The Ultimate Guide to Light Therapy for Skin

Light therapy is a safe, effective skin treatment that can help heal skin conditions like acne and cold sores.

In this article, we’ll discuss light therapy and how it improves skin health. We’ll break down the clinical research on light and skin and discuss which light therapy products to use for skin benefits.

What Is Light Therapy?

Light therapy (also known as LED therapy or phototherapy) is a safe, effective treatment for skin and skin rejuvenation. Light therapy is also an effective and noninvasive treatment for skin conditions like acne, cold sores, canker sores, and genital sores.

Light therapy devices isolate specific wavelengths of light and shine them on the skin and cells. This has been shown in clinical research to improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, and aid in skin rejuvenation and healing. [1,2]

Light therapy is a popular skin and acne treatment in professional settings with dermatologists and estheticians. [3] It’s also a popular home treatment for skin conditions. Today there are numerous personal light therapy tools to treat skin, acne, and cold sores.

For more details, check out this general overview of what light therapy is and how it works.

How Does Light Therapy Work for Skin?

How does light therapy work for skin health and rejuvenation? And which wavelengths and colors are used for light therapy skin benefits? Most light therapy devices used for skincare shine blue light, red light, or a combination of both.

Blue light therapy is mostly used as an acne treatment because blue light kills bacteria on the skin that leads to acne. Red light therapy is also used to treat acne and other skin conditions because of its anti-inflammatory and healing effects on the skin. It reduces inflammation by increasing blood flow to damaged tissues. [1,2]

Red light therapy also helps skin cells to produce energy. The mitochondria in our cells absorb wavelengths of red light and use it to make energy and power the body with adenosine triphosphate (ATP). [4,5]

Daily light therapy treatments ensure that skin cells get an abundance of red light and produce energy efficiently. That translates to rejuvenated skin and better healing outcomes. Keep reading for a breakdown of the skin health benefits of light therapy treatments.

Benefits of Light Therapy for Skin

Treatment with an at-home light therapy device takes a matter of minutes. With regular use, light therapy can help rejuvenate skin and treat skin conditions.

In the last 5-10 years, light therapy has also become a popular beauty aid. LED skin treatments have become a fixture in Hollywood among entertainment and beauty professionals. Lifestyle magazines like Elle have also written about the beauty benefits of red light therapy.

Beyond cosmetic skincare, light therapy has also shown great clinical results in treating and healing skin conditions and acne.

What Skin Conditions Can Light Therapy Help Heal?

Light therapy treatments with red and/or blue wavelengths are widely used to treat acne, cold sores, canker sores, genital sores, burns, wounds, and scars.

Light Therapy and Acne

Blue light therapy and red light therapy are popular acne treatments with professionals and the public. Some devices for acne only use blue light therapy, while others combine red and blue light. Clinical research is showing that light therapy is most effective for acne when red and blue light therapy are used together. [6,7,8,9,10]

Blue light therapy works for acne by killing the harmful bacteria that gathers on the skin and causes acne. Red light therapy works for acne by reducing inflammation, rejuvenating skin, and diminishing scarring on the skin. [1,2,7,10] Combination blue and red light therapy reduces acne in clinical trials and shows a significant decrease in sebum production after LED treatments. [6,10]

Check out this article for more details on light therapy as an acne treatment and the science and research behind it.

Light Therapy for Cold Sores

Light treatments are used to treat and heal cold sores around the lips, which are caused by the herpes simplex virus. The clinical data on cold sores shows that light therapy with red wavelengths reduces pain, speeds healing times, and limits outbreaks. [11,12,13,14,15] One comprehensive review of trials on cold sores and light therapy concluded, “Phototherapy appears to strongly decrease pain and the interval of recurrences without causing any side effects.” [12]

This article goes into more detail about light therapy for cold sores.

Light Therapy for Canker Sores

Light therapy can improve the healing of canker sores and reduce inflammation. More than 25 clinical studies show that light therapy significantly reduces pain from canker sores, speeds the healing time of canker sores, and can make it easier for a person to eat, drink, and function normally during a severe canker sore outbreak. [16] In one study, 93% of people with canker sores experienced “complete pain relief” after light treatments. [17]

See more details about light therapy for canker sores in this article.

