Red Light Therapy Research: Clearing Up the Myths and Uncertainty
The growing popularity of red light therapy, bolstered by anecdotal evidence, is spurring more and more people to give it a try … but how effective is it? Is red light just hype? Or is it supported by science?
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of how red light therapy science works and is backed up by research findings based on clinical studies on some of the most common uses for red light therapy. Hopefully, this will end your uncertainty and provide you with the type of information you need to make an educated decision.
Why Is Red Light Therapy So Popular?
Its popularity is due to four primary factors …
1. A growing interest in natural health solutions. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, TV commercials for pharmaceutical drugs spend most of their air time reciting a litany of possible side effects. It’s not surprising that a growing number of people are turning to natural, non-pharmaceutical treatments. In addition to wanting results that are painless and free from side effects, they are also interested in addressing and treating the root cause of diseases and chronic conditions, rather than just managing their symptoms with drugs.
Red light therapy may be a viable treatment for dozens of conditions that are typically treated with heavy doses of medications. Red light takes an inside-out approach to wellness, meaning that it works at the cellular level, rather than simply providing temporary symptomatic relief.
2. Vast improvements and cost reduction of LED technology. One of the key elements of success when using red light therapy is having the right kind of device: one powerful enough to deliver light that can penetrate deep into body tissues. Thanks to rapid advances in light-emitting diode (LED) technology, red and near-infrared light devices are now available with enough power to offer high levels of irradiance with therapeutic effects. These advances have also made the technology safe, as well as more affordable. Today, you can safely enjoy the benefits of exposing your body to concentrated wavelengths of therapeutic light in the comfort of your own home.
3. Thousands of peer-reviewed red light therapy scientific studies show positive findings for specific ailments as well as general wellness, with little or no side effects and no downtime. The ever-increasing interest in red light therapy has prompted many healthcare professionals to adopt it as part of their treatment protocols. Although it should not be considered a cure, and is still experimental for many conditions, a growing body of evidence suggests that it may be living up to the hype—and exceeding expectations.
4. A high rate of success in symptomatic relief and overall improvement, particularly in certain areas such as the skin, scalp, and muscles. While more studies are needed, a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that low-level laser light therapy can ease symptoms and promote healing of many conditions.
Does Red Light Therapy Really Work?
The red and near-infrared (NIR) light spectrum of visible light has a bioactive effect on the human body, which means our bodies respond to specific wavelengths of light with increased energy production in cells.
Many researchers believe this can lead to cellular level healing of the skin, muscle, bone, and connective tissue without the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UVA/UVB) light. But does red light therapy really work?
Over the past two decades, thousands of published studies have focused on red light therapy.
Although not a cure, it is often touted as a miracle treatment for numerous health conditions—and its best-known therapeutic benefits are backed by science. Existing red light therapy results are further adding to the faith on light therapy.
What Is Red Light Therapy Good For?This is by no means an exhaustive list of studies on red light therapy. It covers the most common list of ailments that can be treated with red and/or NIR light. You can also follow our blog to discover more uses for these amazing therapies. In general, red light is considered ideal for skin conditions, whereas NIR light has benefits that extend deeper into the body where it is absorbed by muscle, connective tissue, and bones. The most promising area of study is the combination of red and NIR light to deliver positive effects on the body’s metabolic processes, endocrine system, immune system, and nervous system.
Improved skin health is the most well-known benefit of red light. Increasing intradermal collagen production, meaning within or between layers of skin, is vital for improving skin tone and reducing signs of aging. Red light therapy can heal sun damage and help reduce wrinkles and fine lines on the skin, as well as plump and firm sagging/papery skin.
Anti-aging therapies like dermabrasion and chemical peels are popular, but they are relatively harsh. They work by causing controlled damage to the outer layers of the skin in order to stimulate collagen production, tissue repair, and rejuvenation. In contrast, red light therapy causes no damage to the skin. Instead, it takes an inside-out approach by stimulating natural, healthy skin regeneration at the cellular level primarily by increasing cellular energy and collagen production.
Here are several studies that specifically focus on red light therapy for skin-related issues:
- Skin health: Low level laser (light) therapy in skin, and a controlled trial to determine red light efficacy on skin health
- Fibroblasts (precursors to collagen): Fibroblast study results
- Wrinkles and fine lines: A clinical study on LED phototherapy for skin rejuvenation.
- Sun damage: LED treatment of photoaging skin.
- Facial rejuvenation: Photorejuvenation of the face
Reduced inflammation helps ease symptoms of chronic conditions like arthritis, autoimmune diseases (including chronic skin disorders), spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, and muscle soreness.
- Reduced inflammation: Anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation
As much effort as people put into losing weight and trying to keep it off, diet and exercise are not always effective. This can be due to factors such as chronic stress or chronic inflammation. Red light has a stimulating effect on the metabolism and may actually cause fat cells to shrink, for fast and effective fat loss, and associated weight loss.
