You know from experience that a bright, sunny day can lead to sunburn, and you’ve heard about the dangers of prolonged sun exposure and skin cancer. But did you know that sun damage can also lead to premature aging and age spots?
So what exactly does sunlight have to do with age spots? And if light from the sun causes these age spots, how in the world could red light therapy help to repair them?
In this article, we’ll explore red light therapy, age spots and more.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy shines specific wavelengths of the light spectrum onto the skin for therapeutic purposes. Depending on what health issue is being targeted, light therapy usually uses red, blue, green or full-spectrum light emitted by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or low-level lasers.
When used as directed, light therapy is extremely well tolerated and nearly free of unwanted side effects. It is an extraordinarily well-researched medical treatment, with over 2,000 peer-reviewed studies to back up its safety and effectiveness.
Previously, light therapy was available only in clinics and medical spas. Personal light therapy devices now make the benefits of light therapy available to people in the comfort of their own home, often at a fraction of the cost.
Until recent years, most people thought of light therapy primarily as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But current research has shown it has many more applications.
Red light therapy in particular shows promise for skin conditions. Red light waves can reduce cellular inflammation, stimulate energy production, increase blood flow and encourage tissue repair and wound healing.
What Are Age Spots?
Age spots (also referred to as liver spots, sun spots or solar lentigines) are small, darkened areas on the skin. They can be the size of a freckle, but can also grow to about two centimeters in diameter. Age spots are often ovals, are not raised, and do not exhibit a change in texture.
Age spots generally develop on areas of the body that receive the most sun exposure, such as:
- Backs of hands.
- Tops of feet.
- Upper back.
Age spots are more common in individuals with light skin and those over the age of 50, though younger people who use tanning beds, spend lots of time in the sun, or suffer repeated sunburns are at risk as well.
Causes of Age Spots
Melanin is the naturally occurring pigment that makes skin darker. People with more melanin have darker skin, and people with less melanin have lighter skin. But melanin levels are not permanent; they can be affected by sun exposure. This is why skin gets darker, or tans, after prolonged sun exposure.
Ultraviolet (UV) light speeds up the production of melanin in the skin. Age spots appear in areas where melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) are trying to protect skin repeatedly exposed to excess UV rays. Melanin is then produced in high amounts, and can even become “clumped” in specific areas, leading to the appearance of age spots.
Are Age Spots Dangerous?
Age spots themselves do not pose a health risk. They are simply evidence that the skin has been exposed to UV rays in the past.
However, it’s a good idea to consult with a dermatologist if you think you have age spots. It’s difficult to tell the difference between many skin conditions. Checking with a dermatologist will help you to be sure that your skin discolorations really are age spots and not a condition that needs treatment, such as skin cancer.
Treatments for Age Spots
Because age spots don’t pose a health risk, you don’t have to treat them. But many people want to remove age spots for cosmetic reasons. Treatments for age spots can include:
- Bleaching creams (hydroquinone).
- Retinoid creams (tretinoin).
- Cryosurgery with liquid nitrogen.
- Chemical peels.
- Laser surgery.
- Red light therapy.
How Does Light Therapy Help Age Spots?
If excessive exposure to sunlight is what causes age spots in the first place, how can exposure to more light help treat them? Let’s take a look at how light therapy can help age spots.
First, light therapy does not include UV light, which is the portion of sunlight that stirs up melanin production and harms skin. Light therapy can be carefully calibrated to target only the unwanted pigment without harming the rest of the skin.
Second, studies show that two kinds of light therapy may be safe, effective ways to treat age spots: intense pulsed light therapy and red light therapy.
Intense Pulsed Light Therapy for Age Spots
Intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy uses high-intensity pulses of broadband visible light to treat a range of skin conditions. Because of the high intensity, IPL therapy can reach deep into the skin and quickly achieve visible results.
IPL therapy targets melanin (pigment) that has accumulated to form age spots. The melanin absorbs the light, heats up, and breaks down, and the body eventually disposes of the broken down material through natural processes.
In one study, the majority of patients saw at least 50% improvement in their age spots after five treatments. Another study that included patients with age spots as well as ephelides demonstrated similar results.
Anther study used IPL therapy, but in a more focused spectrum of light, only including green, yellow and red wavelengths. All patients experienced improvement to their age spots, and 90% of participants expressed satisfaction with the results. Side effects were minimal and resolved within five hours.
Scientists involved in IPL therapy studies generally recommend IPL treatment for age spots.
IPL therapy is generally well tolerated, though the higher intensity light does come with some potential side effects, mostly in the form of a mild burn. Patients may experience redness, swelling, itching, peeling and scabbing, but these effects usually resolve within a few days.
Red Light Therapy for Age Spots
Red light therapy uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce only wavelengths of light from the red part of the light spectrum. These specific wavelengths have demonstrated many potential benefits for skin health, such as decreased inflammation, increased collagen production and improved texture.
Red light therapy does not penetrate as deeply into the skin as IPL therapy, and it uses a lower intensity light. For this reason, red light therapy is considered a gentler therapy than IPL. It may take a little longer to see visible results from red light therapy, but you are also unlikely to experience unpleasant side effects.
The skin absorbs red light and uses it to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source of cells. This results in cells operating more efficiently and performing tasks such as healing more quickly. Scientists speculate that this mechanism may be responsible for many of red light therapy’s benefits, including the reduction of age spot visibility.
For example, 90% of participants in one study showed a reduction in pigment, among other benefits, after undergoing eight red light therapy treatments over the course of four weeks. They reported no pain or side effects.
Both types of age spot treatment usually require at least two or three sessions. Age spots can return even after treatment, so it’s important to use sun protection for your skin in the future.
Age spots have also been successfully treated with a certain kind of photodynamic therapy, a method of applying a light-sensitizing medication to the skin prior to treatment with light.
Light Therapy: The Next Big Breakthrough in Anti-Aging?
Although age spots aren’t harmful to the body or dangerous to your health, they can be an irritating cosmetic issue. Light therapy can provide a gentler alternative to the cryotherapy, microdermabrasion and chemical peel treatments of yesteryear. Red light therapy provides the gentlest option available.
Many red light therapy products are available for anti-aging purposes, and many of them claim to help resolve age spots. When considering one of these devices, be sure to read a variety of unbiased reviews to see if the product does what it claims to do.
And of course, always consult with your dermatologist prior to using red light therapy for the treatment of age spots or any other condition.