Acne vulgaris, more commonly known as acne, is one of the most frustrating skin issues for people who suffer from it. Acne treatments vary widely, from those that are topical (like salicylic acid) to prescription medication – and only through trial and error can you determine what works for your skin. Even when acne clears up, it can leave behind unsightly scars that require additional treatment.
Of all the available acne treatments, one of the gentlest and most promising uses a very simple, basic ingredient: light.
Light therapy, which is also called photodynamic therapy or light-emitting diode (LED) therapy, is any treatment that uses specific wavelengths within the light spectrum to stimulate beneficial processes within cells. This, in turn, helps the body heal naturally.
Light therapy takes many different forms and has myriad applications. But for treating acne, there are two kinds of light you should know about: blue light and red light.
Blue Light Therapy
Blue light therapy uses wavelengths between 380 nanometers (nm) and 500nm, which are among the shortest and highest-energy wavelengths. All light therapies work by penetrating the skin to some degree, and the shorter blue light wavelengths penetrate less deeply than other wavelengths.
Blue light therapy is generally only used for facial treatments, which is why many blue light devices tend to be on the smaller side: masks, wands, and bulbs that target problematic areas of the face (though this smaller size can be problematic as these devices are typically weaker and slower-working than full-sized panels). In addition to at-home treatments, blue light therapy sessions are also offered at dermatology clinics and other medical facilities for certain skin conditions, in particular, mild to moderate acne.
Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is also called low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation (PBM). The term “red light therapy” refers to red light, which ranges from 630nm to 700nm; and near-infrared (NIR) light, which ranges from 810nm to 850nm. Within those ranges are a few especially powerful wavelengths: 630nm and 660nm (red light); and 810nm, 830nm, and 850nm (NIR light).
A fundamental aspect of light therapy is that the longer the wavelength, the more deeply it penetrates the skin. Wavelengths in the red light range reach just below skin-deep, while those in the NIR range penetrate beneath the skin’s surface and reach layers of muscle, connective tissue, and bone.
Given its range and penetrating abilities, red light treatments can target a variety of conditions, from the skin-deep (acne, wrinkles, skin tone) to the more systemic (muscle recovery, arthritis, inflammation of the joints). As a practice, LLLT takes many forms: you can sit or stand in front of big panels for an all-body effect, or apply wands and face masks to specific areas of the body.
Both red and blue light have different effects and usages, and both treat acne a little differently. Let’s look at how each light therapy for acne works, separately, and when combined.
How Light Therapy Treats Acne
Light therapy for acne works in two ways:
First, by killing bacteria that gets trapped inside the pores, along with a build-up of oil from sebum production and dead skin cells. Second, by supporting the body’s natural immune and healing mechanisms, and reducing inflammation.
A variety of factors can aggravate acne, including hormones, diet, and stress – but the main culprit is bacteria. Once you rid the skin of the acne-causing bacteria, you can greatly reduce the appearance of acne.
Blue Light Therapy and Acne
Blue light has an antimicrobial effect, which means blue light therapy does a remarkable job of killing acne-causing bacteria.
This was the focus of a scientific paper that was published in 2002 in the Journal of Dermatological Science and also reviewed in this metastudy. A team of Japanese researchers found that blue light therapy treatments given twice a week for five weeks helped reduce various forms of acne among 30 patients. By the end of week five, 77 percent of the patients saw improvement, and 40 percent showed great improvement or even disappearance of their acne lesions.
Blue light therapy treatments are FDA-approved for acne treatment for moderate cases, and/or for cases that haven't responded to other therapies. The technique is also believed to help condition skin by ridding it of free radicals that age the face. Blue light has some anti-inflammatory effects as well, and these can mitigate other symptoms of acne such as redness and soreness.
Red Light Therapy and Acne
Because red light penetrates deeper than blue light, it has a more direct effect on cells. As thousands of studies and scientific reviews have shown, red light stimulates mitochondria, which are tiny organelles inside cells that create energy. These energized mitochondria produce extra adenosine triphosphate (ATP), molecules known as the “building blocks of energy.” The overall effect is a boost in cellular energy that leads to a host of health benefits.
Researchers believe that the surge in ATP is what leads to the immense physiological benefits connected to red light therapy. Some of the most profound include cell rejuvenation, reduced inflammation, reduced wrinkles, and wound healing, just to name a few.
So what does this mean for acne? Researchers believe that it may impact oil glands to yield an anti-inflammatory effect, which would reduce redness and swelling. In general, the increase in ATP production also shows promise for helping your body fight off infections, reduce pain and scarring from acne, and boost the immune system.
In short, the best light therapy treatment for acne includes both red and blue light. According to a 2015 meta-analysis of photodynamic treatments for acne by researchers from Chicago and Karnataka, India, blue and blue-red light therapies were more effective than other kinds of photodynamic therapy methods for treating mild to moderate acne and inflamed acne lesions.
