Despite acne being one of the most common healthcare concerns in the world, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on how to treat it. Millions of people each year purchase a variety of creams, lotions, peels and medications in an attempt to curb their acne.
Could something as simple as red light therapy really help deal with such a pervasive problem?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about red light therapy for acne.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Light therapy has been around in various forms since a little before 1900. A discovery by NASA ushered in the current age of LED red light therapy beginning in the mid-1990s. Over the last few decades, research and technological advances have helped to popularize this safe and effective therapy for many conditions.
Red light therapy isolates red wavelengths (620–750nm) of light from the visible light spectrum and shines them on the body. Red light, in particular, carries powerful healing properties and can have strong beneficial effects.
Red light therapy increases blood flow to the skin and decreases inflammation. Cells in the body absorb red light and use it to create new energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Red light therapy is available at medical spas and certain physicians’ offices, and is also becoming increasingly popular in handheld home devices.
One of the biggest appeals of red light therapy for acne is that, when used appropriately, it is safe, well tolerated and without the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals and other acne treatments.
Misuse of red light therapy products, however, could potentially lead to injury. It’s important to follow all instructions that come with your light therapy device. And always consult a doctor if you’re unsure whether a product is a good fit for your situation.
What Is Acne?
Acne, or acne vulgaris, is a very common skin condition. It develops when oil, dead skin cells and bacteria clog hair follicles (pores). Acne most commonly occurs on the face, chest and upper back, where the skin’s oil production is highest, but it can appear anywhere on the body.
Acne outbreaks tend to be the most widespread and intense during adolescence, but many people suffer from acne as adults as well. In the United States alone, up to 50 million people suffer from acne every year, and 85% of people deal with acne between ages 12 and 24.
While acne isn’t dangerous in and of itself, it can cause a great deal of psychological suffering. Acne can affect people’s self esteem and self confidence, cause social anxiety and even lead to depression. Severe or long-lasting acne can also result in significant scarring on the face.
Inflammation, bacteria, excess oil production and clogged hair follicles can all lead to the development of acne. Genetics appear to play a role in who will develop acne, but other factors contribute as well.
Hormonal changes, especially those that cause an increase in the skin’s oil production, often result in breakouts. This is why teenagers suffer from acne more often than any other group.
Certain foods, such as breads, chips and other simple carbohydrates, may worsen acne. Some medications can have an adverse affect as well.
Acne ranges in severity from very mild to severe and can cause a variety of symptoms on the skin. On the milder side, acne includes blackheads and whiteheads. These are simply pores that have become clogged with oil and dead skin.
In blackheads, the buildup of material widens the opening of the pore, exposing the contents within to the open air. A process called oxidation then causes the contents to darken in appearance, 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, bacteria from the face also get involved. The bacteria become trapped with the oil and dead skin and rapidly reproduce, causing inflammation.
The type of bacteria usually responsible for acne is called Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes.
Pimples can appear as small 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).
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 long periods of time to return to normal. Eventually, however, these spots do resolve.
The more lasting complication of acne is scarring. This can occur as depressions in the skin, causing a pitted appearance, or as raised bumps on the skin. These scars do not resolve and often continue to cause self consciousness even after a person’s acne clears.
The skin care industry has produced a plethora of acne treatments over the years. They include topical treatments like washes, peels, serums, lotions and creams. There are even beauty products for treating and preventing acne. Dermatologists also offer treatments like chemical peels and prescription medications, which can be oral or topical.
Certain forms of light therapy can also treat acne, either in a clinical setting or with use of an at-home device.
How Red Light Therapy Interacts With Acne
Red light therapy works on and below the surface of the skin, helping to repair damaged tissues, reduce inflammation and rejuvenate the skin from a cellular level. It can improve the healing of active acne outbreaks as well as the appearance of existing acne scars. Evidence also shows that red light therapy can reduce oil production in the skin, helping to prevent future breakouts.
Researchers have conducted numerous studies on the efficacy and safety of red light therapy for acne, and they continue to publish new results today. In general, they report that red light therapy is both safe and effective for treating acne, either on its own or in combination with blue light therapy.
For example, one study evaluated the effectiveness of blue and red light therapy on mild to moderate facial acne. Participants in the study self-administered light therapy treatments with a handheld LED device over a period of four weeks. By eight weeks after their last treatment, patients experienced a nearly 70% reduction in inflammatory acne.
Another study showed that combined blue and red light therapy can reduce both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. Patients again used an at-home light therapy device with both blue and red light for four weeks. After 12 weeks, inflammatory acne had decreased by 77% and noninflammatory acne by 54%.
Studies like this one on a light therapy mask versus certain topical therapies have shown light therapy’s effectiveness against acne. Therapy with light also tends to have fewer and less severe side effects than these traditional treatments.
In addition to improvements in acne, light therapy patients also often exhibit a brightened, smoother complexion, a noticeable reduction in wrinkles, and a tightening of the skin.
Consider Red Light Therapy for Acne
Formerly, red light therapy for acne and other skin conditions only existed in settings like dermatology clinics or beauty spas. Advancements in technology have now made acne therapy with medically optimized red light available in the form of convenient, at-home devices.
Now, rather than spending thousands of dollars for a professional-grade light therapy bed or traveling to a clinic multiple times per week, you can purchase a wide variety of hand-held light therapy devices, some for less than a hundred dollars.