Among the hundreds of thousands of proteins in the human body, collagen gets a lot of attention. Composed of glycine and proline fused by vitamin C, this molecular building block is now a beauty industry buzzword, featured heavily in skincare products, as well as spa and dermatology treatments. Although we typically hear about collagen in the context of skin, it’s the most plentiful protein in the body. Collagen is found in teeth, corneas, and blood vessels, and is responsible for essential functions, like cushioning joints and clotting blood.
Of the various types of natural collagen, type IV is most prominent in skin cells. Collagen and a protein known as elastin collectively produce the elasticity, plumpness, and hydration that are associated with youthful-looking skin. As we age, our bodies produce less (and lower quality) collagen—which explains why those bouncy cheeks we had as kids only lasted so long.
Fast-forward a few decades, and the decline in collagen manifests as your skin shows signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, and crow‘s feet. Sun exposure can accelerate the aging process, which is why the best skin care product is daily sunscreen.
Fortunately for those in pursuit of glowing skin, some collagen treatments and products can encourage collagen growth and make your skin look tighter and fresher. Red light therapy is among the most promising natural collagen boosters: Studies show a strong correlation between this kind of therapy and increased collagen production, along with overall improvement of aging skin. Below, we’ll review red light therapy for collagen production as well as skin creams, micro needling, and radiofrequency.
Red Light Therapy and Collagen
If you aren’t familiar with how red light therapy works, here’s the short version. All light falls along a spectrum of wavelengths, and these wavelengths are measured in nanometers (nm). Red light therapy involves using LED lights to expose the skin to wavelengths of red and near-infrared (NIR) light. Red light ranges from 630nm to 700nm, and NIR light ranges from 700nm to 1100 nm. These wavelengths stimulate cellular activity in the body and lead to a host of health and wellness benefits, which we’ll cover later in this article.
How to Stimulate Collagen Production
Many of you may have wondered, how to increase collagen naturally? Well, red light therapy might just do that. Red light penetrates the skin at an ideal depth—about 1.0 to 2.0 mm—for producing collagen. Wavelengths that reach this layer of skin encounter fibroblasts, which are the cells responsible for the production of collagen. As the body ages, fibroblasts become less active, resulting in a decrease in collagen—and fortunately, fibroblasts can be roused by the right dose of red light.
One 2010 study, published in the medical journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, found that red light stimulates fibroblasts. Once activated, they produce skin collagen, which helps to restore the skin’s elasticity and suppleness and reduce wrinkles’ appearance.
Learn more about how red light therapy helps skin.
How Red Light Therapy Changes the Skin
Because it can increase collagen, red light therapy has been shown to generate significant improvements in skin quality. In a 2007 study by researchers from Seoul, Korea, 76 patients with facial wrinkles were divided into four different groups: three that were treated with various wavelengths of light, and a control group that received “sham” treatment. All were subjected to twice-weekly therapy sessions for four weeks, only on the right side of the face.
At the end of the four weeks, the researchers could see highly activated fibroblasts, as well as a marked increase in the amount of collagen and elastin fibers in the three groups that had received treatment, and no changes to these areas for participants in the sham group. The researchers concluded that red light therapy seemed to have reduced the presence of fine lines and wrinkles (up to 36 percent) while increasing elasticity (up to 19 percent) on the side of the face that had received treatment.
Of the three groups, those that had received light therapy at 830 nm, and at a combination of 830 nm and 633 nm, reported the highest levels of satisfaction (about 95%) in their perceived results. The group that received only 633nm reported lower satisfaction (about 72%).
In a 2009 study, researchers from Quebec, Canada, found that LED light therapy appeared to reduce the depth of and severity of lines and wrinkles in 94 percent of participants, while also showing a statistically significant reduction in surface roughness. Overall, the researchers observed an improvement in skin appearance following treatment among 97 percent of treated participants.
Similar results were achieved in a 2014 study conducted by researchers from Germany. They found that participants who underwent red light therapy showed significant improvement in complexion and skin texture, and greater measured collagen density.
Red Light Therapy: Other Uses
Red and near-infrared light therapy have proven useful not only in combating signs of aging but in other areas of health as well. These include wound healing, as demonstrated in a 2014 study published by the Brazilian Society of Dermatology; reducing oxidative stress as a result of traumatic injury to the central nervous system (a 2010 NIH study); and combating hair loss, as shown in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology.
The ability of red light therapy to work on multiple fronts while increasing collagen distinguishes it from other therapies that have but a singular collagen focus.
Now let’s look at some of those other collagen treatments and methods to understand whether and how they increase the amount of collagen, and to what degree.
