Red light therapy is becoming more popular among people who are looking for a scientifically validated, non-invasive, natural, and effective treatment for aging skin, pain, and muscle recovery, among other benefits. In this article, we'll discuss what red light therapy is, how it works, and how you can use it in the comfort of your own home to improve your health.
Note: Dive deep into red light therapy below, or skip straight to learning more about the direct benefits for your skin, muscle recovery, and more.
What Is Red Light Therapy and How Does It Work?
For thousands of years, healers have understood that light has health benefits. They may have not known why or how it works – just that it DOES work.
Today, scientists know from extensive research the effects of each wavelength of visible and invisible light on the human body. And, they are beginning to understand the specific mechanisms by which light affects the body.
The spectrum of light includes both visible and invisible light. The most beneficial wavelengths of visible light are red wavelengths between 630 and 660 nanometers (nm), and near-infrared wavelengths from 810 to 850nm, which are invisible to the eye.
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on various light therapies and the effects of light on the body. In the beginning, most of this research focused on therapy using low-power lasers (also known as low-level laser therapy). But because of advances in light-emitting diode (LED) technology, most studies today use LED devices.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
The term “red light therapy” may refer to therapeutics treatments using red wavelengths only, or a combination of red and near-infrared (NIR) light. The light is delivered to bare skin via LED devices, which are safe and easy to use. The treatment is painless, non-invasive, and free of side effects.
What about Other Wavelengths?
You may have heard about bright light therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): this uses a broad-spectrum light that is as close as possible to natural sunlight. But it includes wavelengths that are beneficial only in very small doses, including ultraviolet (UV) A and B rays.
Ultraviolet light has been used to treat skin conditions but must be administered with great caution since it can cause accelerated skin aging and even skin cancer.
Although green light has not been widely studied, it has been shown to reduce the frequency and pain intensity of migraines, and to reduce redness in the skin. Scientists are pursuing research to determine if green light can help reduce chronic pain.
Blue light and yellow light are commonly used to enhance skin health.
- Blue light is known for its antibacterial effects on the skin's surface, which makes it a popular acne treatment. It is somewhat controversial, however, because many people are overexposed to blue wavelength emissions from electronics, especially computers and smartphones. If used at night, blue light can cause disturbances in the circadian rhythm, which affects sleep.
- Yellow (or amber) light is also used to treat skin conditions. It is somewhat effective at reducing redness, but its benefits are limited because the very short wavelengths cannot penetrate the skin.
Red light wavelengths are the most widely studied and effective treatment for a variety of conditions. Of all the light therapies available today, red light is the most comprehensive in its benefits, the most effective, and the safest.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Red light therapy has a direct effect on the cells that make up the body, including cells in the skin, bones, muscle, and cartilage, as well as other types of connective tissue.
When specific wavelengths are directed at bare skin via red light devices, photosensitive molecules called chromophores detect the electromagnetic waves of light. This stimulates increased cellular energy production in the mitochondria, which are the energy producers within cells.
Increasing cellular energy is the most important and far-reaching benefit of red light. Essentially, it’s the beginning of a positive chain reaction beginning with improved cellular functioning that leads to improved systemic functioning.
But not all wavelengths have this effect on the body, because the skin tissue actually blocks some wavelengths of light. This makes certain LED light therapies ineffective.
While it’s only about as thick as a single sheet of paper, the epidermis – and the layer of subcutaneous fat beneath it – is enough to block shorter blue, green, and yellow wavelengths. This shallow absorption is why most conditions beyond the skin's surface can’t be treated with wavelengths other than red.
The next section discusses the leading causes of many chronic ailments, and how red light therapy can effectively treat these conditions at their root: poor cellular performance, low collagen production, and inflammation.
Mitochondrial Dysfunction (Poor Cellular Performance)
When cells anywhere in the body aren’t performing at their peak, there’s a negative ripple effect not only within the system to which the cells belong but also the body as a whole, because all systems are interdependent.
Mitochondrial dysfunction refers to the cells’ inability to convert raw materials into energy. This condition has been flagged as a leading contributor to many chronic conditions including neurodegenerative disorders and rapid skin aging.
