Red Light Therapy For Hair Loss: An Unexpected, Yet Promising Approach
If you’re one of the 35+ million men or 21+ million women in the United States who are losing their hair, you know how hard it can be to slow thinning or balding, let alone regain natural growth. Cremes, pills, and other treatments are often touted as solutions, but even if they do work (and that’s a big “if”), they come with side effects.
Meanwhile, hair loss takes a tremendous mental toll. Among the most common effects are diminished self-esteem and confidence, as you notice others wearing hairstyles you couldn’t possibly pull off. And while some people rock the bald look, it’s not for every guy suffering from male pattern baldness… and it’s rarely an option for women.
If this sounds like you, light therapy is worth a look. Light therapy for hair loss shows promise in studies, is completely natural, and can help slow hair loss without disruptive side effects. If you’re curious how this is possible, what the most relevant studies say, and – more importantly – if it will work, this article is for you. From cellular growth to the proper how-to steps, read on to uncover how light therapy can help with your hair worries.
Why Do We Lose Hair?
Before talking about how to restore hair growth, it’s important to address why it’s lost in the first place. We’ll take a look at that below, but first note that hair loss can point to serious underlying conditions, so any abnormal thinning or balding should be discussed with a doctor.
According to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, almost half of men show noticeable hair loss by the time they reach middle age; but surprisingly, the numbers are even higher among women: by age 60, nearly 80 percent of women show noticeable hair loss.
These statistics beg the question: why do we lose hair? The short answer is that it’s normal and helps make room for new growth. But a typical human will have up to 100,000 hairs on their head, and it’s only normal to lose 50-100 every day. After that, the causes get more complicated.
A few of the most common causes include:
The most common cause of hair loss is hereditary hair loss, or androgenetic alopecia. Male pattern baldness is characterized by M-shaped hair loss that begins at the temples and a bald spot in the back. It can begin as early as puberty, or later in life. Female pattern baldness generally manifests as thinning on the top and crown of the head, widening the center part but not affecting the front hairline.
Both acute and chronic stress contribute to hair loss in men and women. In acute stress, hair loss is often tied to a specific cause such as a sudden loss of a loved one, an accident, illness or surgery; this hair loss may be temporary. Chronic stress including job stress, relationship stress, and financial stress also appears to accelerate hair loss.
Specifically, inadequate protein intake affects hair follicles and contributes to hair loss. While over 40 million Americans are malnourished due to poverty, easy accessibility of junk food means that while many Americans get enough calories in their diets, they are not necessarily getting the nutrition they need.
And there are some less-common causes, including:
- Pregnancy, birth control pills, menopause and other hormonal fluctuations that can cause hair loss in women;
- Disorders such as thyroid disease or lupus;
- Scalp infections, including ringworm;
- Auto-immune diseases such as alopecia areata or lichen planus;
- Chemotherapy, which targets fast-growing cells including cancer cells and hair cells; and,
- Over-styling, including hot irons, and harsh hair coloring products, which damages hair and may interfere with normal growth.
And if you’re asking yourself “What about age?” the answer is a bit more complex than you might think. The truth is, not all elderly people lose their hair; therefore genetics, diet, environmental toxins and underlying health issues may be the real culprits. That’s why you might see some people with thinning hair as early as their twenties, while others have more than they can handle, even well into old age.
What Are the Treatment Options for Hair Loss?
Regardless of how hair is lost, the most important issue is how to get it back. Common methods include medication, hair transplants, and wigs/hairpieces. Here’s a quick overview of each:
Over-The-Counter and Prescription Drugs
Two of the most common drugs used for hair loss–especially male-pattern baldness–are Minoxidil, and Finasteride. Minoxidil is a topical, over-the-counter treatment specifically for hair loss. Finasteride is a prescription drug used to treat enlarged prostate, but has also shown effectiveness in treating hair loss in both men and women. However, neither of these drugs are without side effects.
- Minoxidil can cause severe scalp irritation, chest pain, elevated heart rate, weight gain, unwanted facial hair growth, edema (swelling) in the hands and feet, lightheadedness, dizziness, headaches, and flushing.
- Finasteride can cause skin rashes, impotence and loss of libido, inability to orgasm, abnormal ejaculation, edema (swelling) in the hands and feet, breast tenderness, lightheadedness, dizziness, headaches, and a chronically runny nose.
The side effects of hair restoration drugs can range from mild to severe, and ultimately beg the question: is it worth it?
Hair transplants are another common treatment for thinning and receding hair. The transplants are taken from an area with more hair–usually as the back of the head–and transplanted to the thinning area (hair can also be taken from other parts of the body). These procedures are generally more successful than over-the-counter hair restoration products.
However, it’s a fairly temporary fix, as transplanted hair will thin over time just like the original. The operations are often painful as well, and very expensive. And yes, there are side effects: infections, bleeding and drainage, scalp itching and swelling, inflammation of the hair follicles, nerve damage to the scalp, and poorly matched transplants (transplanted hair doesn’t match the surrounding hair) are all possible.
