You’ve probably heard about red light therapy as a way to treat skin disorders, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, or regrow hair. But did you know that its longer-wavelength cousin, near-infrared (NIR) light, actually penetrates through bone, and absorbs much deeper into the body’s tissues with even more therapeutic benefits?
NIR light therapy has successfully treated chronic joint pain, muscle injury, bone disorders, and even stroke and traumatic brain injury, as well as a host of other conditions.
This article discusses what light therapy is and the benefits of near-infrared light. We’ll also cover everything you need to know about light therapy devices so you can pick the best near-infrared light therapy device for your personal needs.
Note: Visit our BIO and BIOMAX product pages to learn more about our line of clinical-grade light therapy devices. The BIO line offers options for red OR near-infrared wavelength models, while the BIOMAX line includes both red and near-infrared light by default.
What Is Near-Infrared Light Therapy?
NIR light is commonly grouped under the broader umbrella of red light therapy, as well as low-level laser therapy or photobiomodulation, but this is technically incorrect.
Really, these various therapies use completely different light waves. Red light, for example, uses rays with wavelengths ranging from 630nm (nanometers), to 660nm, and NIR from 810nm to 850nm.
The term near-infrared light is also often used interchangeably with infrared (IR) light, but while related, they are not the same.
Infrared light has a longer wavelength, and under normal conditions is invisible to the human eye.
Although it is used in saunas and other applications, the most notable difference between IR and NIR light is that IR light generates a great deal of heat.
This makes it unsuitable for use in near infrared light panels because excessive heat can burn the skin, and on a deeper level, damage cells.
Near infrared light therapy devices (NIR) use light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to deliver precisely calibrated wavelengths of light in concentrations that easily absorb into the skin. This results in therapeutic benefits at the cellular level.
How Light Affects the Body
Our bodies react positively to sunlight, though some wavelengths are more beneficial than others.
In order to understand how NIR light therapy works, it’s important to know how the human body is affected by light.
Our bodies are highly reactive to sunlight. In the morning, the rising sun stimulates a small region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a crucial role in important functions such as the release of hormones. In the evening, the setting sun signals the body to start shutting down energy production and preparing for sleep.
Natural sunlight has been used for therapeutic purposes since ancient times. It is known for boosting the immune system and stimulating the production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. Also, because sunlight is a mood-booster, it helps treat a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
As beneficial as sunlight can be, however, it also poses hazards. Too much exposure to the sun’s powerful ultraviolet radiation can cause premature aging of the skin as well as damage to DNA, which can lead to skin cancer.
Years of studying light have enabled scientists to isolate specific wavelengths and determine their benefits and dangers. In recent years, scientists have discovered a broad range of effects that specific wavelengths of visible light have on the body. Blue light, for example, helps our natural sleep and wake cycles. Because blue light blocks the hormone melatonin, which induces sleepiness, it can interfere with sleep. That’s why using blue light-emitting electronic gadgets at night can keep us awake.
The red light spectrum is particularly known for its energy-stimulating properties at the cellular level. As red light is absorbed into the skin, it stimulates activity in the mitochondria, which are the energy centers of most cells in the body. Mitochondria absorb the light and begin producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary fuel of most cells in the human body. Healthy, energized cells are thriving cells. They perform their own specialized functions, and repair and replicate themselves more easily than low-energy cells that are fighting for survival.
The Difference Between Red Light and NIR Light
Although near-infrared light is part of the red light family, their different wavelengths determine how deeply they are absorbed into the body. Red light is “skin deep,” penetrating about 1/3" (8.5mm) beneath the skin. It is the undisputed star for treating surface conditions like psoriasis, eczema, fine lines and wrinkles, or hair loss. Red light is most effective, however, when used in conjunction with NIR light.
Red light and NIR light have the same energy-stimulating properties. But because of NIR light’s deeper absorption into the body (3 1/3” or 84.7mm), it can penetrate bones, joints, muscles, and tissues that red light cannot reach. This allows for more thorough treatment of underlying conditions that could be at the root of chronic skin disorders or the aching pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
One of NIR light’s most notable benefits is how it decreases inflammation, which is the immune system’s reaction to an irritant. Under normal conditions, inflammation is beneficial because it is a natural part of the healing process. Chronic inflammation, however, is a sign that the immune system has begun to mistakenly attack healthy tissue.
It has been linked to autoimmune disorders, as well as heart disease, cancer, hormonal imbalances, and many other chronic conditions. Reducing chronic inflammation while stimulating normal, healthy cell proliferation can ease symptoms, ease pain, and reduce the recurrence of chronic conditions.
