According to a 2021 report by SkinStore, Americans spend an average of $322.88 per capita on skincare products every year. SkinStore beauty editor Schané Flowers writes: “With consumers now buying skincare from as early as their teenage years, Americans are forecast to buy skincare for 47 years – totaling an incredible $15k on skincare in their lifetime.”
Not only are people willing to invest in the health of their skin and their appearance, but they are increasingly interested in natural ways to prevent aging, reverse sun damage, and treat chronic skin conditions. LED (light-emitting diode) light therapy is at the forefront of this trend.
Note: Do the full deep dive on red and blue light therapy below, or skip straight to the summary of which light is best for acne and skincare here: What About Red and Blue Light Therapy in Combination?
What Light Therapy Does for You
Light has a biological effect on the human body. The sun, which is full-spectrum light, makes us feel happy, regulates our sleep-wake cycle, and synthesizes Vitamin D. Sunlight also has lesser-known effects, such as suppression of local autoimmune responses, which is why ultraviolet (UV) light is sometimes used to treat chronic skin conditions.
Today, it is widely known that UV light is both beneficial and dangerous. This has led to research into how specific wavelengths of visible and invisible light affect the body.
The most common wavelengths used in skincare are blue, red, and near-infrared (NIR). Red light therapy is a term that encompasses both red and NIR light.
Red and blue light therapy using LED devices are commonly used to improve skin health, although the two wavelength groups have very different effects.
Let's dive into blue light first, and then explore the ways that red LED light therapy devices will give you much better results.
Blue Light Therapy
Blue wavelengths are short, ranging from 450 to 500 nanometers (nm). They cannot penetrate the skin beyond the dermo-epidermal junction at 1mm deep (the skin's surface is about the thickness of a credit card). So, blue light doesn’t offer skin benefits beyond treating bacteria on the surface of the skin.
The downside of blue light is that it can interfere with sleep. When it enters the human eye, blue light stimulates the hypothalamus, which is a region of the brain that controls many aspects of the body’s self-regulation including temperature, hunger, and circadian rhythms.
Morning exposure to blue light literally wakes you up. It prompts the release of the stress hormone cortisol and inhibits the production of melatonin, which is sometimes referred to as the sleep hormone. This, in turn, signals wakefulness, focus, and faster reaction times, while boosting cognitive abilities.
After sundown, natural amounts of blue light decrease, and melatonin levels rise again, signaling sleep – or at least, that’s what would happen under normal conditions. Electronics and artificial lighting emit large amounts of broadband blue light, which is known to interfere with the natural cycle.
In terms of skincare, narrow-band blue light can be an effective treatment for surface skin conditions such as acne and solar keratoses.
Mild to Moderate Acne
The main benefit of blue light therapy is that it can kill acne-causing bacteria, which makes it a popular way of treating this chronic and emotionally devastating condition. Blue light may be used in conjunction with other therapies, but it is typically recommended for only mild to moderate acne, not the most severe cases.
One acne study involved 18 female and three male participants with an average age of 15 years. The study found that LED blue light therapy effectively treated mild-to-moderate inflammatory acne on the face.
Another small study on acne followed 28 participants who applied blue LED light in conjunction with a foam cleanser and a skin rebuilding serum. The study showed that by week eight, nearly all participants reported improvements in their skin's overall appearance, and most were satisfied with the treatment.
Finally, a small study conducted in 2010 suggests that blue LED light therapy is safe and may promote biological effects similar to UVA light, which has been used as an acne treatment and to treat chronic skin conditions such as rosacea, and psoriasis.
However, this study only irradiated participants for five days. This is far less exposure to blue wavelengths than the average person receives in a normal week, especially if they work in locations with fluorescent lighting or if they often use electronics after sundown.
A blue light treatment known as photodynamic light therapy shows promise for treating actinic (solar) keratosis, a condition in which scaly bumps (keratoses) appear on sun-exposed areas of the skin. Research has shown that about 10 percent of solar keratosis cases evolve into squamous cell carcinoma, which is the second most common type of skin cancer.
Photodynamic light therapy is a two-stage treatment that combines light energy with a light-sensitive chemical solution known as a photosensitizer. During treatment, the photosensitizing solution is applied to the skin, followed by exposure to blue light, which activates the photosensitizing chemical.