Wigs or Hairpieces
Wigs (all-over coverage) and hairpieces (covering only the balding or thinning area) work well, and give you the option of changing your hairstyle as often as you like. However, they are relatively fragile and must be removed periodically for cleaning. It’s recommended that hairpieces be removed for maintenance or replaced every two weeks to avoid the adhesive seeping into the hair and creating an ugly mess.
This often means purchasing several hairpieces; and if the hairpiece only covers the bald spot (unlike a wig, which is all-over coverage) the hairpiece will need to also be replaced to match greying hair.
Red Light Therapy for Hair Loss
Given the side effects, cost, limited success and ongoing hassles of these common hair restoration treatments, it makes sense to look at an alternative that is painless, non-invasive, has no side effects, and can actually enhance your health in a variety of different ways at the same time.
Red light therapy shows promise as that alternative therapy.
Red light therapy can help improve a variety of other conditions, including joint pain from arthritis, sun damage, and nerve damage, to name a few. In fact, it can even treat one of the root causes of hair loss: thyroid problems.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a type of phototherapy that uses specific wavelengths of light to reduce inflammation, accelerate healing, and promote healthy skin tone. Red light is part of the visible light spectrum (not to be confused with infrared light or ultraviolet light, which are invisible to the human eye), and is bioactive in humans. This simply means that our bodies respond to it beneficially in much the same way that plants respond to sunlight: by creating more energy at the cellular level.
Red light (also called low-level light therapy or LLLT) for hair loss was discovered somewhat by accident in the 1960s, when mice were given chemotherapy. The chemotherapy induced hair loss; but when the mice were irradiated with red light, the fur grew back thicker than before.
Modern red light therapy works in a similar manner, using high-power LEDs to saturate your body with wavelengths of therapeutic light. It typically uses visible light, in a variety of colors, but the red and infrared ranges are best for a wide variety of conditions, including hair loss. While sunlight provides a complete spectrum of wavelengths (including red light) it also contains harmful UVA and UVB wavelengths. Using the red light frequency alone has no side effects such as burning or skin damage.
How Red Light Therapy Restores Hair
Red light has been found to be especially effective at treating hair loss; specifically, light in the 620nm (nanometer) to 660nm wavelengths work best. It works by increasing blood flow in the scalp; this stimulates the metabolism in hair follicles, resulting in the production of more hair.
During hair loss, you lose hair but not the follicles–the tube-like formations that anchor hair to the skin. At the base of each follicle is the hair bulb (the whole thing looks somewhat like a tall vase). At the bulbous part of the vase are the papilla and the matrix; this is where hair begins to grow. What we see as “hair” is mostly a protein called keratin that makes up the hair shaft. When the cells of the hair follicles and the papilla and matrix are not functioning properly, they cannot support hair growth causing it to slow or cease altogether.
Red light penetrates the skin to the base of the hair follicles, stimulating the cells, papilla and matrix to produce more energy, which results in these cells replicating more successfully. This replication leads to new hair growth from these previously-dormant follicles.
Red light also:
- Stimulates the production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), a coenzyme that is responsible for fueling cellular structures. Increases in ATP cause individual cells within the hair follicle to increase their activity, including the rate at which they replicate. Restoring the energy of the cellular structures of the hair follicles means the papilla creates more keratin, which results in hair growth.
- Increases collagen production. Hair is primarily made up of a protein called keratin. While collagen — another type of protein — isn’t present in hair, it acts as an antioxidant to fight damage caused by free radicals (compounds that develop in the body during stress, environmental pollutants, poor nutrition, etc.). Free radicals damage hair follicles, which contributes to their inability to grow hair. Increased collagen means less oxidative damage, which can lead to increased hair growth.
- Increases the creation of new capillaries, which improves blood flow to the scalp and brings oxygen and nutrients to hair follicles and removes waste that can lead to hair follicle damage. One study linked improved blood flow to growth of thicker, healthier hair. Barbers have long encouraged men to massage their scalps as a way to increase blood flow; but increasing blood flow using red light is generally more effective.
Are There Any Side Effects?
In terms of side effects, there aren’t any that are particularly serious. At worst, overuse of red light therapy can lead to temporary redness, but this is not the same as a “sunburn” that comes from overexposure to ultraviolet light. It might bring a slight bit of discomfort or tightness in the skin, but it fades quickly, making way for all the benefits the treatment provides.
Some hair restoration medication may cause unwanted hair growth, but that’s not the case with red light therapy. Because it stimulates your body’s natural growth processes, hair only grows back where it normally would if your body was operating in top condition.
Cases Where Red Light Does NOT Work
It’s important to note that while red light therapy is effective for many types of hair loss (especially alopecia or temporary hair loss due to hormonal imbalances or illness), it’s not effective 100% of the time. For example, hair loss due to chemotherapy will continue until the treatment is stopped. The same applies to hair loss due to side effects of other medications. Also, any hair follicles that have been destroyed due to injury, surgery, burns, or other permanent injuries will not grow back.