Given the current body of research, red light therapy should be considered a treatment, not a cure.
Even so, studies on the connection between inflammation and disease show that reducing chronic inflammation using NIR (near infrared light therapy devices) can cause spontaneous healing of symptoms.
Benefits of NIR Light Therapy
Light therapy encourages cellular repair and regeneration, which can slow or even halt the inflammatory response and give the body a chance to repair itself.
NIR therapy has been applied successfully in animal studies to treat wounds, sprains, bone fractures, and also brain injuries.
These studies have also shown that NIR light therapy has great promise for treating neurodegenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Learn more about how red and NIR light can help Parkinson's disease patients here.
Human clinical trials have also produced some exciting findings. NIR light has been used for:
- Pain relief
- Traumatic brain injuries and stroke
- Anti-aging applications
- Accelerated wound healing
- Bone repair and growth,
- Psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression
- Athletic performance and muscle recovery
- And more
Note that while near-infrared, red and infrared light therapy can not be considered cures, they have shown promise for potentially reducing side effects or alleviating symptoms of the above conditions. Click each link to learn more.
Even if you don't have any serious conditions or chronic pain and you're simply looking to enhance overall wellness, NIR therapy has a total-body stimulating and anti-inflammatory effect that can cause a positive chain reaction of improved health.
NIR light falls right outside the visible spectrum of light, and can penetrate deep into the body, providing a multitude of benefits.
Essentially, any condition that can be treated with red light, can be treated with NIR light at a deeper level. For example, non-hereditary hair loss and weight gain can be caused by thyroid imbalance (specifically, hypothyroidism), and research has shown that NIR stimulates a sluggish thyroid.
Although red light cannot penetrate bone or large muscles, NIR can. When choosing between the two, simply consider the physical depth of the conditions you’re treating, and whether going deeper could address underlying causes. For example, a skin wound can be treated using red light therapy.
But a chronic skin condition like rosacea or an autoimmune disorder like arthritis needs the extra penetration depth of NIR to reduce systemic inflammation that could be contributing to the disorder.
When in doubt, choose a red light therapy device that gives you the choice between red and NIR light, or offers a combination of both for more comprehensive treatment.
What to Look For in a Near-Infrared (NIR)Light Therapy Device
Not all red light therapy devices are created equal. To simplify your choices, start by eliminating all battery-operated devices.
These simply do not deliver the intensity of light required to achieve therapeutic benefits, especially as batteries become depleted with use.
Also, the devices aren’t powerful enough to deliver the concentrated light needed.
You won’t get the light output you need for optimal absorption into the body if you use wands, masks, caps, or wraps. Don’t waste your money on these devices.
Near infrared LED light bulbs do work to a certain degree but why still deemed to be somewhat ineffective when compared to a bigger source, with better light dispersing capabilities.
You will get the best results—and the most mileage—from a high-quality LED therapy device (typically a panel) that has the power to deliver concentrated light to your skin.
LED red or infrared light therapy panels can be placed on a stand or hung from a door, and vary in size and power output.
When you’re comparing red light and near-infrared light therapy devices, look for:
- Light energy output
- The ability to choose between red and NIR light, and/or a combination
- Size of the panel (the larger the panel, the larger the treatment coverage area)
- Value: warranty, quality, and customer service
How Light Energy Output: Irradiance and Joules
Power output is the #1 consideration when comparing NIR therapy lights.
There are often significant differences in power output between devices. It’s important to note that the wattage an LED light consumes does not correlate with its light output. You can have a “hungry” device that eats a lot of power but delivers a fraction of the light output of more efficient panels that consume less energy but deliver higher irradiance—which is the only true measure of light output. Irradiance shows how many light photons are available to absorb into your cells in order to spark a biological reaction.
Irradiance and joules (units of energy) must be measured together to get an accurate reading of how much light your body actually receives during a therapy session. Irradiance is how much power a light emits over an area, which is the amount of light energy the body part actually receives. This is commonly measured in milliwatts per square centimeter (mW/cm²).
It's important to know the distance at which a light's power output is measured so you know how much energy will be absorbed by your body.
Another consideration is the distance you are from the device. If a company claims that its LED panel produces 100mW/cm² but doesn’t specify the physical distance you must be from the device to achieve this intensity, then it’s impossible to accurately compare the actual light output of this device without side-by-side trials.
For a great visual about the importance of side-by-side light output testing, check out this comparison video by PlatinumLED.
