Loss of pigment can be emotionally difficult, especially when it comes in large blotches on the face and hands.
Today, there is no cure for vitiligo. However, several treatment options can help improve the appearance of discolored skin.
One of these options is red light therapy. In this article, we will explore how red light therapy can reduce the appearance of white patches on the skin.
What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo occurs when there is abnormal function or cell death in melanocytes, which are the cells that produce melanin. Melanin is what gives skin and hair its color.
Millions of people are affected by vitiligo, a skin condition characterized by a loss of pigment in the skin as well as the hair. People with any skin color can be affected, though vitiligo is sometimes more apparent in those with darker skin color.
Pigment loss typically appears on the face, neck, hands, and other areas of the body before age 30, and grows larger over time. Researchers don’t know the exact causes. The culprits are believed to be a combination of environmental factors and genetics that trigger an autoimmune response that kills melanocytes. These are the cells that produce melanin.
Current treatments may stop discolored skin from spreading and restore some color to the affected skin. However, current treatments don’t prevent the condition from recurring. In most cases, vitiligo spreads until the affected areas cover most of the body. Sometimes, skin color can be restored.
Does Red Light Therapy Treat Vitiligo?
Red light therapy is a relatively new treatment for a variety of chronic skin disorders. It involves shining red and/or near-infrared light onto bare skin in order to stimulate healing and normal cell function.
Unlike UV treatment, LED light therapy using blue, red, or near-infrared light doesn't increase the risk of skin cancer. It supports vitiligo treatment by:
- Increasing energy production within each cell to boost the function of cellular mitochondria
- Reducing chronic inflammation
- Increasing blood circulation
Let’s look at these potential benefits in greater detail.
Red Light Therapy Boosts Mitochondrial Function
LED light therapy stimulates the skin cells that produce melanin. Healthy skin cells (including melanocytes) produce the amount of pigment that is genetically coded in each person.
Sometimes, chronic inflammation or other factors can cause a condition called mitochondrial dysfunction where the mitochondria don’t produce enough energy.
Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to chronic autoimmune diseases and inflammatory skin conditions.
Red Light Therapy Reduces Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is generally seen as the main cause of poor health because of its effects, which include mitochondrial dysfunction, abnormal cell replication, and accelerated cell death.
Acute inflammation is a necessary part of the immune system, and red light therapy supports it. However, once the area has healed, red light therapy can prevent inflammation from becoming chronic.
Reducing inflammation could lead to an easing of autoimmune damage to healthy skin cells. Preventing abnormal function and early melanocyte death could lead to repigmentation of the affected area.
Best of all, red light therapy has this effect without causing any harm to the skin like UVB therapy. This has been linked to rapid skin aging. LED light therapy has no known side effects and is considered safe for long-term use. And, LED therapy can be conveniently administered at home using a medical grade LED light therapy device.
Red Light Therapy Promotes Lymph and Blood Circulation
The skin relies on healthy blood circulation to bring oxygen and nutrients to melanocytes and other skin cells. Skin health also relies on healthy circulation of lymph, which removes toxins and waste. Red LED light therapy supports skin health by promoting the growth of new capillaries.
Phototherapy also promotes the release of nitric oxide (NO). Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator that increases the diameter of blood vessels to improve blood flow.
Red Light Therapy Has a Deeper Reach Than UV Light Therapy
Melanocytes are present in the base layer of the epidermis. This is the outer layer of the skin. UVB light can’t absorb all the way into the skin. Narrow-band ultraviolet B light therapy may only treat melanocytes closer to the skin’s surface.
Red or near-infrared light can absorb much deeper into all skin layers for a more powerful stimulating effect.
RLT and Vitiligo Research Findings
The potential of LED therapy to treat vitiligo is highly promising given its treatment success with autoimmune skin disorders such as psoriasis, cutaneous rash, and atopic dermatitis.
One study used 633 nm red light to improve melanocytes’ mitochondrial function by increasing production of a cellular fuel called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This activated the regeneration of melanocytes, with marginal repigmentation in the skin and in hair follicles.
Since both skin and hair cells are constantly regenerating, it is possible that consistent LED light treatment sessions could boost the performance of melanocytes in all of their life stages.
And, when used consistently as part of a daily skincare routine, photobiomodulation could potentially prevent vitiligo patches from forming as the existing ones are repigmented.
"By harnessing the power of mitochondrial retrograde signaling and cellular regenerative pathways, red light therapy offers a holistic approach to stimulating melanocyte stem cell differentiation, melanoblast migration, and functional melanocyte development, leading to tissue regeneration while ensuring safety and minimizing the risk of skin cancer. Consistency in using high-quality LED light therapy panels, such as the BIOMAX Series, maximizes the potential benefits of this natural approach, providing relief from vitiligo and encouraging the regeneration of melanocytes."