And remember, please see your doctor if you experience sudden or dramatic hair loss, as this can signal a serious underlying condition.
Red and Near-Infrared Light: a Potent Combination
As mentioned earlier, red and near-infrared (NIR) light are the best choice for most LED light therapy applications. However, they work even better when used together since NIR amplifies the effects of red light. Hair growth is stimulated at the scalp level thanks to red light, and NIR adds another dimension to this by helping treat any underlying conditions that could be causing hair loss.
Red light penetrates to the lower layers of skin, which makes it a great tool for treating a variety of skin conditions as well as hair restoration. Near-infrared light is a longer-wavelength light than its red counterpart. At 810-850nm, it is used to facilitate healing deeper in the body, and treat inflammation, improve fat metabolism, heal injuries, accelerate muscle recovery, and even treat cancer.
We mentioned earlier that one of the possible causes of hair loss is thyroid dysfunction. NIR penetrates deep into the body to balance thyroid function. Most people with thyroid imbalances suffer from hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone activity that results in low energy throughout the body. The thyroid gland requires energy to perform its functions. By irradiating the thyroid with NIR, more energy becomes available to the cells within the thyroid, thus increasing natural thyroid hormone production. Balanced thyroid functions have a positive ripple effect on the body including reversal of common symptoms of hypothyroid, including weight gain, hair loss, low energy, and low libido.
The Science Behind the Modality
Numerous studies support red light therapy as a safe, painless, and effective treatment for hair loss. Here are just a few:
- A 2014 study on 47 women with androgenetic alopecia found a 37 percent increase in hair growth with no side effects.
- A 2017 study on women found a 51 percent increase in hair count in the group receiving red light therapy.
- A 2017 meta-analysis analyzed 11 studies that included 680 participants. Results reported significant improvements in hair count, hair strength as well as hair density (thicker hair).
- A 2018 meta-analysis reviewed 22 studies that compared red light therapy to other common treatments for hair loss. Researchers concluded that red light therapy had significantly greater effect at treating hair loss with no negative side effects.
- A 2018 study found that red light therapy is an effective and safe treatment for male pattern baldness.
- A 2019 study examined men with male pattern baldness and found that red light enhanced dermal papilla cell function.
Red light therapy is cutting edge, and backed by the latest research from reliable sources. Take a look at the resources above, and contact us if you have any questions.
How Long Does It Actually Take to Regrow Hair?
The best approach is to commit to 1-3 daily sessions of 10-20 minutes each, 3-5 times per week, for a minimum of 3-4 months using a quality LED device with high power output. After this initial treatment period, you can continue with a maintenance program of one or two daily sessions 1-4 times per week indefinitely.
Several months of daily exposure to red light will be necessary before you see significant results. This is due to the natural growth process that begins at the cellular level. Even though hair cells are fast-growing, keep in mind that hair loss typically doesn’t occur overnight, and it will take time for hair to grow to its original natural fullness.
How Far Away Should the Light Be From my Head?
The ideal distance for a red light for practically any therapy is eight to 14 inches away for maximum results. At this distance, the full power of the light will be absorbed by your skin and hair follicles.
It’s possible to use red light from a bit farther away, especially if only using it for general health and wellness, but for specialized applications like hair loss, it’s essential to use the full power of your device. Especially with hair protecting your scalp, it’s best to keep the light close for the entire duration.
To make this happen, we’d suggest laying down on a flat surface with the light positioned above your head. You can also use a handheld device and hold it in place, but that could get tiring very quickly.
Try to get as much hair out of the way as you can conveniently, but don’t worry if a few strands get between you and the light waves. If you're using a powerful enough device, your scalp should still get enough exposure.
And remember, everyone’s hair grows at a different rate; so don’t compare your results to other people. Be consistent and patient, and you’ll love the results!
Does This Mean You Can Treat Hair Loss at Home?
You can treat hair loss as well as a host of skin conditions using red light therapy in the comfort and privacy of your own home. The key is to use a quality, high-output LED device. Inexpensive helmets, face masks or wands will not deliver the light output necessary to have a truly therapeutic effect.
Red light and red light/NIR combo lights from PlatinumLED are the highest quality panels available today. When you look at the spec sheet, it becomes clear that our technology produces the highest power output and most advanced spectrum of any product on the market, which in turn gives you the best results from at-home light therapy.
Restoring a Healthy Head of Hair, the Red Light Way
As many studies have confirmed, red light therapy stimulates hair growth in both men and women and can, over time, restore a healthy head of hair. Within several weeks you will experience new growth, and new hair will be thicker and more resilient. If you are experiencing hair loss and you’ve been frustrated with the treatments available, try red light, and get your confidence back along with your hair!