Collagen-Based Moisturizers and Creams
If collagen is the key to more supple, elastic, youthful skin, why can’t you just apply it directly onto the skin? Some in the beauty industry claim that you can, as seen by the abundance of collagen-containing skincare products on the market. However, before you spend money on collagen creams that promise to revitalize aging skin, it helps to understand how the structure of collagen affects its ability to penetrate the skin’s epidermal and dermal layers.
Most collagen skincare products are creams or moisturizers that you apply to the face, to supposedly give the collagen a chance to “sink in.” But collagen is a big and complex molecule, with a structure similar to a braid or rope composed of interlinking individual amino acids. These chains bundle together into thick strands, which then coil into triple helices that connect and stack with others to form clusters.
There is no way a molecule this burly can penetrate your epidermis (top layer of skin) and sink to the dermis, or lower layer of skin, where fibroblasts work their magic to synthesize collagen. Though these creams may feel soothing and comforting on your face, any product that says it contains pure collagen is a waste of money.
Breaking Down Collagen
Beauty and cosmeceutical companies try to get around this challenge by breaking collagen down into smaller parts. Then, theoretically, these collagen parts could penetrate the skin to the dermis, where they’d be reconstructed into collagen by fibroblasts.
On a product label, this form of collagen is often called hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides. There’s been some research done on the ability of peptides—either collagen or other, such as copper peptides; or a blend, called polypeptides—to stimulate collagen production. The results, however, are fuzzy.
Peptides seem to be effective when tested in vitro; but as dermatologists Mary Lupo and Anna Cole explain in a 2007 Dermatologic Therapy paper, such results don’t always translate into in vivo actions. One reason is that penetrating the skin barrier isn’t easy, nor is ensuring that a certain product and its ingredients, whether in cream or serum form, will remain stable long enough for the consumer to use them.
Generally speaking, peptide serums are purer conduits, but it’s unclear how long they remain stable when stored in a medicine cabinet. Collagen moisturizers and creams get around the stability issue through the use of fillers and stabilizers—but these only dilute the product and bring a host of other ingredients into play, some of which may or may not be good for an individual’s skin.
Micro Needling for More Collagen
One increasingly popular collagen treatment is micro-needling, also known as collagen induction therapy. As the name suggests, micro needling involves tiny needles, which are tightly spaced within an instrument that looks like a roller. The needles’ lengths vary depending on the desired outcome—longer needles treat acne and scars, while shorter needles treat aging skin.
As the instrument is rolled across the skin in different directions, the needles puncture the epidermis and the dermis, causing tiny wounds, or “micro channels,” in the skin. These wounds stimulate growth factors in the dermal layer that rush to the site to repair the wounds—among them, fibroblast growth factor, which stimulates the fibroblasts that generate new collagen.
This collagen treatment is typically done by a dermatologist, with the use of a topical anesthetic cream. Because the skin is essentially wounded during the treatment, it’s necessary to treat the area with a comedogenic (pore-clogging) antibiotic cream and heavy sunscreen following the procedure.
In a 2017 published review, researchers from George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences evaluated a collection of studies of micro needling. They determined that how micro needling generates new collagen is effective in the treatment of scars, with anywhere from 42 percent to 94 percent improvement of the appearance of scars on patients’ faces.
This review also looked at the ability of micro needling to treat other skin conditions, including pigmentary issues like melasma and vitiligo; all showed fairly positive results.
Is Micro Needling Worth It?
Impressive as these results are in producing more collagen, micro needling is not without drawbacks and certainly not the best way to stimulate collagen growth. While technically noninvasive, it does cause subcutaneous wounds that swell and turn red and require at-home treatment with an antibiotic cream.
Micro needling is best done by a professional and requires several sessions—although exactly how many depend on the patient and the condition being treated.
Furthermore, micro needling sessions can be expensive, costing anywhere from $200 to $700 each. This does not include the recommended touch-up sessions that help generate new collagen as the body ages.
Radiofrequency Treatments and Collagen
Radiofrequency treatments are another way to stimulate natural collagen production. The mechanism here is, as the name suggests, radiation, which is released in the form of electromagnetic waves.
Unlike X-rays or gamma rays, which emit high levels of radiation, radiofrequency (RF) waves are low energy and similar in radiation levels to radio waves, Wi-Fi, and microwaves. RF equipment that uses FDA-cleared technologies will have safety checks in place; namely, that the practitioner can monitor the radiation levels to achieve the best temperatures for neocollagenesis (the production of new collagen) without overheating and causing damage.
As further confirmation of RF’s safety, two extensive reports by the American Cancer Society and Federal Communications Commission focus on the impact of radiofrequency exposure. Both suggest that the link between low-level radiation and cancer has yet to be confirmed by any study.