According to a 2017 article by the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, photodynamic therapy may destroy precancerous cells. The article explains: “The photosensitive chemicals, which have been absorbed into the skin, react with the particular wavelength of blue light to generate reactive oxygen radicals that destroy the potentially precancerous or cancerous skin cells.”
Other Uses for Blue Light Therapy
Aside from being a popular treatment for certain skin conditions, blue light therapy benefits include boosting mood and reducing anxiety and depression.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University tested bright blue light treatments in a long-term care facility for dementia patients. Preliminary results indicated that blue light therapy raised activity levels during the day and improved sleep at night.
Although using blue lights during the day could be beneficial, their use should be halted (or blue-light blockers should be used) after sundown.
Blue Light Challenges
One issue with blue light therapy is timing; too late in the day, and it will disrupt the circadian rhythm. Also, too much exposure can potentially have detrimental effects on the skin and eyes.
According to a growing body of research, blue light has been shown to accelerate skin aging by causing oxidative stress in skin cells.
Oxidative stress is usually attributed to UV light and specifically UVA. During a 2017 study, however, researchers from Japan used blue light to induce oxidative stress in the mitochondria, which are energy-producing organelles inside cells. The study authors write: “These results suggest that blue light contributes to skin aging similar to UVA.”
In the same study, however, the researchers found that exposure to red wavelengths did not produce oxidative stress in the mitochondria.
A more recent study (2018) demonstrated adverse effects to the eyes as a result of prolonged exposure to blue light, such as one gets from a smartphone or computer. The researchers found that the cornea, lens, and retina were all damaged by blue light.
They also pointed to a disruption in the circadian rhythm and suggested using blue light blockers as much as possible to prevent vision and health problems.
Many other studies confirm these findings. When you sit in front of a computer, tablet, TV, or phone for eight or more hours every day, you’re getting far more blue light exposure than is beneficial.
To protect your skin from broadband blue light emitted by electronics, you could wear face lotion with sunscreen and antioxidants, change the settings on your device to emit more amber tones, or wear blue-light blocking eyewear.
So What’s the Verdict on Blue Light?
When dermatologists and oncologists use blue light, they use narrow-band blue light (very specific wavelengths) and they do so on targeted areas for a very short amount of time. And, many of these therapies also use photosensitizing agents to stimulate the destruction of bacteria and malignant cells. In these scenarios, blue light may be beneficial.
Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy got its start in the 1980s when NASA scientists were conducting plant growth experiments using red light and made an unexpected discovery. They noticed that any skin wounds or rashes on their hands healed much faster when exposed to the red lights.
This sparked an interest in what other benefits red light could have for the human body.
In the years since that discovery, hundreds of studies have confirmed that human cells respond positively to red and NIR wavelengths – and the therapeutic benefits are immense.
Unlike blue light’s short wavelengths, red/NIR wavelengths fall in the "therapeutic window" of 630–660nm and 810–850nm. One of many research findings is that these wavelengths are highly effective at improving skin tone and reversing signs of aging (such as fine lines, wrinkles, and sunspots) without any known side effects.
Red light therapy, which is also called photobiomodulation and low-level light therapy (LLLT), uses a powerful light therapy device to deliver red and/or NIR wavelengths to the skin.
Red wavelengths (630–660nm) are most often used for treating surface conditions: fine lines and wrinkles, photoaging, chronic skin disorders, and hair loss. Their most notable effect on overall skin wellbeing is increasing collagen production.
Near-infrared wavelengths (810–850nm) penetrate deep into muscles, joints, and even the brain to support the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Their main positive effect is reducing inflammation deeper in the body.
Inflammation anywhere in the body can manifest on the body's largest organ, the skin where it is a primary cause of many chronic skin conditions including rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Light-sensitive chromophores within the mitochondria absorb red and infrared light photons, and convert this light into energy, much like photosynthesis in plants.
Enhanced energy production within cells gives them the boost they need to perform their functions.
The outcome is an improvement in normal bodily functions in the treated area and often widespread effects. For example, red wavelengths appear to have a neuroprotective effect on the brain, even when areas far from the brain are exposed to light.
How Boosting Cellular Energy Helps the Skin
Various types of cell stress including inflammation, chronic psychological stress, or disease can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction (low cellular energy), which is a significant cause of accelerated aging.