Functional Medicine Doctor of Physical Therapy, Dr. Alayna Newton, PT, DPT, FAFS
The Benefits of Red Light Therapy on Other Skin Disorders
Let’s circle back to inflammatory disorders where LED light therapy has shown to be a successful treatment. To recap, inflammation can sometimes get out of control and cause the body to attack itself. This leads to a number of inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, vitiligo, psoriasis, and scleroderma.
Near infrared light in particular has shown some amazing results in treating inflammatory skin conditions. Retired Harvard researcher Dr. Michael Hamblin has stated that reducing chronic inflammation is part of the key to treating psoriasis. In one case, after two 20-minute phototherapy sessions over 4 or 5 weeks, 60-100% of psoriasis plaques cleared up.
Getting the Best Results with Red Light Therapy
Consistency is the main way to continually support melanocyte proliferation and health. A daily red light treatment can be as short as three to twenty minutes which is easy to fit into a busy schedule. You may see treatment success after several months of consistent phototherapy.
For the best results, use an LED light therapy panel rather than a handheld device or mask. LED light therapy panels have much greater surface area coverage. This will reduce the time needed to treat large areas of the body. Panels also deliver significantly more light energy to the skin, ensuring that more light photons are absorbed into the cells.
Holistic Vitiligo Treatments and RLT
There are several prescription drugs that are used to treat vitiligo. These include topical steroids. However, they aren’t part of a holistic approach that looks at the entire ecosystem of your body.
Steroids are intended to treat symptoms but they don’t address the underlying cause of depigmented patches. Excimer lasers and other prescribed vitiligo treatments are similar in that respect.
What you eat directly affects how your body functions. Ancient physician Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” The ‘Western diet’ tends to be high in protein, fat, sugar, sodium, and food additives. All of these affect how much inflammation there is in the body, especially in the intestinal mucosa. Gut inflammation is prominent in autoimmune disorders.
Therefore, improving gut health (and thus reducing inflammation) is one way to ease vitiligo symptoms and possibly even push the condition into remission.
Eating more organic whole foods that are rich in antioxidants, and significantly reducing consumption of processed foods are great ways to support your body’s immune system.
You may also see good results from topical treatments:
- A mixture of sweet basil and lemon
- A mixture of mustard oil and turmeric
- Ginkgo biloba paste
There is anecdotal evidence that these home remedies work. However, all of these ingredients are powerful anti-inflammatories. In some cases, they could be worth a try. Apply to the affected skin, cover with a cloth wrap, and leave on for several hours before rinsing.
Dietary choices aren’t always an easy fix, but they can help reduce your underlying inflammation, while also bolstering the immune system. Red light therapy takes a similar approach, supporting the body's normal functions at the cellular level.
One common treatment uses narrow-band ultraviolet B (UVB) therapy which stimulates melanocyte production. Narrow-band UVB therapy is administered by a doctor over multiple sessions. Other doctors use PUVA, or psoralen combined with narrow-band ultraviolet A light.
A 2017 review of 35 studies and 1,428 patients found that UVB therapy showed favorable but mild results on the face and neck, with less success on other parts of the body. The danger with long-term use of narrow band ultraviolet B therapy is an increased risk of skin damage including rapid skin aging and skin cancer.
Red Light Therapy Treatment with the BIOMAX Series
People often turn to red light therapy treatment for a specific reason: anti-aging, muscle recovery, pain relief, hair regrowth, or treating acne. And, in the process of treating these conditions, many discover other phototherapy benefits like weight loss, osteoarthritis knee pain relief, or relief from neuropathy.
The BIOMAX light therapy series gives you plenty of options when it comes to treating vitiligo. You can choose from a compact panel for targeted treatment of vitiligo on the face, neck, and hands. If your vitiligo is widespread, you could choose a larger panel that offers full-body vitiligo treatment.
Each panel features a proprietary combination of wavelengths: one wavelength of blue light, two wavelengths of red light, and three wavelengths of near-infrared light. This combination increases the effectiveness of light absorption into the skin.
All of the wavelengths used in BIOMAX panels help boost mitochondrial function and reduce inflammation. This combination ensures that every layer of the skin is treated.
Blue light reduces inflammation on the skin's surface. Although it's next to ultraviolet light on the visible light spectrum, specific wavelengths of blue light (480nm) have been shown safe for skin care.
Red wavelengths are known for their anti-aging properties including increased collagen production. Near-infrared wavelengths have similar properties, but deeper in the body.