A variety of different light therapies claim to offer benefits for skin health. The most popular are red and infrared light therapy.
Sometimes red and infrared light therapy are offered separately, sometimes they are combined. You can find both offered by skincare centers, spas, or even via special light fixtures or facemasks that you can use at home.
What’s the Difference Between Infrared and Red Light?
Infrared light is in the invisible range of the light spectrum, but you can definitely feel its heat. It penetrates the skin, and can even penetrate into the muscle and bone layer. Infrared light is often used to treat injuries, chronic pain and arthritis, and can reduce inflammation in some cases, just like other heat-based therapies.
The heating effect is one reason why infrared light is used in infrared saunas. Since infrared light heats the body directly, it can deliver the benefits of a sauna – sweating, increased circulation and heart rate – at lower temperatures than conventional air or steam-heated saunas
Red light is visible, but does not convey heat like infrared light. Red light therapies can also be advertised as low level or low power laser, and photobiomodulation.
The theory on why red light stimulates healing is based on research showing it may increase activity in cell mitochondria — stimulating them to release more energy, which the cell can then use for healing and regeneration. Whether or not red light is ultimately effective as a therapeutic treatment is still under debate, but many people report a reduction in their skin symptoms with regular use.
How Does Infrared and Red Light Therapy Affect Skin Health?
Red and infrared light therapies are often offered by dermatologists, as well as cosmetologists and adjunct health professionals. Yet the evidence supporting them is less than clear-cut. Part of the trouble in sorting through research on light therapy is that laser treatments are often lumped into the mix which can skew the results. (Laser treatments, while certainly a form of light therapy, are more like a controlled burning or peeling, and should only be sought from certified professionals.)
What to Consider Before Trying Light Therapy
- As infrared light raises the temperature of the skin, it may not be suitable for some people. If you have a chronic skin condition such as rosacea, eczema or TSW, heat may either help soothe or trigger a flare-up. Like any other skin application or treatment, go slowly. Test it with one short session to be sure you can tolerate it before ordering a home appliance or signing up for an expensive package of treatments.
- If you’re new to this type of therapy, before you try it at home, work with a health professional experienced with infrared and skin conditions and alert them immediately if you begin to feel any discomfort or see signs of a flare-up.
- Home infrared appliances should be used with caution as their heat may dry or even damage skin with prolonged use.
- Red light has no known negative side effects and should be safe for most skin conditions. There are many claims that it helps reduce wrinkles, fine lines, aging, scarring, and possibly soothes inflammation in cases of rosacea. However, extending claims that it benefits acne, TSW, eczema and psoriasis may be premature.
- Light treatments today include blue and amber LED light. In the case of blue light, there is research showing blue light from screens like your phone or computer monitors can damage skin cells and cause pigmentation, but also research showing that blue LED light used therapeutical may reduce symptoms of psoriasis and acne. This is an example where we feel more research is necessary.
Light therapy appears to be an exciting tool ripe for further exploration and research in its application to the field of dermatology. However, it may be too new to count on promises of results in your individual case.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.