People often view acne as a problem of the teenage years, something to be outgrown and forgotten. But this isn’t always the case. Many people continue to suffer from persistent acne well into adulthood.
While acne isn’t usually a serious health condition, it can be annoying, embarrassing and even painful. Acne medications can have harsh side effects, and stubborn outbreaks can leave long-lasting signs on the skin.
A relatively recent discovery in the treatment of acne is blue light therapy. The bacteria-killing properties of blue light and the relatively mild and temporary side effects make it an ideal treatment for acne.
But first, what is blue light therapy and how can it help? Here’s everything you need to know about blue light therapy for acne.
What Is Blue Light Therapy?
Blue light therapy isolates natural blue or violet light from the visible light spectrum, shining it on the body to treat conditions on or just underneath the skin.
The healing properties of blue light therapy have been successfully used in the treatment of multiple health conditions, including skin conditions like acne and skin cancer. Blue light therapy’s bacteria-killing properties can also help decrease inflammation and infection in the skin.
Side Effects of Blue Light Therapy
Blue light therapy, when used alone, has very few risks or side effects.
Sometimes blue light therapy is used in combination with light-sensitive drugs in a treatment called “photodynamic therapy,” which is more likely to cause side effects. However, even these reactions are temporary and localized to the area being treated. They can include redness, tenderness, swelling, bruising or peeling of the skin.
What Is Acne?
Acne is an extremely common skin condition that results when dead skin cells, oil and bacteria clog up your hair follicles (pores). These blemishes are most common on areas that produce the most oil — like the face, chest and upper back — but can occur anywhere on the body.
Acne is most common during adolescence, but many adults continue to face acne outbreaks throughout their lives. In the United States alone, up to 50 million people suffer from acne every year, and 85% of people between ages 12 and 24 experience some level of acne.
Acne isn’t dangerous in and of itself, but it can cause a great deal of psychological suffering. Acne can take a toll on people’s self esteem and self confidence, cause social anxiety and even lead to depression. Unfortunately, acne can also result in significant scarring on the face.
Causes of Acne
Genetics appear to play a significant role in who develops acne. For example, if parents had acne as teenagers, their children are more likely to develop acne in adolescence as well.
The major causes of acne include excessive oil production of the skin, hair follicles clogged with dead skin cells and oil, inflammation in the skin, and the presence of bacteria.
Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) is a common type of bacteria that lives on the skin, and it’s the main bacteria involved in acne. Some research suggests that the strain of P. acnes present on the skin helps determine the frequency and severity of acne outbreaks. This is why it’s important to address bacteria on the skin when treating acne.
Other contributing factors include hormonal changes, especially those that cause an increase in the skin’s oil production. Certain foods, such as breads, chips and other simple carbohydrates, may also worsen acne. Some medications can cause or worsen acne outbreaks as well.
Symptoms of Acne
Acne is a broad term that includes certain types of skin blemishes. We’ll look at each type here.
Whiteheads and blackheads occur when oil and dead skin cells build up inside hair follicles. In blackheads, this material widens the opening of the pore and a process called oxidation begins. Oxidation darkens the appearance of the pore’s contents, similar to how a sliced apple turns brown over time.
Probably the most well-known acne symptom is the pimple. Pimples are similar to whiteheads, but in addition to the buildup of oil and skin cells, P. acnes from the face becomes trapped and reproduces rapidly in the pore, causing inflammation.
Pimples can appear as red, tender bumps (papules) or as larger, white bumps containing pus (pustules). Neither is pleasant, and both can cause discomfort and scarring. Papules may also become pustules over time.
The most painful and severe form of acne also involves clogged pores that become infected with bacteria. The inflammation in these pores pushes deep into the skin, creating very tender lumps under the skin. These lumps are called acne nodules (without pus) or acne cysts (with pus).
Complications of Acne
Untreated acne, especially severe acne, can leave people with long-term changes to their skin. After pimples heal, they can leave dark (hyperpigmented) or light (hypopigmented) spots on the skin that take a long time to return to normal. Eventually, though, these spots do resolve.
The more lasting complication of acne is scarring. Acne scarring can include depressions in the skin, causing a pitted appearance, or raised bumps on the skin. These scars do not resolve over time, and they often continue to cause self consciousness even with no acne present.
Treatments for Acne
There are a myriad of products on the market to treat acne, including many over-the-counter creams, serums, lotions, washes and peels. Some prescription medications can also treat acne, and beauty products can help to conceal blemishes. Red light and blue light therapy can also help to treat and prevent acne outbreaks.
How Blue Light Interacts With Acne
How exactly does blue light therapy interact with acne in a way that helps produce clearer skin?
Antimicrobial vs. Antibacterial
Many times, the words antimicrobial and antibacterial are used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. Antimicrobials act against a wide array of microbes, including algae, mold, fungus, mildew, viruses and bacteria. Antibacterial products, on the other hand, only fight bacteria.
So while antimicrobial products include antibacterial properties, antibacterial products only fight bacteria.
Blue light therapy is antimicrobial. Various studies have shown that blue light effectively works against a very wide range of pathogens. In addition to fighting molds and fungi, it also inactivates many kinds of bacteria. Consequently, blue light therapy may have far-reaching applications in fighting infectious diseases of many kinds.
How Blue Light Therapy for Acne Differs From Red Light Therapy
One of the kinds of bacteria blue light therapy kills is P. acnes, the primary acne-causing bacteria.
Red light therapy, though effective against acne in many ways, doesn’t posses the antimicrobial qualities of blue light therapy. Consequently, red and blue light therapies often work well together to treat acne in tandem. Blue light kills the inflammation-causing bacteria, while red light promotes healing and calms inflammation.
Blue light therapy, especially in at-home devices, is usually best for mild to moderate acne, though it can have a beneficial effect on severe acne as well.
The Science and Results of Blue Light Therapy for Acne
Research shows that blue light works on P. acnes by disrupting certain processes through photoexcitation. (This means that the molecules become excited from the energy of the blue light.) Blue light may also cause cellular dysfunction in the bacteria.
Due to this antibacterial action, blue light inactivates P. acnes on the skin’s surface and in pores. When paired with infrared light, the therapy also causes oil glands to shrink, reducing skin oil production and the risk for pore blockages.
Many studies demonstrate the effectiveness of blue light therapy for acne. One study showed that blue light therapy effectively reduced facial acne through short, daily, at-home treatments. Other studies show great benefit to combining red light therapy with blue light therapy for acne reduction.
Do You Deal With Acne?
If you suffer from acne, you’re no stranger to the physical and emotional fallout that accompanies outbreaks. Fortunately, with the advent of LED light therapy and the research on blue light therapy for acne, you have new, safe options available to successfully treat your acne.
Even if you find blue light therapy doesn’t get rid of your acne completely, you can still explore other forms of light therapy. You can try combined blue and red light therapy, photodynamic blue light therapy, or blue light therapy combined with other treatments like microdermabrasion. A dermatologist can help you make the best treatment decisions for your specific case.