Red light therapy is a natural, non-invasive, science-backed treatment for a variety of skin and deep tissue conditions. But it has numerous other benefits to health and wellbeing.
The following sections discuss the benefits of red light therapy as well as its uses and benefits.
Red light therapy treats mitochondrial dysfunction, increases collagen production, boosts circulation, reduces inflammation, relieves joint and back pain, helps with exercise recovery, and a host of other things, including reducing the signs of aging. But, let’s start with a definition.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a treatment that involves shining red and/or near-infrared (NIR) light onto bare skin to stimulate healing at the cellular level.
The term “red light therapy” is often used interchangeably with several other terms, including:
- NIR light therapy
- Infrared therapy
- Photo biomodulation therapy
- Low-level light therapy (LLLT)
- LED therapy, which refers to the LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs in red light therapy devices.
Another term that is often used to refer to red light therapy is low-level laser therapy, but this treatment is different.
With commercial LED panels, red light therapy treatment is now much more affordable, accessible, and can be done at home, resulting in the same benefits for many that are often discovered in clinical trials.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Understanding the effects of red light therapy begins with the age-old concept that light has the amazing power to heal.
For thousands of years, natural sunlight “or heliotherapy” has been used for healing, although exactly how that healing came about was not well understood.
The Healing Power of Red Light Therapy Wavelengths
Today, scientists know that specific wavelengths of light have unique and beneficial effects on the human body. Red wavelengths range from 620 to 750 nanometers (nm), and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths range from 780 to 1200 nm.
Decades of research have shown that the greatest amount of positive biological effects on the human body are achieved with red light between 630 and 660 nm, and NIR light between 810 and 850 nm. This is known as the “therapeutic window.”
For light to have the most beneficial effects, it has to absorb into the body’s tissues.
While it’s only as thick as a single sheet of paper, the epidermis is thick enough to block blue light and green light from absorbing beyond the skin’s surface, although blue light remains an effective treatment for acne.
Ultraviolet light is also used to treat skin conditions. It must be used with caution, however, because overexposure has been linked with skin cancer, whereas red/near-infrared light does not carry this risk, and there are few, if any, side effects with regular use.
Red wavelengths absorb into skin tissue and to a lesser extent, the subcutaneous tissue. This makes red light therapy a great option for treating all kinds of skin conditions from chronic skin disorders to skin rejuvenation.
With its longer wavelengths, NIR light can be absorbed much deeper into penetrating muscle, connective tissue, the viscera, the internal organs of the body, and even bone. This paper, which describes the effects of near-infrared light treatment on the brain, explains how NIR wavelengths are biologically beneficial in the body up to about 3 centimeters, or about 1.2 inches. That is deep enough to treat pain, peripheral neuropathy, muscle aches, and many other conditions.
Most importantly, NIR light absorbs deeply enough in the body to address the inflammation that interferes with normal cellular functioning.
What limits the absorption of NIR light?
Liquids in the body, including blood and lymphatic fluid, scatter the light, weakening its power as it travels through various tissues (including bone and connective tissue). That’s why NIR light is believed to positively affect the outer 3 cm of tissue. Deeper than that, the benefits are less potent, although a few light photons could travel deeper into the body with beneficial effects.
Why has Red Light Therapy Usage Become More Popular?
In recent years, red light therapy has soared in popularity. There are likely a number of reasons for this, one of which is many people’s growing desire to pursue natural therapy options.
Another reason for red light therapy’s growing usage is its ability to heal at the cellular level – meaning it addresses the cause of many chronic conditions rather than merely treating symptoms. Red/NIR light does this by correcting four key mechanisms: mitochondrial dysfunction, low collagen production, poor circulation, and chronic inflammation.
Overall, some of the benefits 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
Near-Infrared Light Can Reverse Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Mitochondrial dysfunction is a condition affecting tiny organelles within cells known as mitochondria. These microscopic energy-makers are responsible for producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s primary cellular fuel.
When mitochondria aren’t able to produce enough cellular energy, cells suffer – and consequently, health also suffers.
It’s one thing if a single cell is struggling; but if many cells within the same system are depleted, there’s a negative ripple effect on the system to which the cells belong, and to the body as a whole, since all systems are interdependent.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and where mitochondrial dysfunction is most readily apparent. But just as much trouble could be brewing in the invisible systems deep in the body. Whatever causes the cells to function poorly (the primary causes are believed to be oxidative stress and chronic inflammation), reversing mitochondrial dysfunction using red/NIR light therapy can be a powerful first step toward healing.
