Light Therapy for Rosacea: Lasers, Red Light, and Beyond
If you have rosacea, you know how omnipresent, and difficult to treat the symptoms can be. From topical treatments, to oral antibiotics, options abound, but it can be incredibly difficult to find one that works well, and consistently.
One interesting alternative to standard options is light therapy, as it works well for a variety of skin conditions, from eczema, to rosacea, and more. But which variety is best? Lasers, blue, green, and red light all can work, but some are more effective, or affordable, than others. Below we’ll reveal the winning selections, as well as provide some brief context around the impact of rosacea and other current, common treatments.
The Impact of Rosacea
Rosacea is a common chronic inflammatory skin disorder that manifests primarily on the face. It may be partially genetic as it is more prevalent among fair-skinned people among an estimated 14 million people in the U.S. who suffer from the disorder. However, rosacea is sometimes misdiagnosed as eczema, allergies, or acne, so the disorder could be affecting a larger portion of the population than has been confirmed.
The causes behind this puzzling condition are not fully understood and unfortunately, there’s currently no permanent cure. It is clear however, that the condition will worsen if left untreated. And since it is so visible, rosacea can cause severe psychological distress. In fact, depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and social phobias are common emotional effects of rosacea. Patients can also be affected by social stigmas that can include being perceived as alcoholics or as having poor hygiene. All together, rosacea can cause quite a few problems, but unfortunately, it can also be difficult to treat.
Current Treatments for Rosacea
Treatment for rosacea focuses on alleviating symptoms, usually as a combination of enhanced skin care practices and prescription medications. However, since none of these methods present a cure, recurrence of symptoms is frustratingly common.
Good self-care practices are at the heart of rosacea treatment. Methods include:
- Identifying and avoiding environmental and dietary triggers;
- Using a UVA/UVB blocking broad-spectrum sunscreen;
- Protecting the face in cold weather; and
- Using mild cleansers and natural moisturizers.
Many patients also use makeup to reduce the appearance of redness, but this must be done with caution as allergic or other skin reactions may occur.
Alternative medicine such as facial massages, moderate caffeine intake (iced, not hot), and meditation can also be effective because they help alleviate stress, which can worsen symptoms. Emu oil and oregano oil have also been touted as treatments, but their efficacy is not confirmed.
Topical prescription drugs can help by constricting blood vessels, which reduces redness and provides relatively fast, but temporary, results. Additionally, bumps and pimples can be managed through the use of prescription oral antibiotics and acne medications.
Overall though, none of these treatments is reliably effective for all sufferers, and when they work, they’re not particularly long-lasting. In the absence of a cure and with the ongoing expense of over-the-counter and prescribed treatments, many sufferers are searching for alternative therapies. If this is you, light therapy is worth a second look.
Light Therapy for Rosacea
Light therapy for rosacea is available with a range of options, including laser resurfacing, yellow, green, blue, or red light therapy. Each type of light has a slightly different application, but overall they can be used to remove skin thickening, reduce redness, and ease discomfort. Let’s start with the most popular option: laser resurfacing.
Laser resurfacing can treat two major symptoms of rosacea: visible blood vessels, and thickened skin. Skin thickening is especially common around the nose when the condition is left untreated—a condition referred to as phymatous rosacea. But buildup can happen anywhere, and visible blood vessels appear all over affected areas.
- Erbium YAG lasers target visible blood vessels, and remove excess tissue to reshape bulbous noses with about a 50 percent reduction in symptoms.
- CO2 lasers (ablative lasers) are used to reshape the nose or other parts of the face that have been scarred by inflamed tissue, with significant improvement in the erythema (swelling) and other secondary symptoms of rosacea.
- Pulsed-dye lasers penetrate vascular lesions (visible blood vessels) and the dyes used minimize the red, inflamed appearance; one study concluded that this type of therapy was “successful for all 40 study participants.”
The most common side effect of laser resurfacing is increased redness, which usually fades within one to two weeks. Other temporary side effects may include rash, itching, and tight skin. In rare cases, lasers can cause burning.
The downside is that taser resurfacing doesn’t come cheap. Costs range from $500 to $700 per session, usually out of pocket, and several sessions are needed depending on the severity of the condition. When used to diminish the appearance of visible blood vessels, the results last about 3 to 5 years; however, while treated blood vessels won’t reappear, new ones can form. Also, medication and follow-up laser therapy may be needed.