Imagine how “blah” you feel after a sleepless night or jet lag after a day of travel; you certainly can’t perform at your best. Neither can your cells when their mitochondria can’t effectively convert raw materials into energy.
Reversing mitochondrial dysfunction can have a dramatic effect on your skin tone and overall health.
Red LED light therapy reduces inflammation by reducing oxidative stress and increasing microcirculation (blood flow and lymph), which brings nutrients and oxygen to the treatment area and removes waste. This can stimulate healthier cell functioning.
What about Red and Blue Light Therapy in Combination?
Some conditions, such as aggressive acne or precancerous lesions, could theoretically be good candidates for red and blue light therapy.
Some companies advertise LED lights that use a combination of different wavelengths such as red and blue light: red light to stimulate the cells and build collagen and elastin, and blue light to kill bacteria. And this combination can work very well if you can find a device that uses both.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to find a medical-grade blue light therapy device. Most devices that use blue light are small and low-powered, which means you must use them for extended periods to see results. Even high-end devices — including masks that retail for $600+ — often are very low-powered and driven more by marketing than science-backed research and development.
On the other hand, finding a powerful red light therapy panel that will work for your face, skin, and the entire body is comparatively easy (you can find them in the PlatinumLED store, for example).
So why don’t we or other companies produce high-quality blue light therapy panels? Because they can only be used for one application: acne. By contrast, red light therapy can be used for dozens of applications, including skin health, muscle, and joint support, injury recovery, wound healing, pain management, brain health, and much, much more.
When one therapy can be used for many conditions, it makes sense to go all out on research and product development. And that’s why we at PlatinumLED are singularly focused on red light.
Plus, you can accomplish the exact same goal of blue light therapy — killing acne-causing bacteria — using many other methods. You could use a different facial cleanser, exfoliate more often to reduce bacteria build-up, use prescription-strength products after seeing a dermatologist, and more.
This isn’t possible with red light therapy however. There is no “ATP generating” skin cream that will boost your cellular energy and set off an entire chain of productive health benefits.
For all the reasons mentioned above, most people who are considering light therapy for their skin would be best served using a clinical-grade red light therapy device and seeing an aesthetician or dermatologist, rather than trying to kill bacteria with blue and red light therapy devices.
How to Get Red Light Therapy with At-Home LED Devices
You can administer red light therapy at home using a high light energy output LED therapy device.
High light energy output from quality light therapy devices is the best way to get optimal results. Here are two of the best choices:
- The PlatinumLED BIO series offers powerful panels that let you choose to use red light (660nm) alone, NIR light (850nm) alone, or a combination of both in a 1:1 ratio.
- The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series offers superior irradiation and a full-spectrum combination array using a patented combination of the most scientifically validated red plus NIR wavelengths. These panels can be linked and positioned on vertical or horizontal stands for the ultimate in comfort.
There are no strict rules to using red light therapy at home. We recommend you start with one or two 5- to 10-minute sessions per week and gradually work up to sessions that are comfortable and convenient for you; for example, three to five sessions per week, at 10 to 20 minutes per session.
LED light therapy is not a cosmetic fix. It doesn’t make the surface of your skin look better while ignoring the root causes of aging.
Rather, it addresses the underlying causes of many chronic skin conditions including aging and acne, which are often caused by inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction. So be prepared for the treatment to take effect over time as it helps to stimulate your body’s natural healing capacities.
Many studies on light therapy for chronic conditions recommend one to four months to see dramatic results. Once you see those results, you may wish to continue with a red/NIR LED light therapy maintenance program that can keep your cells functioning at their best. Many people begin using light therapy to treat a specific skin condition and end up pleasantly surprised at its many other benefits.
Red Light Is the Best Choice
When comparing red and blue light, red is the clear choice for both targeted skincare applications and overall wellbeing.
To summarize, blue light in small, controlled amounts may be safe for short-term dermatological use or for treating superficial skin carcinomas. However, current data show that consistent exposure to blue light can lead to different levels of damage in human eyes and skin.
Red LED light therapy can also promote healthy skin and support the body’s natural acne-fighting processes – without side effects.
Check out the PlatinumLED blog to learn about the dozens of applications where red light “shines.”