When NIR wavelengths absorb into the skin, photosensitive molecules called chromophores detect the incoming electromagnetic waves. This interaction stimulates the mitochondria to begin producing more ATP. More fuel energizes the cells so they can perform their specialized functions, repair themselves, and replicate.
Increased energy production often sparks a positive chain reaction beginning with improved cellular functioning that leads to improved systemic functioning.
Near-Infrared Light Increases Collagen Production
Collagen is the protein that makes up about 80 percent of the skin, and it is responsible for the skin’s firmness and structure. Collagen is also present in cartilage and muscle, which makes this structural protein vital for wound healing and musculoskeletal health.
And research has shown that NIR wavelengths promote collagen production.
Investigating this was the focus of a 2014 controlled trial by researchers from Germany. A total of 136 volunteers participated in the study, of whom 113 were treated with red and/or NIR light. The researchers found that participants in the treatment group experienced significantly improved skin complexion and skin feeling, less skin roughness, and intradermal collagen density increase.
Cartilage isn’t just present in the skin. It’s also a key component of connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage, muscles, and even teeth. The collagen-boosting effects of red light therapy could be encouraging news for anyone suffering from degenerative osteoarthritis, or who is recovering from cartilage injury. A 2014 animal study found that 685 nm red light can help reduce the progression of osteoarthritis.
Near-Infrared Light Can Boost Circulation
Good circulation and healing go hand in hand. Not only do cells require oxygen and nutrients to be delivered by the blood. They also need the lymphatic system to flush away toxins and pathogens that could be harming them.
Any condition you treat with NIR light, from skin rejuvenation to sore muscles, will benefit from increased circulation.
A 2018 study revealed that NIR light can act as a vasodilator, which refers to promoting the dilation of blood vessels. During this study, NIR light was used to aid vascular dysfunction in diabetic patients.
Another study related to diabetes was conducted in 2017 and involved diabetic patients who suffered from chronic wounds on their lower legs. After treatment with NIR light three times a week for eight weeks, patients experienced significant increases in blood circulation. This was a welcome finding since a sufficient blood supply is essential for wound healing,
A 2019 article published in Lasers in Medical Science states that photobiomodulation with 808 nm near-infrared light “promotes wound healing of human endothelial cells,” meaning the cells that make up the walls of blood and lymph capillaries.
Endothelial cells also line vessels in every organ system and play a pivotal role in regulating the flow of blood cells and nutrient substances, their primary essential function being the maintenance of vessel wall permeability. Promoting healing of human endothelial cells can, in turn, can prevent inflammation that causes endothelial dysfunction.
Near-Infrared Light Can Reduce Inflammation
One of the hallmarks of red light therapy is its ability to reduce chronic inflammation that causes damaging oxidative stress in cells. Because chronic inflammation is considered the root cause of many conditions, a bottom-up approach to healing the effects of inflammation at the cellular level could potentially facilitate and speed up healing.
The Numerous Health Benefits of Red and NIR Light Therapy
As mentioned, NIR light works deeper in the body than pure red light wavelengths. Extensive research has been conducted on NIR wavelengths from 810 to 850 nm, and it is now known that these wavelengths can effectively treat neurological disorders, brain injuries, deep muscle trauma, joint pain, and a host of other conditions.
Specific treatments for which NIR wavelengths are especially effective include the following.
Relief from Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis Joint Pain
NIR light therapy has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it a powerful ally in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic inflammatory and degenerative joint disorders.
For more than two decades, scientists have known that red light therapy can offer pain relief and increase the range of motion in joints affected by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In one of the earlier studies, the group treated with red/NIR light experienced up to 50 percent pain reduction after just a few treatments.
This, along with more energy production in the cells, increased collagen synthesis, and improved blood flow, can promote healing, reduce pain, and prevent further joint deterioration due to degenerative joint diseases.
General Pain Relief (Low Back Pain, Tennis Elbow, and Shoulder Pain)
In 2017, Hamblin published research demonstrating red light therapy’s anti-inflammatory properties as well as how red and NIR therapy can help reduce pain.
One of the mechanisms in which pain can be reduced using red light therapy includes the inhibition of the neurotransmitter substance-P. Elevated levels of substance P can increase the sensitivity of nerves to pain. Excess substance-P can lead to a variety of inflammatory diseases.