Light Therapy for Genital Herpes and Genital Sores

Light therapy with red wavelengths helps reduce the pain caused by genital sores. Red light therapy is also used to speed the healing of genital herpes outbreaks caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Early clinical research has indicated that light treatments may lessen the viral load of HSV-2 present in the body. [18]

Learn more about light therapy as a genital herpes treatment in this article.

Light Therapy for Burns, Wounds, and Scars

Light therapy treatments with red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths have proven to be a safe and effective treatment for the healing of burns, wounds, and scars. Clinical studies on wound healing show that red light treatments can help the body produce new blood vessels and tissues at higher rates, leading to better healing outcomes and less pain. [19,20,21]

Researchers in a 2018 review determined that light therapy with red wavelengths significantly increased tensile strength and wound contraction, leading to faster, more effective wound healing results across the body. [19] This review also concluded that red light therapy has a positive effect on the healing of surgical incisions. [19]

This article gives an in-depth look at light therapy for wounds, burns, and scars.

Light Therapy for Eczema and Psoriasis 

Eczema refers to a variety of skin-related conditions, while psoriasis is a separate and complex autoimmune disease. These conditions are often grouped together because both cause inflamed, itchy skin that’s difficult to treat.

There is no cure for either eczema or psoriasis, so as with most chronic conditions, management of symptoms is central to treatment. Many people use ointments and creams, and/or prescription drugs and anti-allergy medications, but these have limited effectiveness and often come with unwanted risks and side effects. Now, recent research is showing that red light therapy can help treat and heal psoriasis and eczema.

Research Shows Red Light Therapy Reduces Itchiness and Swelling from Eczema

In one of the initial human trials analyzing red light therapy and eczema, researchers followed 81 patients for nearly a year, measuring how symptoms progressed with regular treatments. The researchers evaluated eczema rashes before, during, and after patients tried red light therapy treatments.

Participants received just a single, two-minute red light therapy session per week. Even with such short treatments, researchers saw considerable improvements in common eczema symptoms, including reductions in bumps (follicular keratosis), flaking skin (pityriasis), redness (erythema), and pimples (papules).

The research team also evaluated itchiness levels before, during, and after red light therapy and found patients picked their skin less and had fewer leathery patches (lichenification) when treated with red light therapy. This study also noted that there were “no side effects during or after” the red light treatments, in line with hundreds of other trials and studies on red light therapy for skin and health.

Researchers concluded that they “consider that [red light therapy] may become the new therapy of choice” for common eczema treatment. [22]

Red Light Therapy Helps Heal Psoriasis in Clinical Trials

A 2010 study treated patients with chronic psoriasis, which in most cases had proven resistant to conventional treatments. Researchers treated patients with red light therapy for a four to five week period with follow-ups, and found significant improvements in psoriasis symptoms. [23]

Patients had a 60% to 100% clearance rate with recalcitrant psoriasis. Researchers concluded that “satisfaction was universally very high” among the psoriasis patients treated with red light. [23]

Another double-blind, randomized study assessed 20 patients with psoriasis. By monitoring two psoriatic plaques on each patient, one treated and one untreated, researchers were able to determine that red light therapy improved psoriasis by reducing redness, hardening, and scaling of the skin. [24]

Light Therapy Skin Products: LED Masks for Skin Rejuvenation and Beauty

Some light therapy skincare products are designed to treat specific skin conditions like cold sores or acne, while others are designed to be a part of your daily skincare routine for general enhancements to beauty and complexion. LED light therapy masks are the most popular option for people looking to rejuvenate their skin and improve complexion, aging, and general appearance. There are a wide range of LED masks available that shine blue light, red light, and/or a combination of both. Below is a sampling of the most popular brands in 2021.

One of the best known LED masks among celebrities and influential estheticians is the Déesse Professional LED Mask by Déesse Pro™ for $1,900. Also for $1,900, the Angela Caglia CellReturn Premium LED Wireless Mask is one of the most popular skin and beauty treatment devices in South Korea. It used blue, red, and NIR light to treat the skin.

