Like most medical treatments, red light therapy has some pros and cons to consider before you decide to take the leap.
Below, we’ll examine a few red light therapy pros and cons along with some up-to-date research on red light therapy for various conditions.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, also referred to as phototherapy or low-level laser therapy (LLLT), is a medical treatment that uses specific wavelengths of light to produce desired responses within the body. One of the most common types of phototherapy is red light therapy, which specifically involves the use of red and near-infrared light wavelengths.
Treatments can take place in clinical settings or with devices developed for home use. Home-use devices usually use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce the therapeutic light.
Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons
Like any medical treatment, red light therapy has upsides and downsides. We’ll look at a few red light therapy pros and cons below.
Red Light Therapy Pros
On the positive side, red light therapy can help treat many medical conditions at home without the use of chemicals. It is noninvasive, has few to no side effects, and is likely safe to use in combination with other treatments. Below is a sampling of conditions that can benefit from red light therapy.
Red light therapy improves the healing of active acne outbreaks as well as the appearance of existing acne scars. It works on and below the skin’s surface, helping to repair damaged tissues, reduce inflammation, and rejuvenate the skin at the cellular level.
Treating acne with red light therapy could reduce the need for chemical peels, oral medications, and other harsher treatments with unpleasant side effects.
Wounds and Incisions
Wavelengths of red light have been shown to help heal cuts, wounds, and other skin injuries.
A 2018 review looked at numerous controlled trials on red light therapy and wound healing. Researchers determined that red light therapy significantly increased tensile strength and wound contraction, leading to faster and more effective wound healing across the body. The review also concluded that red light therapy is an effective way to treat both sutured and open surgical incisions.
Quicker healing time may help patients avoid infection and further bleeding after an injury or surgery, making further treatment unnecessary. Because it has a significant effect on pain, red light therapy may also help patients avoid or reduce pain medications.
One randomized clinical trial analyzed 87 patients with recurrent cold sore outbreaks. Half of the patients received six light therapy treatments over the course of two days. The other half received placebo treatments. Analyzing the results, researchers found healing time in the light therapy group to be significantly faster than the placebo group.
A different trial showed that people who used red light therapy treatments healed an average of three days faster than the placebo group, dropping from 9.4 days to 6.3 days.
Red light therapy for cold sores may help patients avoid medications such as Abreva or oral antiviral medications, although they can also be used in tandem.
Light therapy has the potential to help with Crohn’s disease in several different ways. Rates of vitamin D deficiency are much higher in adults with active Crohn’s disease. Because ultraviolet radiation (UVR) therapy can increase vitamin D levels, this treatment could potentially reduce the frequency of Crohn’s disease flareups.
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disease, and red light therapy has been proven to decrease swelling and inflammation. While research is lacking, this could imply a benefit from red light therapy for Crohn’s disease symptoms, which result from inflammation in the gut.
If red light and other light therapies do prove beneficial, this could save many patients from difficult bowel surgeries and powerful biologics and their side effects.
Many studies have shown light therapy to be an effective treatment for multiple types of depression. One such study showed bright light therapy to be effective in adults with nonseasonal major depressive disorder. The most dramatic results occurred in groups that used light therapy alone or in conjunction with the medication fluoxetine (Prozac).
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. It also promotes collagen and elastin production and rejuvenates the skin. All of these factors help to reduce the appearance of age-related skin complaints, such as age spots and wrinkles.
In one study, 90% of participants showed a reduction in photoaging, including smoother skin texture, reduced crow’s feet, and improved pigmentation, after undergoing eight red light therapy treatments over the course of four weeks. Patients reported no side effects or pain from the treatments.
Using light therapy in lieu of pharmaceuticals for aging can save money over the long term and avoid any side effects or reactions from topical products.
Eczema and Psoriasis
Both eczema and psoriasis involve itchy, inflamed skin that’s difficult to treat. Topical treatments, prescription drugs, and allergy medications have limited effectiveness for these conditions and often come with unwanted risks and side effects. However, promising research shows red light therapy may treat and heal these skin issues.
In one study, eczema patients showed such marked improvement with regular red light therapy that researchers concluded, “Light therapy may become the new therapy of choice.” Similar promising results have also occurred in studies on red light therapy for psoriasis treatment.
Light treatments can successfully treat genital herpes outbreaks to relieve pain and improve healing times. Clinical research also indicates that light treatments may lessen the viral load of HSV-2 present in the body. This may reduce the duration of herpes outbreaks, helping to curb their transmission, as well as reduce the need for oral antiviral medications.
More than 25 clinical studies demonstrate that red light therapy significantly reduces canker sore pain and speeds healing time, limiting the need for medications with potential side effects, like benzocaine.
Red Light Therapy Cons
Despite its many successes in the treatment of various health conditions, the relative newness of red light therapy means there are a few downsides as well.
Medical Clinic Visits Are Expensive
Red light therapy is still relatively new technology, and visits to a medical clinic may be expensive. Medical spas with large LED panels or low-level lasers have to cover their equipment and labor costs, which can be steep. And because it’s a newer and sometimes cosmetic treatment, insurance companies may not cover it.
Lack of Industry Regulation and Few Widely Accepted Medical Guidelines
The light therapy industry is largely unregulated. While the FDA does investigate and register light therapy devices, some products don’t produce strong enough light for therapeutic use.
In this same vein, there are very few broadly-agreed-upon medical guidelines for the usage of red light therapy.
Long-Term Side Effects Remain Unknown
While the short-term safety profile of red light therapy is excellent, long-term side effects — while perhaps unlikely — are currently unknown due to the newness of this field.
Even though over 2,000 studies support the safety and effectiveness of light therapy, many more studies are still needed to provide specific guidelines to achieve standardized results. Currently, people can get varying results depending on their device, skin type, condition severity, regularity of use, and many other factors.
Ongoing Treatments Require Consistency
Depending on the device and condition, LED red light therapy may help immediately or take some time to achieve results. In either case, ongoing, regular treatments are needed to maintain the positive effects from red light therapy. This requires a level of discipline and consistency that may be difficult for many to maintain.
Weigh the Red Light Therapy Pros and Cons
As with any treatment, everyone’s experiences will be different. Talk to your healthcare provider about red light therapy pros and cons and discuss whether this treatment could be effective for you.