Best Handheld LED Light Therapy Devices: Recommendations and a Scientific Overview
Here’s a handy guide to red light on the go: the best portable light therapy devices to rejuvenate your skin, reduce signs of aging, regrow hair, soothe inflammation, and even relieve pain from arthritis.
Introduction to Light Therapy
To understand light therapy and how it works, it’s good to know a few facts about light. When we see sunlight streaming through a window, it may look yellow-white or colorless, but natural light is actually a rainbow of colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. When these colors are combined, they form the visible spectrum of light, which appears to be white.
Light is discussed in terms of wavelengths, which are measured in nanometers (nm). Scientists have learned that certain wavelengths of light have specific effects on the human body; some are beneficial effects, while over-exposure to others (like ultraviolet light from the sun) can be harmful.
For millennia light has been used to treat various physical and psychological disorders. The reason light is so effective at healing is that the human body is biologically reactive to it, with different colors having different effects on the body. Blue light, which typically ranges in wavelengths from 500nm to 520nm, is used to treat acne because it reduces bacteria on the skin. Green light (520nm to 560nm) soothes irritated skin and has been effective for skin wound healing.
Research has shown that red light, with wavelengths from 630nm to 700nm, is very effective for treating wrinkles, fine lines, acne, and hyper-pigmentation, as well as chronic skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema. Research has shown that red light therapy improves skin complexion, skin feeling, and collagen density. The ability of red light to stimulate collagen production and increase metabolic processes within cells (increasing cellular energy), makes it the most popular wavelength to use for skin rejuvenation.
Red light’s cousin, near-infrared (NIR) light, ranges from 810nm to 850nm. Because of its longer wavelength, NIR light is absorbed more deeply in the body, and reduces inflammation, which makes it the most powerful light therapy for overall wellness.
Why Are Red Light Therapy Devices So Beneficial?
When red light is applied to the body, it absorbs into the epidermis (surface of the skin) and dermis (the thick layer of tissue below the surface). It has a bioactive effect, meaning the body responds to the light with increased energy production in cells. This is similar to the process of photosynthesis in plants. In fact, red light was used to grow plants before it was ever used on people.
NASA astronauts used red light-emitting diode (LED) lights to grow plants in space, and found that exposure to the light accelerated photosynthesis. This discovery prompted scientists to explore how red light might be used to benefit human health. In the late 1990s, research showed that red and NIR light have a similar effect on human cells—causing them to produce more energy with resulting positive effects on skin health, muscle tone, wound recovery, and joint health.
Red light therapy is great for your skin and stimulates elastin and collagen production for youthful skin.
One of red light therapy’s most notable effects is how it stimulates production of collagen and elastin, which are the two proteins responsible for firm, supple, and youthful skin. This, in combination with increased cell energy in the hair follicles as well as increased circulation, make red light an excellent therapy for hair loss.
With red light therapy, the wavelengths penetrate the skin about 1/3” (8.47mm), which makes it highly effective for treating skin conditions and hair loss. Near-infrared light (which has longer wavelengths than red light) can penetrate the body to about 3” (76.2mm), where it has anti-inflammatory and healing properties in the large muscle groups and other tissues.
Most remarkably, NIR light can penetrate bone, which means it supports the immune system by stimulating production of stem cells. Research on NIR light’s neuroprotective effects on the brain make it an exciting new therapy for treating traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Today, technological advances mean that powerful and safe LED devices are available for use at home. Best of all, red and NIR light therapy for home use is completely safe for long-term use, with no unwanted side effects.
Now that you know how red light therapy works and why it is beneficial, let’s look at various portable red light therapy devices and how you can use them to boost skin and overall health.
What Are Portable Devices Good For?
Due to their size, small portable LED red light devices are most effective at treating the skin on the face, and for use while traveling. Really, you can use it for anything that would benefit from red light therapy (and the list of benefits is long!), though the smaller size means you’ll only be able to treat a small patch of your body at a time.
You can take a handheld device with you when you travel, or even do a session on your lunch hour at work. This is a much more affordable and convenient solution compared with visits to a dermatologist or skin-care clinic. But if you’re not careful, you’ll purchase a consumer product that is far less effective than the clinic-grade tools available in gyms, studios, and doctors’ offices.
What Should You Look for in Handheld Red Light Therapy Devices?
When shopping for a portable LED device, you’ll likely find that the choices are overwhelming. Focusing on a few key features can help you pick the best red light therapy device for your needs.