Another 2018 study summarized findings that blue, red, and near-infrared (NIR) light therapies together can produce “significant results” for treating acne, among other conditions.
Red Light Therapy: More Than Acne Treatment
In addition to showing tremendous promise for treating acne, LLLT is a remarkable treatment for addressing a host of other skin and cosmetic issues.
Wrinkles, Fine Lines, and Skin Tone
Wrinkles and fine lines are a natural and inevitable part of aging. As long as your skin is exposed to daylight, then it's vulnerable to ultraviolet (UV) light. This is the process of sun damage, whereby the collagen and elastin fibers that make skin firm and taut are broken down. Once that happens, wrinkles and fine lines inevitably develop.
Red light has been shown to diminish this effect by triggering the production of collagen. A 2009 study published by researchers from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, found that light therapy sessions reduced the depth and severity of fine lines and wrinkles in 94 percent of participants.
Similarly, a 2014 study conducted by researchers from Germany found that participants who underwent LLLT experienced significant improvement in complexion and skin texture, and greater measured collagen density.
Wound Healing and Scar Reduction
The healing effects of red light therapy apply to wounds as well. This is likely due to the surge in ATP production and its effects on collagen, which helps scars form as connective tissue heals.
To this point, a study conducted in 2008 by researchers from Salvador, Brazil, and published in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, found that PBM treatments helped heal third-degree burns in rats faster than those in the control group. The researchers noted that the 660nm wavelength produced more immediate results on wounds, while the 780nm wavelength yielded more sustained progress.
What these and other studies show is that red light therapy is a great remedy for aging skin due to its collagen-boosting abilities, as well as a sound treatment for healing wounds and scars. This last part is especially important: Acne, even when cleared up, can leave behind unsightly scars. Treating acne scars with red light therapy is one way to reduce their appearance and rejuvenate skin.
The same applies to wounds: Acne nodules or cysts that fester can be treated as wounds with red light therapy, which should help them heal more quickly than if they are left untreated.
Treating Other Ailments with Red Light Therapy
While not exactly related to skincare, it’s worth noting that LLLT can address other physiological ailments, making it a flexible device with myriad uses.
Among these is muscle recovery. A 2012 meta-study, led by world-renowned photobiomodulation expert Michael R. Hamblin, found that red light therapy reduced muscle damage markers like lactic acid and creatine kinase – enzymes that show up in the blood when the muscle has been heavily damaged. In other words, light therapy sessions seem to help the body recover post-exercise, as evidenced by the measurable impact of muscle damage.
Red light therapy has also been used to treat aches and pains from conditions such as arthritis, and with promising results. In 2015, researchers from Brazil conducted a randomized controlled double-blind clinical trial of patients with knee osteoarthritis. All twenty-five of the patients who underwent LLLT treatment three times a week for three weeks experienced significant improvement in pain and function.
Red Light Therapy: One Device, Many Uses
It’s clear that of all the photodynamic therapies available, blue light therapy offers the most targeted antimicrobial effects. It’s easy to find a board-certified dermatologist who can administer blue light therapy acne treatments in-office. Purchasing a blue light treatment wand or mask may provide results as well, but these devices typically produce very little power output, which means results will come slowly (if at all).
On the other hand, clinic-quality red light devices are much more readily available. And if you think about skincare treatment holistically, it seems both prudent and sensible to bring some kind of LLLT into your skincare routine. Not only can it help ameliorate the effects of acne; it can also put you on the right track to achieving toned, clear skin for years to come.
Moreover, red light therapy offers myriad other benefits, such as the ones mentioned above. Investing in a device for your home is one way to prepare for the unforeseen physical challenges, from sore muscles to more acute conditions like arthritis, that life brings your way.
Choosing the Right Device
Buying a device for your home can be tricky: The market is full of home devices, and many appear similar to the untrained eye. Of all the options on the market, however, PlatinumLED Therapy Lights offers the most powerful lights with the greatest flexibility in terms of how these devices are used.
Panels in the BIO series come in either red or near-infrared light, or a combination of both, as well as in a variety of sizes and configurations:
- The Red 660nm targets collagen production and wound healing;
- The NIR 850nm targets deep tissue repair and pain relief, which is ideal for runners with hip pain;
- The BIO Red 660nm/NIR 850nm combo offers the best of both wavelengths, either combined or one at a time.
The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series also comes in various sizes and wavelengths while boasting superior irradiance levels with the strongest output on the market. The BIOMAX series panels are modular and linkable in construction, which allows you to target multiple areas of the body at once for more efficient recovery and healing.
Remember, acne is just one condition you can successfully treat with light therapy. Blue light is your best bet for that, but broadening your scope with a device that serves multiple needs is a wise move that will last long after your acne has cleared up.