How Radiofrequency Stimulates Collagen
RF therapy can be safely done at a dermatologist’s office through an instrument that delivers RF waves to specific problem areas of the skin.
The energy waves range from about 0.3 to 10MHz, and they heat the dermal layer to somewhere between 122 and 165 degrees F. The heat causes the body to release heat-shock proteins, which in turn stimulate the production of collagen.
RF treatments initiate a deeper penetration than laser therapies, which follow a similar principle: using heat to stimulate collagen production. Laser treatments, however, are best geared toward surface conditions like discolored and hyperpigmented skin, while RF treatments go deeper into the dermal layer and tackle structural issues like tone and tightness.
RF therapies have demonstrated positive results in several areas. First, they seem to help generate collagen to improve photoaged skin, meaning skin that’s been damaged by too much sun exposure. In a 2017 study by researchers from Brazil, 11 participants who received a type of RF combination therapy on the face, once a week for eight weeks, showed improvement in facial contour, skin texture, and skin laxity. The treatment also seemed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and lines.
A 2011 study that was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology assessed not only aesthetic changes but also the amount of collagen present after three months of RF therapy. The researchers saw a continuous and significant increase in collagen three months post-treatment. This is likely explained by the fact that RF therapy triggers three phases of wound healing: inflammatory, proliferative, and remodeling—the last of which generates collagen, leading to visible results in the tone and structure of the face.
Are Radiofrequency Treatments Safe and Effective?
While the results of RF therapy are usually promising, there are some drawbacks. It’s considered safe only when performed by a surgeon who is registered with the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery—and a medical professional will likely charge more for the procedure than a cosmetologist might. But if you work with a lesser-credentialed practitioner, you increase your risk of getting your face burned by radiation.
There are some side effects worth noting, too, such as temporary swelling, redness, and a tingly sensation, although these are short-lived. People with darker skin should choose RF and laser treatments carefully, as it’s generally believed that the treatments can damage more highly pigmented skin.
Finally, while not as expensive as a facelift, RT treatments can be costly, with sessions ranging from $700 to a few thousand dollars. And results are not permanent, lasting less than two years. So, you’ll have to invest in more sessions to continue to keep up the production of collagen, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and combat other signs of aging.
Red Light Therapy: A Better Value
The pursuit of youthful skin through neocollagenesis requires investments of money, time, and patience. Figuring out a balance between these factors comes down to personal preference.
When comparing costs, in-office collagen treatments such as micro needling and RF therapies are by far the most expensive options. This is especially true when considering not only the number of sessions involved but also the necessity of committing to future sessions as the results fade.
However, studies show these therapies are effective at generating collagen, which translates into more toned, supple skin. That’s in contrast to skincare products like collagen creams and moisturizers, which cost much less and entail zero recovery time, but whose effectiveness is questionable at best.
Red light therapy balances the competing factors of cost, time, and patience. One panel costs more than a few jars of moisturizer or serum—which makes sense considering a quality red light panel or array is initiating scientifically proven treatments.
But while buying the most advanced array of LED panels possible will cost a few thousand dollars, it's a one-time investment that lives in your home and is available to use as often as you desire. This gives red light therapy a strong advantage over the other collagen treatment types discussed in this article.
More Benefits of Red Light Therapy
In addition to producing natural collagen, red light therapy offers myriad other benefits, including muscle repair, and relief from neuropathy and even some autoimmune diseases such as Lyme disease.
By investing in one or more panels and engaging in regular sessions, you can address multiple issues at once—even if your main goal is stimulating collagen. No other treatment covered here can offer anything beyond producing collagen production in a specific area.
PlatinumLED offers many options, including red light, NIR light, and a combination of both. The BIO series comes in a variety of sizes in different configurations, with red 660nm targeting hair regrowth and skin health, including promoting collagen production. The NIR 850nm focuses on deep tissue repair and pain relief.
The BIO Red 660nm / NIR 850mn combo activates red and near-infrared wavelengths in tandem (or one at a time, depending on your preference) to deliver a greater range of benefits to cells and tissues. This makes it a great choice for someone looking to, say, boost collagen production but also relieve muscle aches, nerve injury, or joint pain
The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series offers a range of sizes and wavelengths, but with the added benefit of superior irradiance levels for an exceptionally strong output—the strongest on the market. The BIOMAX series also features the ability to customize an array with different panels through its linkable, modular construction.
The SaunaMAX Pro has all the features of the BIOMAX Series, but can be used for in-sauna treatment. It's the ideal panel for red light therapy users who also have a home sauna.
Take a look at PlatinumLED Therapy Lights and decide which panel or array is going to best suit your health and skincare needs.