The Ability to Choose Both Red Light and NIR Light
As previously stated, both red and NIR light have their own specialized uses, and the most therapeutic benefits often result from using both simultaneously. If you want to treat the signs of aging on your face, for example, red light is best, but adding NIR into the mix provides a variety of secondary benefits for your eyes, and even your brain.
For deep muscle wounds in your thighs, severe joint pain, or to restore brain function following a traumatic brain injury, you’ll want to use NIR light. However, including red light in these treatment sessions will still help your skin and boost overall wellness.
Overall, purchasing a panel that uses red and NIR light will allow you to use it for these applications and more. And, usually a combined panel doesn’t cost more than similar, more focused options.
Rather than automatically choosing a larger device, consider your needs. For smaller targeted applications like facial rejuvenation, eczema, hair loss, or hand joint pain, a small panel is ideal. You can place the panel on a table and sit close to it to treat one small area of the body at a time. If you want to optimize physical performance by treating large muscle groups, you’ll want a larger panel or even a series of joined panels so that you’re not spending hours treating individual body parts.
Your Best Options Among the Highest Quality NIR Devices
With the extraordinary technological advances in red light therapy, it is now possible to find a high-quality, high-output, affordable device that will give you many years of service. If you're currently seeing a dermatologist to treat a chronic skin disorder, you'll save a lot of money, time, and hassle by treating the condition at home instead of committing to multiple weekly outpatient visits.
The undisputed red light therapy industry leaders include PlatinumLED, Joovv, and MitoMax. You can expect a quality product from all three companies, and you will get great value for your money. This article is not intended as an in-depth comparison of the three companies or their products. Rather, this comparison is designed to give you an idea of what to look for in an NIR light therapy device.
Choosing the best device can be challenging because you want to be sure you’re making accurate comparisons. Since each company manufactures a variety of panel sizes and power outputs, we’ll standardize the selection by comparing 300w panels (referring to energy consumption, not irradiance) that offer both NIR light and red light.
This side-by-side LED light device comparison shows the differences in power, or light output, which is the most important aspect of a panel’s therapeutic value. The higher the output, the more light photons will absorb into the body's tissues.
The $369 PlatinumLED BIO 300 panel (9”x19”) lets you choose between 660nm red light, 850nm NIR light, or a combination of both wavelengths. This easy to use panel features 100 LED bulbs that deliver 94 mW/cm² at 6” from the device. The BIO 300 protects consumers with a three-year warranty.
The PlatinumLED Bio300 delivers powerful NIR light with an industry-leading warranty.
The $695 Joovv Mini panel (8.75”x15”) also gives you a choice between red and NIR light, although we could not find specific wavelength information on the website. This panel features 60 LED bulbs. Joovv claims 100 mW/cm² of irradiance, although the website does not specify the distance at which this was measured.
Instead, Joovv rightly states that irradiance varies based on wavelength configuration and distance from the device. It’s interesting to note, that when we measured the irradiance of the Mini’s big brother, the Joovv Solo, we saw a reading of 60 mW/cm² at a distance of 6”. So it’s likely that the Mini maxes out at a similar rating.
In terms of warranty, The Joovv Mini is covered for two years.
The $399 MitoMin panel (9”x19”) also allows for a choice between red and NIR light (660nm and 850nm wavelengths respectively), or a combination of both. This panel features 60 LED bulbs that deliver 85mW/cm² of irradiation at 6” distance from the device. The MitoMin comes with a two-year warranty.
This is just a mini-overview of the key points to look for in a red light therapy device, and highlights the importance of comparing not only the price of panels, but how much light power they actually deliver. Remember, the more light photons that your skin is exposed to, the more will absorb into the body and the greater the benefits.
You will get your money’s worth from any of these high-quality devices by experienced and reputable manufacturers. One last consideration is customer service. Be sure you work with a company that enables you to actually speak to a human who is there to help you have the best possible experience with your light therapy device.
Experience the Amazing Benefits of NIR Light Therapy at Home
NIR light therapy is a highly effective treatment for all-over wellness, and for treating both acute injuries and chronic conditions and pain. Science confirms that red and NIR light positively affect the body at a cellular level, and now you can enjoy relaxing, rejuvenating and restorative therapy sessions in the comfort and convenience of home. Please visit our blog to discover the many ways that NIR light can promote wellbeing.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What blocks near-infrared light?
Ans: Any kind of material that's electrically conductive will block infrared light. Aluminum foil is one example.