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare also makes several LED masks that use both red and blue light, like the Dr Dennis Gross DRx SpectraLite™ FaceWare Pro for $435. MZ Skin sells their Light-Therapy Golden Facial Treatment Device for $625. The mask offers five colors and wavelengths: blue and red light, but also yellow, white, and green light, which are less proven for skincare benefits.

These are just a sampling of the many LED masks available for skin treatment, wrinkle reduction, and beauty enhancement.

LED Light Therapy Products for Skin Conditions

For specific skin conditions like acne and cold sores, you can use certain specialty LED devices at home every day to minimize symptoms and prevent outbreaks.

For acne spot treatments, reVive and LightStim make various light therapy products specifically for acne, using blue light to kill bacteria and red light to reduce inflammation. Their personal acne treatment wands range from $99 to $200.

Luminance RED makes personal, at-home LED devices for the treatment of cold sores, canker sores, and genital sores. The Luminance RED Lip Sore Treatment Device costs $349, as does their Genital Sore Treatment Device and Mouth Sore Treatment Device. These devices use wavelengths of red light for their healing and anti-inflammatory benefits to the skin and cells.

Light Therapy Precautions and Important Safety Information

Light therapy has been widely studied and tested in peer-reviewed skin health research across the world. The consensus is that light therapy treatments are safe, well-tolerated, and produce very few side effects.

Dermatology researchers from Harvard Medical School conducted a review of red light therapy in 2013 and praised its “noninvasive nature and almost complete absence of side effects.” [1] However, it’s important to choose a personal light therapy product wisely. Make sure any light therapy device is safety-tested and cleared for use by the FDA. You can learn more about various light therapy products here.

People with skin sensitivity and photosensitivity may experience adverse side effects from initial light therapy treatments and should consult a healthcare provider before using light therapy products. Light therapy treatments may interact negatively with specific medications, particularly if the medication enhances skin sensitivity or photosensitivity.

Consult a trusted healthcare provider with specific concerns about light therapy risks and negative interactions with specific medications and conditions.

Where To Do Light Therapy for Skin: At-home Treatments vs. Visiting a Clinic

A decade ago, you could only find light therapy treatments in select spas, salons, and clinics. Today, thanks to improvements in LED technology, there are many affordable light therapy products you can use for skin health benefits at home.

Visiting a clinic for light therapy treatments gives you access to a skincare professional who can advise you and answer your questions. However, it’s far more expensive and time-consuming than using a personal light therapy device in your home with a one-time cost.

Another big advantage of at-home light therapy is consistency. To improve skin conditions, it’s best to do your light therapy treatments every day, or at least five times per week. One treatment may produce a short-term benefit, but regular light therapy is needed to see longer-lasting skin health improvements.

For people treating skin conditions, it’s recommended to do two to three short light therapy sessions per day as soon as you feel symptoms emerging. That’s far more often than most people can go to the salon or dermatologist for professional treatments.

At-home light therapy devices deliver the same wavelengths of light, but for much less total cost. They also save a great deal of time, since you can easily use them every day for just a few minutes instead of going to and from a clinic and paying on a per-visit basis.

Check out this post for more details on how often you should use light therapy.

Sources and References:

[1] Avci P, Gupta A, et al. Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Mar 2013; 32(1): 41-52.

[2] Hamblin M. “Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation.” AIMS Biophys. 2017.

[3]  Jagdeo J, Austin E, Mamalis A, Wong C, Ho D, Siegel DM. Light-emitting diodes in dermatology: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Lasers Surg Med. 2018 Jan 22; 50(6): 613–28.

[4] Karu T. Primary and Secondary Mechanisms of Action of Visible to Near-IR Radiation on Cells. Journal of Photochemistry Photobiology. 1999 Mar.

[5] Ferraresi C, Kaippert B, et al. Low-level Laser (Light) Therapy Increases Mitochondrial Membrane Potential and ATP Synthesis in C2C12 Myotubes with a Peak Response at 3-6 h. Photochemistry and Photobiology. 2015 Mar.

[6]  Li WH, Fassih A, Binner C, Parsa R, Southall MD. Low-level red LED light inhibits hyperkeratinization and inflammation induced by unsaturated fatty acid in an in vitro model mimicking acne. Lasers Surg Med. 2018 Feb; 50(2): 158-165.