Also related to pain relief is this 2006 study, which outlines how red and NIR light can minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Wherever you suffer from pain, regular exposure to NIR light can boost the body’s self-healing mechanisms, including relief from inflammation, and even offer an analgesic effect, as discussed in this study on temporomandibular disorder, a painful jaw disorder often called TMJ.
Brain Health: Neurodegenerative Disorders, Stroke, TBI, and Mental Health
Since NIR wavelengths can penetrate the skull, red light therapy treatments can be administered through the forehead to improve brain health.
A 2011 study, co-authored by world-renowned photobiomodulation expert Michael R. Hamblin, focused on NIR light therapy’s potential for treating diseases and brain disorders. His study states that because neurons are very rich in mitochondria, they are extremely responsive to near-infrared light therapy. This means the biological effects of NIR light can benefit brains compromised by ischemia (stroke), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or neurodegenerative disorders.
It is believed that the antioxidant properties of NIR light combine with other mechanisms such as increased neurogenesis (faster birth of new neurons) to protect neurons. This neuroprotective effect can have far-reaching benefits in healing the brain.
According to numerous studies, for instance, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease respond well to NIR light therapy treatment.
This 2014 paper discusses how Parkinson’s symptoms manifest after mass neuronal death in the midbrain. The authors state that near-infrared light therapy is a “repair-oriented” therapy capable of stabilizing dying neurons and reducing neurological deficits, thus slowing the progression of the disease.
Mitochondrial dysfunction is one of the root causes of premature cell death. Because of NIR light therapy’s ability to stimulate cellular energy production, along with its neuroprotective effects, it has the potential to develop into an important treatment for neurodegenerative disorders as well as multiple sclerosis and seasonal affective depressive disorder (SADD).
Muscle Health: Accelerated Recovery from Exercise and Injury
Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, you can precondition your muscles to prevent injury and prime the body for peak performance with a pre-workout or pre-competition NIR light therapy session.
Afterward, a post-workout or post-competition NIR light session can speed up the recovery process. Faster muscle recovery means you could train harder and achieve your athletic goals; and if you are injured, accelerating the healing process causes a faster return to sport.
A 2016 research review states that NIR light can stimulate, heal, and regenerate damaged muscle tissue. Studies have shown that red light therapy treatments both before and after exercise can increase athletic performance and recover faster from intense exercise.
The study authors suggest that because of its performance-enhancing qualities, red light therapy could potentially be banned by competitive athletic regulatory bodies.
A study from 2016 involved university athletes who sustained injuries such as sprains, strains, tendonitis, contusions, and ligament damage. Over a period of 15 months, a total of 395 injuries were treated with 830 nm NIR light. The treatment group was able to return to play in just under 10 days, compared with the 19-day average return to play without treatment.
Accelerated Wound Healing and Scar Reduction
While the body is amazing at healing itself, sometimes the healing process doesn’t go as planned, such as chronic diabetic foot wounds; or, the body’s self-healing results in painful scars that impede mobility.
According to a 2013 study by South Korean researchers, NIR light therapy accelerated healing in five wounds: a dog bite with infection, an ulcerated wound with secondary infection, two excoriation wounds (caused by chronic skin-picking), and one case of herpes simplex infection and edema of the lips.
After treatment with 830 nm NIR light, all patients experienced full healing and control of infection after one to eight weeks, and there was no recurrence of the herpes simplex outbreaks after a four-month follow-up. In this study, researchers Pok and Boncheol write that “Full wound healing and control of infection and discomfort were achieved in all patients.”
NIR light supports wound healing by boosting acute (short-term) inflammation, which is part of the body’s natural healing process. However, NIR light also prevents inflammation from becoming chronic and causing oxidative stress, which interferes with healing.
NIR light also activates stem cells in the bone marrow, according to a 2013 paper co-authored by Hamblin. Stem cells, the body’s “master cells,” are present in an unspecialized state until they are needed. When there is an injury, stem cells mobilize to the wound where they take on the specialized functions of damaged or dead cells. They stimulate the growth of skin cells with a genetic makeup of healthy skin, as opposed to cells with the genetic makeup of scar tissue.
Speaking of scars, near-infrared light therapy can help reduce their appearance.
NIR light therapy can help soften and reduce the appearance of scars by stimulating collagen and elastin production. This ensures that emerging cells in the deepest layers of the scar grow into normal skin cells. As the top layers of the scar slough off, the appearance of the scar will become less prominent over time.