Whatever causes the cells to function poorly, reversing mitochondrial dysfunction using red light therapy is the first step toward healing chronic conditions; and, it can support your entire body in functioning optimally.
Mitochondrial dysfunction could be caused by chronic stress, inflammation, or disease – and it can be halted and even reversed by therapeutic applications of red light.
Deep penetrating red light therapy restores normal mitochondrial functioning by stimulating the production of a cellular fuel called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). More fuel energizes the cells so they can perform their specialized functions, repair themselves, and replicate.
This results in a positive ripple effect: the system that’s being treated will benefit, as well as the body as a whole.
The second most notable benefit of red light is that it promotes collagen production. This is the primary reason why red light therapy is so effective at skin rejuvenation and as a treatment for fine lines and wrinkles.
Normally we think of collagen as the main component of skin and the protein that's responsible for youthful skin tone. However, collagen is a structural protein that is also present in cartilage and muscle, so it’s vital for wound healing and musculoskeletal health.
One of the hallmarks of red light therapy is its soothing effect on inflammation, especially chronic inflammation that causes damaging oxidative stress in cells.
Numerous studies have confirmed this effect. And since inflammation is one of the key causes of chronic conditions and disease, taking measures to reduce it can quickly give the body's self-healing mechanisms a powerful boost.
These three main effects of red light therapy are the basis for its extremely broad range of applications. Next, we’ll discuss specific conditions that can be treated using red light therapy, and the many secondary benefits of the treatment.
Whole-Body Benefits of Red Light Therapy
The two main benefits of red light therapy (reversing mitochondrial dysfunction and boosting collagen production) lead to many secondary benefits, including:
The most popular use of red light therapy is skin rejuvenation, including improving skin complexion, reducing signs of aging, minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, reducing skin roughness, and treating chronic skin disorders. Red light also shows promise for reducing sun damage, lightening sun spots, and smoothing overall skin tone.
Red light can be used for many chronic skin conditions, including:
The primary mechanisms for improved skin health are increased cellular energy and intradermal collagen density increase. In addition, increased elastin production, increased microcirculation of both blood and lymph, and reduced inflammation can help restore skin health. All of these are supported by red light therapy.
Optimal results including significantly improved skin complexion and reduction of skin disorder symptoms can often be achieved within one to four months of regular LED light therapy. You can safely continue with the treatment indefinitely to prevent flare-ups and to maintain results.
If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may experience mild redness and tightness after a red light session; however, this effect is very short-lived.
A number of studies have shown that red light therapy can help those who want to shed excess fat. One of those studies, conducted in 2013, revealed that 635nm red light causes fat cells to leak and release lipids into the body. The fats are then converted into carbon dioxide, which is removed from the body through urinating, defecating, and exhaling.
In some cases, excess weight may be linked to hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. Balancing thyroid function using red light therapy can have a positive ripple effect on the endocrine system, which regulates hormonal activity.
Restored hormonal balance may result in spontaneous weight loss, meaning weight loss that’s unrelated to diet or exercise. Red light also helps increase muscle mass, which will raise the resting metabolic rate and result in more calories burned while resting.
Athletes and weekend warriors alike can precondition their muscles to prevent injury and prime the body for peak performance with a short red light therapy session before a workout or competition.
Afterward, red light therapy will speed muscle recovery and stimulate, heal, and regenerate damaged muscle and connective tissue. Faster muscle recovery can result in improved ability to achieve peak performance in competition; even more importantly, it can help prevent injury.
The skin is an important part of the immune system. The lymph nodes, for example, are located just below the surface of the skin. Red light therapy activates the lymphatic system to support the effective removal of toxins from the body, balance fluid levels, and protect the body from pathogens.
Red light also stimulates microcirculation, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the skin and the tissue just beneath the skin.
Red wavelengths can penetrate the smaller bones in the body, such as in the hands, or bones close to the skin's surface, which can give a boost to red blood cell production as well as stem cell production.
Red blood cells are a vital part of the immune system. Their job is to not only transport oxygen and nutrients but also to “capture” pathogens on their surface and deliver these toxins to immune cells in the liver and spleen, to be neutralized and excreted from the body.