- Fat cell reduction: Low-Level Laser Therapy for Fat Layer Reduction
- Reduced insulin sensitivity: Reduce body fat, insulin resistance and "metabolic inflexibility"
- Stimulated fat cell death: Low-Level Laser Therapy for Fat Layer Reduction
Muscle Growth, Performance, and Recovery
Many elite athletes regularly use red light therapy before and after training or competition to maintain peak functioning and shorten recovery time from training. Red light stimulates the mitochondria (the muscle cells’ energy centers) to produce more energy, which leads to faster cellular regeneration and growth. And since red light also reduces inflammation, muscles recover faster from high-intensity training.
This process also accelerates muscle recovery from injury by reducing scar tissue in muscles known as fibrosis. Left untreated, fibrosis can cause permanent loss of function or mobility. Red light supports the formation of new, healthy muscle tissue by activating stem cells in the muscles called myosatellite cells.
These cells activate in response to any kind of muscle damage, including microscopic tears that occur during training, as well as more significant tears or compression caused by injury. Instead of the haphazard jumble of cells that form scars, red light-energized myosatellite cells will form healthy new muscle tissue. Both red and NIR light are beneficial for muscle repair and growth.
- Muscle performance: Photobiomodulation in muscle tissue
- Accelerated recovery: LLLT on muscle tissue
- Stem cell activation: LLLT in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring
- Faster return-to-play after injury: Phototherapy significantly reduced return-to-play in injured university athletes
Reducing pain is a top priority for anyone dealing with injury or chronic conditions. NIR light is particularly effective at penetrating deeply into muscle and connective tissue to stimulate growth of healthy tissue (through increasing cellular energy), increase blood flow, and reduce inflammation.
In addition, the soothing warmth of red light treatments can offer immediate feelings of wellbeing, which contributes to a decreased perception of pain. Red light may offer relief without resorting to potentially harmful anti-inflammatory medicines.
- Increased blood flow (to bring nutrients and healing substances to the affected area): Red LED photobiomodulation reduces pain hypersensitivity
- Neuropathic (nerve) pain: Low-level laser therapy on neuropathic pain relief
- Reduced inflammation: Anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation
- Rheumatoid arthritis: LLLT in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Chronic joint pain:LLLT for pain from chronic joint disorders.
Healing wounds quickly has psychological as well as physical benefits. Red light activates stem cells and reduces inflammation to accelerate wound healing and supports the formation of collagen density and healthy tissue.
- Red light for skin wounds: LLLT on Angiogenesis in Wound Healing
- NIR for skin wounds: LLLT Improves Skin Wound Healing in Rats
- Stimulating healing in slow- or non-healing wounds:LLLT for Delayed Wound Healing
- Reduction of infection in wounds: LED therapy enhances wound healing
- Faster healing from cosmetic surgery and increased patient satisfaction: LED therapy therapy can improve the results following aesthetic procedures
- Post-operative wound healing: LLLT on the treatment of skin ulcers and delayed postoperative wound healing
Scars, especially in the facial area, can cause severe psychological distress. When scars are located at the joints, they can impair mobility and cause pain because scar tissue is not as elastic as normal skin tissue.
RLT is used to soften and reduce the appearance of burn scars, stretch marks, keloid scars, and hypertrophic scars, though the best way to minimize the appearance of scars is to prevent them. So while red light therapy does reduce the appearance of existing scar tissue, it also encourages cells to collect around a wound to form healthy, normal cells. So get a jump on the tissue before it forms, if at all possible.
- Scar prevention: Red LED therapy for skin scarring prevention
- Burn scars: Low Level Laser Therapy—a conservative approach to the burn scar?
- Skin wounds:LLLT Improves Skin Wound Healing in Rats
- Hypertrophic and keloid scars: LLLT for the treatment of hypertrophic scars and keloids
NIR has the ability to penetrate bone, where it stimulates bone repair.
- Bone repair: LLLT improves bone repair in osteoporotic rats
- Bone structure and cell activity: Red light on bone structure and cell activity
Red light therapy can enhance immune system function by reducing inflammation; supporting the thyroid, lymphatic system, and liver; and increasing cellular energy, which gives cells enough resources to successfully fight off pathogens.
- Slowed cell death: Biphasic Dose Response in Low Level Light Therapy
- Liver regeneration: Enhanced Liver Regeneration by Low-Level Laser Therapy
- Decreased inflammation:The anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation
- Thyroid health: LLLT in chronic autoimmune thyroiditis
Hair loss afflicts more than 35 million men and 21 million women in the United States alone. Hair restoration medications often come with serious side effects, but red and NIR light stimulates dormant hair follicles into entering the anagen (growth) phase, increases blood flow, and increases collagen production to restore normal hair growth.
- RLT for hair loss: Low level laser (light) therapy on hair loss
Comparison of red and NIR light for hair loss:LLLT for treatment of hair loss
Chronic Skin Conditions
Chronic skin conditions can cause severe psychological distress, as well as physical discomfort and pain.