[7]  Kwon HH, Lee JB, Yoon JY, Park SY, Ryu HH, Park BM, Kim YJ, Suh DH. The clinical and histological effect of home-use, combination blue-red LED phototherapy for mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris in Korean patients: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol. 2013 May; 168(5): 1088-94.

[8]  Sadick NS. Handheld LED array device in the treatment of acne vulgaris. J Drugs Dermatol. 2008 Apr; 7(4): 347-50.

[9] Alba MN, Gerenutti M, Yoshida VM, Grotto D. Clinical comparison of salicylic acid peel and LED-Laser phototherapy for the treatment of Acne vulgaris in teenagers. J Cosmet Laser Ther. 2017 Feb; 19(1): 49-53.

[10]  Jung YR, Kim SJ, Sohn KC, Lee Y, Seo YJ, Lee YH, Whang KU, Kim CD, Lee JH, Im M. Regulation of lipid production by light-emitting diodes in human sebocytes. Arch Dermatol Res. 2015 Apr; 307(3): 265-73.

[11] Al-Maweri SA, Kalakonda B, AlAizari NA, Al-Soneidar WA, Ashraf S, Abdulrab S, Al-Mawri ES. Efficacy of low-level laser therapy in management of recurrent herpes labialis: a systematic review. Lasers Med Sci. 2018 Sep; 33(7): 1423-1430.

[12] de Paula Eduardo C, Aranha AC, Simões A, Bello-Silva MS, Ramalho KM, Esteves-Oliveira M, de Freitas PM, Marotti J, Tunér J. Laser treatment of recurrent herpes labialis: a literature review. Lasers Med Sci. 2014 Jul; 29(4): 1517-29.

[13] Muñoz Sanchez PJ, Capote Femenías JL, Díaz Tejeda A, Turner J. The effect of 670-nm low laser therapy on herpes simplex type 1. Photomed Laser Surg. 2012 Jan; 30(1): 37-40.

[14] Dougal G, Lee SY. Evaluation of the efficacy of low-level light therapy using 1072 nm infrared light for the treatment of herpes simplex labialis. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2013 Oct; 38(7): 713-8.

[15] Hargate G. A randomised double-blind study comparing the effect of 1072-nm light against placebo for the treatment of herpes labialis. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2006 Sep; 31(5): 638-41.

[16] Albrektson M, Hedström L, Bergh H. Recurrent aphthous stomatitis and pain management with low-level laser therapy: a randomized controlled trial. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol Oral Radiol. 2014 May; 117(5): 590-594.

[17] Amorim Dos Santos J, Normando AGC, de Toledo IP, Melo G, De Luca Canto G, Santos-Silva AR, Guerra ENS. Laser therapy for recurrent aphthous stomatitis: an overview. Clin Oral Investig. 2020 Jan; 24(1): 37-45.

[18] Waked, Deghidi, and Shalaan. Honey Phonophoresis Versus Low Intensity Laser Therapy in Female Genital Herpes. IJCRR, Vol. 6, Issue 10. May 2014.

[19] Gál P, Stausholm MB, et al. Should open excisions and sutured incisions be treated differently? A review and meta-analysis of animal wound models following low-level laser therapy. Lasers in Medical Science. 2018 Aug.

[20] da Silva Melo, Alves LP, et al. LED phototherapy in full-thickness burns induced by CO2 laser in rats skin. Lasers in Medical Science. 2018 Sep.

[21] Silveira PC, Ferreira KB, et al. Effect of Low-Power Laser (LPL) and Light-Emitting Diode (LED) on Inflammatory Response in Burn Wound Healing. Inflammation. 2016 Aug.

[22] Morita H, Kohno J. et al. Clinical Application of GaAlAs 830 nm Diode Laser for Atopic Dermatitis. Laser Therapy. 1993 vol 5.

[23] Ablon G. Combination 830-nm and 633-nm light-emitting diode phototherapy shows promise in the treatment of recalcitrant psoriasis: preliminary findings. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. 2010 Feb.

[24] Kleinpenning MM, Otero ME, et al. Efficacy of blue light vs. red light in the treatment of psoriasis: a double-blind, randomized comparative study. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. 2012 Feb.

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