If you’ve been using red light therapy to reduce signs of aging and tighten your skin tone, you may have noticed the array of skincare lotions that are marketed to consumers like yourself. These products supposedly prepare your skin before therapy sessions, or enhance the effects of the therapy afterward. In fact, these so-called lotions do hardly anything. You can just compare the result of red light therapy before and after usage by yourself and it will clearly reflect the change in your skin regardless of using the so-called red light lotions.
Although there is nothing wrong with using lotion if you choose to, it is not necessary. There are no scientific studies showing that applying lotion before or after red light therapy is beneficial or recommended. If the question is lotion or no lotion, the short answer is no—it’s simply not necessary.
What's In Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy, which is also known as low-level light therapy or LLLT, has soared in popularity over the past decade. Concurrently, the variety of skin care products designed to be used along with LLLT has also grown. Ads for these products often claim that they enhance and even accelerate the effects of red light therapy, but these are dubious claims.
Before diving into the key ingredients in some of the most popular lotions, it’s important to note that everyone’s skin is different, including sensitivity to certain ingredients. So you may not get the advertised results, and you may have adverse reactions.
Most lotions touted for use with red light therapy contain the same products you'd find in a standard lotion, and aren't necessary to get great results.
The ingredients in many lotions that are promoted as enhancing LLLT’s effects are the same as those contained in expensive body care products. You might find active ingredients such as:
- Kelp extract (Macrocystis pyrifera extract), which hydrates healthy skin and may prevent visible signs of aging;
- Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, protects the skin from sun damage;
- Caffeine, which is a vasoconstrictor often used to reduce the appearance of inflammation. It has been used with mixed results for cellulite and eye puffiness. Some people experience temporary redness of the eyes, and highly caffeine-sensitive individuals may experience caffeine toxicity when using large amounts of caffeinated cream;
- Collagen, a structural protein found in skin and other connective tissue. Using topical collagen as part of your anti-aging regimen is largely a waste of money. These creams may temporarily fill in fine lines, but they do not stimulate collagen synthesis in the body because collagen molecules are too big to penetrate the skin barrier;
- Hyaluronic acid, a component of collagen, can be absorbed into the skin; it refines skin structure and promotes skin elasticity, but can cause allergic reactions;
- Calendula and aloe, which soothe irritated skin;
- Green tea extract, which has antioxidant properties and helps calm irritated skin;
- Retinoids, which are the chemical cousins of vitamin A, are topical creams that speed turnover of superficial skin cells. Retinoids increase collagen synthesis, stimulate formation of new blood vessels, fade age spots, and soften rough skin—the exact same benefits you can get from red light therapy. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to avoid retinoids since they can cause irritation or allergic reactions. Also expect that the best results will only become apparent after six months of consistent treatment.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that promotes collagen production, thickens the skin, and reduces the inflammatory response after sun exposure to minimize hyperpigmentation. However, topical vitamin C products can have unwanted interactions with other substances, including retinoids, and this can potentially cause severe irritation. Also, the concentrations in products vary widely so you need to be careful about which ones to choose depending on your skin sensitivity.
So… do you actually need any of these specialty lotions to boost the effects of red light therapy? Not really.
In fact, red light delivers an astounding array of health benefits on its own, without any side effects.
How Does Red Light Improve Your Skin?
Light is discussed in terms of wavelengths, which are measured in nanometers (nm). Red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths are part of the natural spectrum of sunlight. Of all the wavelengths present in sunlight, red and NIR light appear to have the broadest range of benefits with no risks or side effects. Ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths, for example, are still used as a therapy for skin conditions but must be applied with exceptional care since prolonged exposure to UV wavelengths causes skin damage. The same is not true of red/NIR wavelengths.
Red light therapy involves shining red and near-infrared wavelengths onto bare skin via powerful light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The therapy is pleasant, pain-free, noninvasive, and completely natural.
Red wavelengths (630nm to 660nm) have skin rejuvenating benefits. Near-infrared wavelengths (810nm to 850nm) absorb deeper into the body and even penetrate bone, which makes NIR light an ideal therapy for joint and muscle pain.
Here's How Red Light Works
When light photons interact with the mitochondria (the energy centers of cells), cells begin to produce more fuel for energy. Improved cellular functioning helps you achieve younger looking skin.