As previously mentioned, different wavelengths of light have different effects on the body. Some devices offer you the choice of a particular wavelength, while others let you use different wavelengths alone or in combination. Blue light (usually in combination with red) and red/NIR light are the most beneficial combinations that are typically found in LED devices.
Power (light output)
Make sure the device you choose has enough “juice” to deliver these light photons deep into the skin. This article by researchers from South Korea discusses how you will get the desired effects only if the LED device uses the correct wavelength(s) and delivers enough power and energy to ensure that as many light photos as possible are absorbed into the body.
It’s important to note that the power consumption of an LED light therapy device does not necessarily correlate with its light output. An inefficient device will produce little light output and significantly weaker effects.
Ultimately you will get the most value with high-powered LED light devices, especially those that deliver multiple wavelengths of light.
Type of Devices to Consider
When considering portable LED devices, should you choose a wand, face mask, cap, or small panel? Each has its own specific applications. Consider your needs to determine which type of light therapy device will give you the best results.
Face masks and caps, for instance, have very specific uses and don’t give you the flexibility to treat other parts of the body. If you’re looking for applications such as reducing muscle fatigue in your quads while also stimulating collagen production to reverse sun damage on your face, a face mask or cap will not work for you. Instead, you’ll want to choose a device that is large enough and powerful enough for both uses.
Wands come in a few different styles, but all are meant to be comfortably held in the hand.
- LED light therapy wands are great for travel.
- Wands are ideal for spot-treating small areas of the skin, such as acne that’s localized to the forehead, or wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.
- The small size of wands means that you’ll need to spend more time treating larger areas, and you are likely to miss spots. If you want to treat hair loss, for example, wands should be avoided because it’s difficult to know whether you treated the whole scalp, or just a few patches. Also, it is physically uncomfortable to hold a wand over your head for the longer duration of an LED light session.
- Many LED light therapy wands deliver fairly weak light output, especially if they are battery-powered. As the battery depletes from use, so will the light output. Given this low light output, it is puzzling that some manufacturers suggest three-minute treatments. The only way to achieve anywhere near the highly effective irradiance of larger devices is to spend more time using the device, not less; the suggested usage time for small panels is anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes per body area.
Bottom line: The best use for wands is for travel or when you only want to treat small targeted areas.
A mask fits snugly over your face. It is a good solution if you want to rejuvenate your face without using chemical peels, or other costly and aggressive methods.
- A face mask puts your skin close to the LED bulbs so that you’re assured even and all-over exposure.
- All-over facial rejuvenation and chronic skin conditions on the face can be achieved quickly and conveniently when you use a mask.
- You’re limited to treatment of the skin on your face (you won’t be able to treat the skin on your neck).
- Some people may feel claustrophobic wearing a mask.
- Many LED light masks deliver fairly weak light output, although this reduced effect is partially minimized because the LED bulbs are so close to the skin.
Bottom line: You should choose LED light therapy masks if your only focus is facial rejuvenation.
Caps fit over your scalp and are intended for treating hair loss. Consider a cap if hair restoration is the only application you need.
A cap gives you full scalp exposure to the light so you’re assured of even exposure, and your entire scalp will benefit from increased circulation and hair follicle cell stimulation.
- You’re limited to just treating your scalp.
- Many caps deliver fairly low light output, although the effect of this reduction is partially minimized because the LED bulbs are so close to the skin.
Bottom line: The best use for caps is hair restoration.
Although they might not be what you think of as “portable,” small panels are more efficient and offer significantly higher light output in a relatively compact size. You can expect superior results using panels over all portable devices.
- A mini-panel can be the ideal situation for targeted treatments such as the skin on your face or aching joints in your hands, since you can position it conveniently and enjoy hands-free red light therapy.
- You get the same power (light output) and the high quality as you would with a larger device, for less money.
- Mini panels need to be mounted on a base or hung to avoid holding the device for the duration of your treatment session.
- Mini panels are not actually portable, although elite athletes are known to travel with theirs.
Bottom line: Red LED panels have a broad range of applications since they can treat large areas of the body, and they have the power output needed to ensure optimal light absorption into the body. Panels are the best option if you want to treat conditions that are more than “skin deep,” and if portability isn’t so important to you.
The Best Red Light Therapy Devices of 2021 for Home Use
Most handheld LED therapy devices are cheaply made, and aren’t worth the money. Here are a few best led red light therapy for home use that are worth considering—but keep in mind that you will not achieve the results you can expect with panels.
LightStim is one of the best handheld led light therapy device for acne treatment. It offers three different wands: a wand specifically for treating acne, a wand that targets fine lines and wrinkles, and a wand used to treat pain. LightStim wands, which weigh 1.1 lbs., are plug-in devices, meaning you get consistent treatments without worrying about depleted batteries.