One main benefit is that red light decreases inflammation; whether it’s inflammation in the skin or deeper in the body, inflammation that goes beyond the acute healing process interferes with the body’s normal operations and contributes to a host of chronic conditions.
Joint Pain from Osteoarthritis
Red light therapy has been shown to reduce pain and increase the range of motion in joints affected by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: up to 50 percent pain reduction after just a few red light therapy treatments.
The anti-inflammatory properties of red light therapy, along with the stimulation of cellular energy and increased collagen production, promote healing, reduce pain, and can hasten recovery from degenerative joint diseases.
General Pain Relief
Aside from osteoarthritis-related joint pain, red light therapy is also used for other kinds of pain relief. Pain is often caused by inflammation; if it’s during the healing process, the pain will dissipate as the area heals (and healing will be accelerated by red light therapy). But if the pain is caused by chronic inflammation, red light will reduce that inflammation and support normal bodily functioning.
One study of 20 athletes revealed significant benefits of red light therapy on the quality of sleep and subsequent endurance performance. Athletes who received 30-minute red light treatments daily for two weeks showed improved sleep quality, increased serum melatonin levels, and better endurance performance.
Consider replacing some screen time in the evening with red light therapy and get the triple benefit of improved sleep, reduced risk of macular degeneration, and reduced disturbances to your circadian rhythm.
If hair loss is genetic, red light therapy can stimulate hair growth by increasing blood flow to the scalp and stimulating the metabolism in hair follicles. This “wakes up” hair follicles from a dormant state into an active hair-producing state. Within a few weeks, you'll notice new hair growth and you can maintain your results with regular red LED light therapy sessions. Hair follicle stimulation could also help restore normal hair growth after chemotherapy treatments.
Red light therapy stimulates wound healing through a fascinating mechanism: red wavelengths boost acute (short-term) inflammation, which is part of the body’s natural healing process; and it also prevents inflammation from becoming chronic, since chronic inflammation interferes with healing.
Red light activates stem cells in the bone marrow. These stem cells mobilize to the injury site where they take on the specialized functions of damaged or dead cells. As new cells grow, emerging cells take cues from their neighbors: If new cells mimic the characteristics of damaged cells, they will function as damaged cells. To avoid that, mobilization of healthy stem cells is required to “teach” emerging cells how to behave like healthy cells.
Promoting wound healing also involves improving blood circulation as well as lymph circulation. Red light promotes the proliferation of endothelial cells, which make up the inner layer of tiny blood vessels known as capillaries. In turn, capillaries deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and blood flow delivers needed nutrients and oxygen to the wound site.
Additionally, red light therapy increases the proliferation of the lymph vessels that transport waste and toxins away from the wound. Between increased blood flow and increased lymph function, your body's self-healing mechanisms will be well-supported.
A 2020 study published in the Journals of Gerontology revealed that red light therapy can decrease age-related visual decline. This condition is often a result of mitochondrial dysfunction; specifically, a decline in the number and functioning of the retinal mitochondria.
Researchers estimate that the retina loses energy faster than other organs: a 70 percent reduction in ATP over time, which leads to various types of vision loss.
During the study, when the retinal photoreceptors were exposed to 670nm red light, mitochondrial performance increased significantly in study participants older than 40. The study authors recommend short frequent exposure to red light as a way to “recharge” the eyes' “batteries” to reverse age-related vision loss.
By stimulating collagen and elastin production, red light therapy supports the body in rebuilding the normal flexible and tough latticework structure that supports the epidermis, in lieu of a layered organization of scar tissue that is extremely inflexible and prone to damage.
This essentially means that if you start using red light therapy immediately after an injury, you can speed up healing and minimize or prevent scarring.
Red light therapy also activates stem cells, which can change into healthy skin cells. The transformed stem cells stimulate nearby cells to grow into skin cells with a genetic makeup of healthy cells, as opposed to cells with the genetic makeup of scar tissue.
