light therapy uses LED bulbs to transmit the low wavelengths of red light deep into the skin. When exposed to these low-level wavelengths, the body biochemically reacts in ways that boost the levels of energy in cells which speeds up productivity and repairs. The light increases blood flow and stimulates the production of collagen and adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This is what evens out skin tone and reduces the appearance of wrinkles and scars. The red light treatment is focused on cell-level repairs and healing.

How is it different from other light therapies?

LED light bulbs emit specific wavelengths that can penetrate skin in different ways. The color of the LED light can provide different benefits. The most common of these are blue, white and, of course, red. Each has its own benefits.

Blue light is most commonly used for acne as it works best at eliminating excess oil and acne-causing bacteria. Blue light has also been used for actinic keratoses (AKs) as the treatments can purge precancerous lesions while leaving surrounding tissue unaffected. White light is actually used in some cases for clinical depression and seasonal affective disorder.

These LED treatments are noninvasive and nothing at all like laser treatments. There are all kinds of light therapy and laser therapy treatments. To learn more, ask your dermatologist about what might be best for you.

What benefits does RLT have?

Red light therapy can be found at many salons, dermatologists and other doctor’s offices, but each place uses them for different purposes. Studies support these red light benefits:

– Acne – While blue light therapy is most common for acne treatments, RLT has also shown to help eliminate excess oil production and acne-causing bacteria. 

– Muscle recovery – A 2014 study found that pre- and post-workout treatments can reduce strength loss and muscle soreness, while another more recent study found that the treatments can reduce knee muscle exhaustion. 

– Pain and inflammation – Researchers have found that RLT is effective for pain relief from issues such as osteoarthritis, back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, torn meniscus and minor pains. 

– Skin conditions like psoriasis – While this is still being researched, the use of RLT can help with psoriasis, though using it alone to treat the skin condition is not yet effective. However, NB-UVB phototherapy is most commonly used for psoriasis treatments. 

– Cosmetic skin issues – Due to the ability to increase collagen, RLT has shown to reduce the signs of aging like wrinkles and sun spots. The treatment is also used to reduce pore size, skin decolorization (pigmentation) and scarring.

What are the risks?

While the studies are still being conducted in some realms of the light treatment, there have been few cases of harsh side effects from the light itself. A few cases of burns and blistering have occurred, but most of these have been attributed to faulty bulbs or at-home products and once from someone falling asleep under the lamp. It’s important to follow any directions from at-home products to the T and talk to a doctor or dermatologist when it comes to the uses for more clinical conditions.

RLT is a noninvasive treatment and is not at all like laser therapies. If interested in learning more or trying it out, reach out to a local dermatologist or doctor. There are several products that offer FDA-approved, at-home treatments, but some can be rather pricey.


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