According to the manufacturer, LightStim wands offer a multi-wave combination of blue, yellow, red, near-infrared, and infrared light. The LightStim website does not specify which wavelengths are used in which wand, or in what combination.
The treatment area for LightStim devices is 2” for the acne wand and 3” for the wands intended for treating wrinkles and pain. The 2” wand features 36 LED bulbs, whereas the 3” wands have 72 LED bulbs. There is no indication on the LightStim website about the irradiance of these devices, meaning the amount of light that is actually absorbed into the body.
Tendlite Red Light Therapy Device
This device is intended for use as a targeted treatment for joint and muscle pain. Its flashlight-like appearance makes it easy to hold, but you won't be able to treat a very large area all at once. The device weighs in at 2.4 ounces, and is only 4” long and 0.8” in diameter. Unfortunately it is battery-operated, and there’s no indication about irradiance. It may be somewhat effective in targeting small areas, such as treatment of thumb joint pain, sun-damaged skin, crow’s feet, or an emerging bald spot.
As discussed earlier, NIR light is the most effective at deeply penetrating the joints, muscles, and bones. With that in mind, it’s interesting that the manufacturer chose a 660nm red light wavelength, which has limited absorption and therefore limited use in the treatment of deep muscle injury and large-joint pain. Still, for an ultra-compact travel-worthy red light device, this one is hard to beat.
This 3.75” x 5.75” tablet-sized red LED treatment device is a bit larger than devices intended to be held during therapy. On the plus side, it gives you significantly more power and irradiance. At 1 lb, the device is somewhat bulkier than a wand, but is just as lightweight. And its shape allows it to be conveniently placed on a countertop, desk, or even a shelf for hands-free use.
Joovv claims greater than 100 milliwatts per square centimeter (mW/cm2) irradiance for the Go. This depends, however, on the distance from the device, which is not specified on the website.
The Go offers two types of LED treatment devices: red light, and NIR light. The 12 LEDs on the device deliver either red or NIR light so make sure that you’re getting the one that will give you the most benefits you want. In general, go with red light for “skin deep” therapy, and NIR light for deep muscle, connective tissue, and bone health, as well as reduced inflammation.
The Joovv Go is wireless and rechargeable, meaning it relies on battery power that may become depleted during a longer therapy session, and it cannot be used while charging. However, battery depletion should not be a problem unless you want to treat larger muscle groups.
The Go does not come with a stand or wall mount. However, due to its compact size and rectangular shape, it’s easy to prop the device anywhere that’s convenient.
PlatinumLED 300 Panels: Not Quite Handheld, but More Powerful
Granted, the PlatinumLED BIO 300 and BIOMAX 300 panels are not intended to be held during LED light therapy. However, when you factor in the superior irradiance and versatility in treating small or larger areas of the body, it’s an investment in home red light therapy that's worth making.
Though not typically thought of as handheld, the Platinum BIO 300 and BIOMAX 300 are great for treating smaller, targeted areas, and work well for those on a budget.
The PlatinumLED BIO 300 offers 660nm red light, 850nm NIR light, or a combination of both. The BIOMAX 300 offers the ultimate in compact LED panels, with a five-wavelength combination including 630nm, 650nm, 810nm, 830nm, and 850nm. This gives you the entire range of wavelengths that are used in the treatment of virtually every condition from aging skin to deep muscle bruises.
Why go bigger?
Many people purchase a red light device to treat a specific condition, such as wrinkles and saggy, papery skin—and after using the device, they quickly discover red light’s innumerable other benefits. If they’re stuck with a mask, cap, or low-powered wand, they’ll end up disappointed that they won’t be able to tap in to the true potential of red light therapy as a full-body treatment.
Before you buy a red LED device, read our blog to discover the many uses for red and NIR light therapy devices.
Get the Best Results With a Panel
Wrinkles, balding, joint pains, and other signs of aging aren’t a given, when you can treat them effectively and painlessly with red light. Portable devices are convenient and great for travel, but because of their weak light output, they are not the ideal solution for treating various parts of the body.
If you want to get the maximum benefits from red light therapy, your best bet is to go with a high-output compact panel that delivers both red light and NIR light. Then, all you have to do is commit to several treatments each week on an ongoing basis, to enjoy firm, supple, youthful-looking skin—as well as the many inner benefits of red light therapy, including reduced joint pain, better circulation, faster muscle recovery, and much more.