Degenerative Brain Diseases
Red light therapy is emerging as an effective clinical therapy for stabilizing dying or damaged brain cells known as neurons. Thus, it could potentially be used to treat degenerative brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, multiple sclerosis, and seasonal affective disorder.
Red or Near-Infrared Light: Which Is Better?
Since longer wavelengths appear to have different applications, it’s important to know the functional differences between red and NIR wavelengths.
Red Light Therapy
Red wavelengths between 630 and 660nm are used to treat conditions of the skin and the immediate underlying tissues.
Surface ailments including acne, stretch marks, skin wounds, psoriasis, hair loss, and the effects of aging (dry and saggy skin, wrinkles, and sun damage) are best treated by red light therapy.
Some red wavelengths will penetrate a bit deeper into the tissues beneath the skin; but for most practical purposes, red light is optimized at the skin level.
Near-Infrared Light Therapy
NIR light therapy benefits are focused deeper in the body. Wavelengths of 810 to 850nm penetrate deeper into the soft tissue, connective tissue, and bone – including the skull, which makes NIR light an effective treatment of neurological disorders and brain injuries. Treatments in which NIR wavelengths are especially effective include:
- Improved muscular healing and accelerated recovery;
- Improved recovery from moderate to severe stroke;
- Improved recovery/reduction of neurological damage from traumatic brain injury (TBI);
- Improvement of psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression;
- Reduced recovery and accelerated healing following plastic surgery;
- Accelerated healing and reduced infection;
- An increase of endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals;
- Improved bone repair and growth;
- Accelerated return to athletic activity after injury;
- Improved nerve functioning.
Learn more about the differences between red and NIR wavelengths in this blog post.
Some LED devices include both red and near-infrared light treatment. When used together, this combination offers the most comprehensive benefits ranging from skincare to deep-tissue support.
Infrared Light Therapy
Technically, near-infrared light is part of the invisible infrared (IR) spectrum. However, there’s a difference between near-infrared, which is used in red light therapy devices, and far-infrared light.
You may have seen infrared saunas, for example, and therefore wonder if you need red or NIR light when you have the exceptionally deep penetration of far-infrared light.
Infrared saunas almost always emit wavelengths of 1000nm or more. Rather than perceiving IR waves above 1000nm as light, the body perceives the waves as heat – which means that far-infrared light heats your body from the inside. This feels good, but prolonged exposure could potentially damage cells without providing the same cell-stimulating effects as red light or near-infrared light.
There is very little heating effect at wavelengths lower than 1000nm, which is far safer (because there’s no danger of burns or overdoing it), and more therapeutic.
Infrared saunas have their health benefits, which include deep, relaxing heat that can lead to profuse sweating to eliminate toxins. And, you can share the sauna experience with a friend. But saunas are very large and expensive, and prolonged use could be unsafe for certain individuals.
The Best Choice: A Combination of Red and NIR Light
For overall health benefits, flexibility (full-body or spot treatment), the choice of using specific wavelengths for targeted uses, and value, it’s hard to beat a combination of red and NIR light.
When red and NIR light are used together, you can enjoy a balancing and harmonizing effect on your body’s systems: literally, better health from the inside out.
How to Use Red Light Therapy at Home
Choosing the right device can make all the difference when it comes to delivering the maximum amount of light photons to the body. This is important because you want to impact as many cells in the treatment area as possible.
Not all light therapy devices are created equal. You’ll want to eliminate handheld red light devices from consideration because they don’t necessarily deliver the spectrum of visible red light that has been clinically proven to deliver the best outcomes. Also, these devices lack the power needed to deliver the maximum light energy output to your body.
Optimal results come from a combination of red and NIR wavelengths delivered by a powerful red light therapy device. The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series features a combination of five different red and NIR wavelengths in a proprietary ratio based on comprehensive research into red light.
We recommend using a red light therapy device for five to 15 minutes daily, or every other day, to start. Since red light therapy activates healing at the cellular level and is not a superficial treatment, expect that the most profound results will occur within four to six weeks.
If you’re treating a chronic condition, you can safely continue with red light therapy indefinitely.
Visit the Platinum Therapy Lights store to learn more about the world’s most powerful red light therapy panels.