If there is disruption in the first phase of the natural wound-healing process (termed hemostasis, resulting in damage or disruption to blood vessels), delayed wound healing and excess scarring is more likely to occur. This may indicate that early or prophylactic treatment is ideal to support wound healing.
According to the authors of a 2010 study, using NIR light immediately after injury or surgery could lead to less scarring.
A 2015 study found that 830 nm NIR light helps accelerate healing after plastic surgery. This occurs due to NIR light’s ability to modulate the inflammatory response (more acute inflammation and less chronic inflammation) and stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin.
Improved Skin Health
Red light therapy is effective at improving skin health.
The deeper penetration of near-infrared wavelengths can help treat underlying inflammation that could cause accelerated skin aging and chronic skin disorders.
Regular use can smooth out skin roughness, diminish the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sunspots, and firm and tone sagging, crepey skin.
The primary mechanisms for improved skin health are increased cellular energy, increased microcirculation, reduced inflammation, and increased intradermal collagen density. In addition, increased elastin production can help skin restore its youthful suppleness.
A 2007 study by Korean researchers concluded that both red (633 nm) and NIR (830 nm) wavelengths, either alone or together, dramatically reduced wrinkles and increased skin elasticity after twice-weekly treatments for four weeks.
Optimal results can often be achieved within one to four months of regular red light therapy. You can safely continue with the treatment indefinitely to prevent flare-ups of chronic conditions and to maintain youthful skin.
Some individuals with particularly sensitive skin may experience mild redness and tightness after treatment. This temporary condition is believed to be a result of increased blood flow and disappears quickly.
A number of studies have shown that red light therapy can help with weight loss.
One of these studies was conducted in2015 and involved a group of obese women aged 20 to 40. Treatment with 808 nm NIR light, along with aerobic and resistance training, resulted in reduced neck and waist circumference, and visceral fat.
In cases where excess weight is linked to hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), NIR light could help by safely balancing thyroid function. A 2020 study used 850 nm light to treat 350 patients with underactive thyroid glands.
The treatment group experienced significant increases in T3 levels, T3/T4 ratio, vitamin D, selenium, and iron levels, and decreases in thyroid peroxidase antibody (TPO Ab) levels. Most significantly, many were able to reduce hormone replacement therapy.
A 2013 comprehensive review shed some interesting light on the subject. It revealed that treatment with 635 nm red light therapy causes fat cells to temporarily leak and release lipids into the body. The fats are then converted into carbon dioxide, which the body expels.
A 2016 review suggests that red/NIR light therapy can be extremely advantageous in athletic competitions since one of its effects is to gain muscle mass. In regard to fat loss, increased muscle mass raises the resting metabolic rate and results in more calories burned while resting.
How to Use Red Light Therapy at Home
To get comparable results to the cited clinical trials and clinical studies, you will need the right device, the right wavelengths, consistent treatment, and patience.
The Right Device
Choosing the right red light therapy device can make all the difference when it comes to delivering the maximum amount of NIR light photons to the body. This is important for affecting as many cells in the treatment area as possible.
Not all light therapy devices are equal. You’ll want to eliminate handheld red light devices from consideration because they lack the power needed to deliver the maximum light energy output to your body.
A Combination of Red and NIR Light
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.
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 near-infrared wavelengths.
When red and NIR light are used together, you can enjoy a balancing and harmonizing effect on your body’s systems.
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 therapy.
Consistency and Patience
We recommend using an LED light therapy device for five to 20 minutes daily, or every other day, to start.
Red light therapy activates healing at the cellular level. It may offer some immediate relief, but it is not a treatment that’s focused on symptoms; rather, its focus is on what’s causing the symptoms. You can expect that the most profound results will occur within one to four months, depending on the condition you’re treating.
If you’re treating a chronic condition, you can safely continue with red light therapy indefinitely.
Red/NIR Light Boosts Well-being
Many new studies are being published on the efficacy of red and near-infrared light to treat a variety of health conditions, boosting overall wellness and the immune system. Keep on top of the research by visiting the PlatinumLED Learn page.
From skin rejuvenation to chronic pain relief to boosting brain health to optimizing peak athletic performance, NIR light can be a powerful addition to your self-care routine.
And if you’re ready to get started, explore the most powerful LED light therapy devices on the market, and the only ones that deliver five red and NIR wavelengths for the most comprehensive benefits: the PlatinumLED Therapy Lights BIOMAX series.