Many chronic skin conditions are considered autoimmune disorders, meaning those in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body.
Red light therapy may help get to the root of the disorder. It has proven to be effective at treating psoriasis (and its close cousin, eczema), rosacea, and acne by minimizing skin roughness, pain, and itching.
Emerging red light therapy research is also showing promise in led light therapy to treat non-melanoma skin cancers.
- Acne: Photodynamic therapy for the treatment of acne vulgaris
- Rosacea: Response of psoriasis to red laser light
- Non-melanoma skin cancers: A Review of Laser and Photodynamic Therapy for the Treatment of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer
- Psoriasis:Blue light vs. red light in the treatment of psoriasis
The prevalence of sleep disorders has soared in recent years due to widespread exposure to blue light emitted from electronic devices such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Blue light is a natural part of visible light emitted by the sun and is energizing, which is why sunlight is beneficial during the day. At night, however, blue light interferes with the body’s circadian rhythms, meaning its natural internal processes that regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Red light therapy counteracts this effect and promotes healthful sleep.
- Sleep quality and subsequent increase in endurance: Red Light, sleep quality, and endurance
- Sleep inertia: Effects of red light on sleep inertia
Hormonal imbalances are at the core of many chronic disorders. Red light has shown to have therapeutic effects on the thyroid, which is instrumental in regulating the body's metabolism.
Hormonal Balancing and Thyroid Health
- Thyroid health: Low-level laser therapy in chronic autoimmune thyroiditis
- Reduced autoimmune activity in thyroid: Low-Level Laser Therapy and the thyroid
- Hypothyroidism:LLLT in chronic autoimmune thyroiditis
Traumatic Brain Injury, Stroke, and Brain Disorders
One of the most exciting discoveries about NIR is that, because it can penetrate bone, including the skull, it stimulates accelerated healing of neurons (brain cells) after traumatic brain injuries. According to the first study listed below, “NIR appears to initiate a cascade of subcellular events which can yield immediate, delayed, and persistent beneficial changes in the injured neuron or other cell.”
- Traumatic brain injury: Can infrared phototherapy effectively reach the human brain?
- Brain disorders: Photobiomodulation for brain disorders
- Stroke: Infrared laser therapy for ischemic stroke
- Depression and Anxiety: Psychological benefits of near-infrared light to the forehead
- Increased melatonin production: Melatonin as a principal component of red light therapy
Stem Cell Activation
Stem cells are known as the body’s master cells because they have the miraculous capability to change into different types of cells as needed. They are found throughout the body in a non-active, or dormant state, ready to specialize in case of injury or other cell death. Stem cells are essential for tissue repair, wound healing, and a healthy immune system.
- Stem cell activation:Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin
This list covers the most popular uses that came about through red light therapy studies. As more research and case studies emerge, we will post the results on our blog.
How Long Should You Use Red Light Therapy?
Because red light therapy works at the cellular level, the best results may take several weeks or months. Skin cells, for example, renew approximately every 27 days, and not all at once. You may experience some immediate relief, but consistent use over time will give you the very best results.
Every individual and every condition will react differently to red light therapy. How fast you see results can depend on the severity of your condition, your age, your overall health, your immune system health, and ongoing lifestyle choices, such as whether you smoke, use drugs, or drink alcohol excessively.
Many studies point to satisfactory results after 8 to 12 weeks of consistent use. For many conditions, including chronic skin disorders, a maintenance program can prevent symptoms from reappearing.
It is recommended that you start slowly the first few sessions in order to determine sensitivity. While red light will not burn your skin like UV rays, in some individuals it causes temporary redness and tightness. If you experience this, it would be a good idea to cut back on the duration and/or move farther back from the device.
One 20-minute session per body part, three to five times per week, is recommended for the first one to four weeks or until symptoms abate, irradiating no more than two to three body parts per day if you are using a small LED panel.
If necessary, you may need one to two weekly sessions as ongoing maintenance to avoid recurring symptoms of any chronic condition.
For peak athletic performance, you can do a red light session before and after exercise.
Please seek medical advice before using light therapy to treat any chronic or serious conditions.
Which Is Best: Red Light or Near-Infrared Light?
The answer is … it depends.
Each wavelength has different penetration depths and therefore different benefits. We recommend using both red and NIR light for maximum effect. Using red and NIR light in combination allows you to experience the unique benefits of each wavelength. Based on clinical trials, these wavelengths have been shown to have the greatest effects.
Learn more about the PlatinumLED BIO Series devices that allow you to choose the most beneficial wavelengths for you (red, NIR, or a combination); or the leading-edge BIOMAX Series devices that deliver the optimal wavelengths in a proprietary combination designed for maximum therapeutic effect.
An Alternative Therapy with Great Promise
Red light therapy research has shown significant benefits of red light as a natural, safe, and effective therapy for a variety of health conditions. Based on the research, you may find that adding a high-quality, high-output LED device to your skin care and general self-care routine can have positive and wide-reaching applications.