Phototherapy as an Alternative
A more affordable treatment is light therapy, where the affected skin is exposed to devices that emit different wavelengths of light. Every color of light corresponds to a different wavelength, though red light is the only one that can help rosacea.
All other wavelengths—including amber, green, and blue—only penetrate the skin at the very surface level. This makes them great for acne, mild wrinkles, and other minor skin blemishes, but no serious conditions. For that, you’d have to look to red light therapy.
Red Light Therapy for Rosacea
Red light therapy involves exposing the skin to strong sources of visible red light (610-700nm), typically through LED bulbs. It’s important to note up front that red light therapy can not be considered a cure for rosacea, because there are no studies that have examined this particular combination.
However, red light therapy does help reduce general skin redness and promotes healthy cellular function, so it’s worth a second look as a secondary, supporting treatment. For example, high-intensity red light applied in short bursts of a few minutes results in visible reduction of general skin redness, itching, and burning, and ultimately fewer flare-ups.
The reason red light is effective is that it penetrates below the surface of the skin, and stimulates improved cellular function. This makes it effective at treating a variety of skin conditions, and as a bonus, there are no known side effects. Benefits include:
- Stimulating scalp hair growth
- Treating psoriasis and eczema
- Toning aging skin by stimulating the production of collagen for improved skin elasticity, and a youthful appearance
- Reducing acne breakouts and inflammation
- Reduction of fine lines, sagging skin, sun damage, and wrinkles
- Accelerated skin wound healing
- Healing of non-melanoma skin cancers
Let’s take a closer look at how red light therapy works.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Red light is bioactive in humans. In the same way that plants convert absorbed sunlight into energy, the human body converts absorbed red light into cellular fuel.
Unlike yellow, green, and blue light which are effective at the surface only, red light penetrates deep into the skin to a depth of about 8-10mm, where it stimulates production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the cells’ mitochondria. ATP is the primary energy source for cells.
Above: Increased ATP production provides a variety of benefits, including improved collagen production and better nerve cell health.
Restored cellular energy quickly leads to cellular health. An optimally fueled cell has the resources to perform its functions at a high level, including accelerated healing and regeneration.
Treatment consists of several minutes of exposure to high intensity LED lights. During treatment, the red light penetrates the skin and performs several important functions:
- Increased production of ATP
- Increased production of collagen (collagen stimulation yields better results than resurfacing the outer layers of the skin)
- Increased formation of new capillaries that deliver oxygen and nutrients to the skin
- Stimulation of the lymphatic system, which helps the body remove waste and toxins
Within a short time, red light therapy may ease flushing, burning, swelling, tenderness, and bumps. It may also stimulate repair of broken capillaries on the cheeks and nose.
So again, while there haven’t been any studies directly examining the connection between rosacea and red light therapy, it is known to treat a variety of similar symptoms. Also, studies have shown that it improves skin health in general—often dramatically—so it’s worth adding to your daily routine.
At-Home Red Light Therapy for Rosacea
Today, high quality LED red light panels are available for home use, which makes treatment of rosacea much more convenient and ultimately less costly than 2-3 dermatologist visits each week over the course of several months, plus multiple follow-up treatments.
You still need to commit to frequent short treatments, and LED lights should be used with caution (red light does generate some heat and rosacea is sensitive to heat, but everyone’s threshold is different). If you are taking topical medication for rosacea, please consult your doctor about using red light as some topical medicines make the skin more photosensitive and prone to burning.
How quickly you experience results depends on your skin’s sensitivity to red light, the severity of your symptoms, and your commitment to consistent treatment. You may experience immediate relief of itching, redness, inflammation and pain; or, if you have a severe case of rosacea, your results may come more slowly as the skin heals from within. Also, some people are sensitive to LED light therapy and experience temporary redness which normally subsides quickly.
Red Light Therapy: Unproven, but with Potential
Red light therapy is a natural, non-invasive, and pain-free treatment for common skin problems including acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Very few studies have been done on the efficacy of red light on rosacea, but because it promotes healing at the cellular level, it may quickly become the go-to treatment for this sometimes embarrassing and often uncomfortable skin condition. If you’d like to learn more about the many applications of red light, take a look at our blog, where we share more helpful and interesting information on all things light therapy.