Imagine how good you feel when you're energized. You feel like you can take on the world, easily face any and all challenges, get your work done, and still have plenty of energy for your family and yourself. It's the same on a micro level inside your body; when your cells are energized, they can perform their functions at the highest level. This includes specialized cell functions, and also repair and regeneration.
In fact, hundreds of studies have confirmed that LLLT helps reverse signs of aging. It stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, and promotes the formation of capillaries that increase circulation. It also reduces inflammation which is the underlying cause or major contributing factor to many chronic diseases and skin disorders. After a few weeks or months of consistent treatment with red light, you'll notice a significant reduction in fine lines and wrinkles, and noticeably firmer and more elastic skin.
Many people who use LLLT to turn back the clock and enjoy a youthful appearance soon find that they are experiencing many other benefits like weight loss, better sleep, and faster recovery from exercise.
Skin Health and Beauty: The Long Game
It’s best to consider LLLT as a long-term approach to younger-looking skin because it restores normal mitochondrial functioning.
Red light therapy helps your skin look young without any lotions and so called other complementary products.
Mitochondrial dysfunction refers to low-energy cells that can't perform at their peak and become easily damaged or die prematurely. This is at the root of many signs of aging. Once cellular functioning is restored, you will start to see and feel changes in your skin, but it still takes time for a youthful appearance to be restored. Skin cells regeneration takes about a month, and not all cells regenerate at the same time. It may take a few weeks to see results, and a few months to achieve a significant reduction of fine lines, wrinkles, and rejuvenated skin.
Using lotions can support this process of facial rejuvenation, but will not accelerate it.
Remember: With LLLT you’re treating the underlying problem that causes aging skin, rather than just temporarily filling in existing fine lines and wrinkles and plumping and firming papery skin. LLLT is a cosmetic treatment, but at a cellular level, which is far more effective in the long term than any surface treatments.
Best Practices to Care for Your Skin
There’s always the chance of allergic reactions to active and inactive ingredients in topical products. While you’re applying LLLT, you may wish to give your skin a breather and avoid using products except for extremely mild and non-comedogenic oils or lotions that help maintain moisture.
Here’s the best way to prepare your skin for a red light therapy session.
Before you begin:
- Thoroughly cleanse your skin with a gentle, non-drying cleanser.
- Remove any mineral-based sunscreen, as well as makeup containing zinc or other mineral-based sunscreens. In general, sunscreen won't block red/NIR wavelengths. However, zinc oxide reflects light, which means there's a chance that fewer therapeutic light photons will be available to absorb into the skin.
- Alternatively, administer the therapy first thing in the morning, before applying any skincare products.
During a session:
- To test for sensitivity, start with a short 10-minute session. If you don’t experience any discomfort, you can extend your session to around 20 minutes.
- Repeat three to five times per week for one to four months, or as long as desired. We recommend making it a part of your normal daily routine!
After a session, there’s really no need to do anything! If you feel uncomfortable tightness or redness (a temporary reaction some people experience), you could try moisturizing with a soothing aloe-based skin tonic, but you’re the feeling is likely to subside quickly even without any aid.
Choose the Right Device
In terms of effectiveness, choosing the right device can make all the difference. You may have seen wands, masks, and other LED devices on the market and frankly, the choices are overwhelming.
Unfortunately, many red light therapy devices won’t deliver the results you expect for two reasons:
- They are underpowered, as measured in irradiance in W/m².
- They don’t harness the benefits of both red (630nm to 660nm) and near-infrared (810nm to 850nm) wavelengths.
While the 630nm to 660nm wavelengths are key for treating skin conditions, you will really benefit the most from a combination of red/NIR to achieve a broader range of absorption: at the outer layers of skin as well as deeper, where inflammation may be causing premature aging. Receptors in our skin cells respond in the same way to an effective led light therapy and vitamin C, replenishing dermal and epidermal cells, essentially boosting action at a cellular level and creating positive changes in the skin.
The Choice Is Yours
The takeaway is that while lotions may support the effects of red light therapy, they won’t accelerate it despite claims to the contrary. And, since LLLT achieves the very same things that all of these lotions do (with no side effects), you can use lotion, but you may want to let your skin go au naturel while you’re using LLLT.