Medical News Today: What to know about red light therapy

Red light therapy (RLT) aims to solve skin issues by using low wavelength red light. Many experts believe that it can help with issues such as skin conditions, scarring, and signs of aging — including wrinkles and age spots.

There is some evidence to back up many of these claims, but RLT is no miracle cure.

Anyone considering the treatment should also take other steps to promote skin health. Improper use of RLT may also cause some side effects.

Anyone who is uncertain about whether or not RLT is right for them should talk to their doctor.

How it works

Red light therapy. Image credit: osseous, 2015
RLT exposes the body to low wavelength red light.
Image credit: osseous, 2015

RLT is a straightforward procedure involving exposing the body to low wavelength red light. Low-level laser light therapy is another name for the process, though RLT may be more common.

This red light is natural and can penetrate deep into the skin, where the cells can absorb and use it.

As a study in the journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery notes, mitochondria in the skin cells can absorb these light particles. This can help the cells produce more adenosine triphosphate, which is the energy source for all cells.

Many experts attribute the potential positive benefits of RLT to this function. With this extra energy, the cells may be able to respond better to damage and rejuvenate themselves.

Although there is early research surrounding RLT, there is still no conclusive evidence that it is a beneficial treatment. Many studies show that the treatment has promise, but more extensive clinical studies in humans will help determine the potential applications of RLT.

With that said, there are several potential benefits of RLT, which we will cover in the sections below.


Improving skin health

Most people show interest in RLT as a possible way to improve skin health.

The potential for using RLT as a way to rejuvenate the skin has led to a large number of studies. As the review in the journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery notes, RLT may help rejuvenate the skin by:

  • increasing collagen production in the skin, which gives the skin its elasticity
  • increasing fibroblast production, which helps produce collagen and other tissue fibers
  • increasing circulation between blood and tissue cells
  • protecting cells from damage
  • increasing mRNA in the cells, which helps stimulate the cell
  • improving facial texture
  • reducing fine lines
  • reducing wrinkle severity

A clinical trial in the journal Photomedicine and Laser Surgery explored light treatment for some basic skin issues in a small group of 136 people. The researchers found that these light therapies could:

  • rejuvenate the skin
  • improve the complexion
  • improve the feeling of the skin

It is important to remember that many of the results regarding RLT come from animal or test tube studies, which explore the function of RLT. Many of the human studies used very small sample sizes, as is evident in the clinical trial above.

These results show the potential for the therapy but are not conclusive evidence that it will work in every case.


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Improving acne

a woman pointing to the acne on her cheek.
RLT might be an effective treatment for acne vulgaris.

As the review in Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery also notes, forms of light therapy are potential alternatives for the treatment of acne vulgaris.

Sunlight can alter the way the sebaceous glands behave. The sebaceous glands produce sebum, which may clog the pores and cause acne. Sunlight may help calm overactive glands.

The issue that many people have with sunlight exposure is that it comes with exposure to ultraviolent (UV) A and UVB rays, which may cause other skin issues over time. These can be severe and may include developing skin cancer.

RLT, either alone or in combination with other treatments such as blue light therapy, is a potentially effective treatment for acne vulgaris. The light appears to penetrate deep into the skin and affect sebum production while also reducing inflammation and irritation in the area.


Wound healing

Red light may also be helpful in speeding up wound healing.

Research in the journal Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia highlights the fact that light therapy may help wound healing in a few ways, such as by:

  • reducing inflammation in the cells
  • stimulating new blood vessels to form, which doctors call angiogenesis
  • increasing helpful fibroblasts in the skin
  • increasing collagen production in the skin

More studies in humans can help confirm these results.

Hair growth

A small study in the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy explored the effect of low-level light on people with alopecia.

The study revealed that people who received RLT had improved hair density, compared with those in a control group.

The authors note that the effect was beneficial when people applied light in wavelengths of both 665 nanometres (nm) and 808 nm.

However, this was a smaller study, and more extensive clinical studies will help give backing to these claims.


Reducing pain

RLT may also be an effective treatment for pain in people with certain conditions.

A review in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine compiled the results of many studies surrounding RLT and musculoskeletal disorders.

The research indicated that RLT could effectively reduce pain in adults with different musculoskeletal disorders. The researchers note that practitioners who stick to the specific dosage recommendations seem to increase the effectiveness of the therapy.

Enhancing bone recovery

A review in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology examines the potential for RLT in treating facial bone defects.

The researchers’ results indicate that RLT may help accelerate healing after treatment for facial bone defects. The review also notes that the therapy helped reduce inflammation and pain during the process.

However, the researchers did call for a more standardized approach to determine whether or not the therapy is effective.


Anti-inflammatory benefits

As research in the journal AIMS Biophysics notes, many of the conditions that RLT treats have their roots in inflammation.

Although the exact reason is not yet clear, RLT has significant anti-inflammatory effects in the body. These effects are both local, where practitioners apply the light, and systemic, in other tissues and organs in the body.

The researchers explain that the helpful anti-inflammatory effects of RLT, and the potential uses for this therapy, are abundant.

Further research may help us understand if it may help with chronic inflammatory issues such as:

Again, the research is still preliminary. However, the anti-inflammatory effect of RLT is very promising.

Past studies have stressed the importance of the specific wavelengths that people use to target their skin.

However, as the review in Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery explains, the collected research found that in many cases, the very specific wavelengths made relatively little difference during treatment.

With that said, the frequency for most RLT sessions will typically vary within a range, similar to the wavelengths in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology paper.


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Potential side effects

RLT is a completely natural process. It exposes the skin to levels of light that are not harmful — unlike UV light coming from the sun.

Because of this, there is virtually no risk of side effects from undergoing RLT. However, a practitioner with little experience or someone who exposes themselves to too much of the treatment may cause tissue and cell damage.

Products for use at home may also lead to misuse, causing damage to the skin, burns, or damage to unprotected eyes.


Costs and insurance coverage

People at the gym talking to the receptionist
RLT is available in a number of gyms, day spas, and tanning salons.

RLT has a relatively low operating cost. It is also not a medicine in the traditional sense, so it is widely available. Many establishments may offer RLT rooms or lamps, including:

  • gyms
  • day spas
  • tanning salons
  • wellness centers
  • saunas
  • dermatology offices

Many companies also offer products that use targeted red light lamps as a spot healing tool. Anyone purchasing such devices for use at home should check to be sure that the device delivers red light within the effective wavelengths before completing the purchase.

There is no insurance coverage for the general practice of RLT. However, some dermatologists may offer targeted RLT applications. Anyone who has concerns regarding a skin issue that RLT may help should see their doctor for a referral.

Summary

RLT is generally safe and may be a very effective treatment option for people seeking smaller changes in their skin or to keep the skin healthy and reduce inflammation.

Other applications of RLT have promising early evidence, but there is not enough reliable evidence in humans to call it effective in every case.

RLT is only one part of a complete skin care routine, and it should not be the only way a person takes care of their skin. It may take several treatments of RLT for a person to begin noticing the changes in their skin.

Anyone uncertain if the practice is suitable for them should talk to a doctor to discuss the potential benefits.

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