If you’ve spent time researching red light therapy, you’ve undoubtedly seen the terms red light, near-infrared (NIR), and infrared (IR) therapy used interchangeably. Here’s what you need to know about these wavelengths: what they are, their benefits, when to use each one, and how they can work together to improve your health and wellbeing.
This article is for you if you’ve wondered ...
- What are infrared and near-infrared lights?
- Red light therapy vs. infrared: Are they the same?
- How do near-infrared and infrared therapy compare to red light?
- Is one better than another?
- When should I use red, infrared, or near-infrared light?
The Wavelengths of Red Light
The term “red light therapy'' often includes wavelengths in both the visible spectrum of light: red, from 630–660 nanometers (nm); and the invisible infrared spectrum (810–850nm, which is considered near-infrared. These specific wavelengths fall into what’s known as the “therapeutic window.”
Other names for red light therapy are low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation (PBM).
Technically, both NIR and IR light therapy fall into the same category of invisible infrared wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum.
You may also see the acronym LLLT in reference to low-level laser therapy, in which the wavelengths and benefits are the same but the delivery is different. As the name implies, low-level laser therapy uses low-level lasers (also known as cold lasers), whereas red light (or low-level light therapy) utilizes red LED lights.
A large body of scientific research suggests wavelengths in the red/NIR electromagnetic scale can safely deliver a variety of health benefits, without adverse effects.
So what's the difference between the wavelengths?
Though similar, what sets red light apart from near-infrared is the depth to which the light photons can absorb into your body’s tissues.
NIR light is closely related to red light in that it doesn’t cause heating of the body, which occurs in wavelengths in the mid- to far-infrared light spectrum.
NIR waves up to 850nm are used in red light therapy systems. IR waves are most commonly used either in clinical applications or in infrared saunas.
Red Light Therapy vs. Near-Infrared
When you’re comparing infrared and red light, here’s a helpful rule of thumb: As you increase the wavelength of light, you also increase how deep the light penetrates into the body.
Red wavelengths benefit the skin and systems within the skin tissue, including the circulatory system, peripheral nervous system, and hair follicles.
The longer wavelengths of NIR light reach beneath the skin to cells deep in your body, including muscles, joints, and bones.
The Benefits of the Red Light Spectrum (630–660nm)
The visible red light spectrum primarily benefits skin conditions. It is best known for its anti-aging properties, such as fine lines and wrinkles, even skin tone, and photoaging; skin wound healing; stretch marks; and hair loss.
Example: Red Light for Skin Health
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of red light for skin health, with no adverse effects.
A 2014 controlled trial showed promise for the use of red light to reduce wrinkles and increase collagen protein synthesis. You can see photos of the results here: Red light therapy skin trial results.
Other potential health benefits of red light include:
- Stimulating hair regrowth in both men and women
- Reducing acne inflammation and breakouts
- Reduction of fine lines, sagging skin, sun damage, and wrinkles
- Elimination of psoriasis
- Healing of non-melanoma skin cancers
- Accelerated wound healing
- Reduction of inflammation due to pleurisy
- Reduction of neuropathic pain (sciatic nerve pain)
- Reduction of post-injury swelling and inflammation
- Reduction of training fatigue/faster athletic recovery
Note: A powerful LED light therapy device will ensure the maximum possible penetration depth for any wavelength.
The Benefits of the Near-Infrared Spectrum (810–850nm)
As previously mentioned, NIR wavelengths from 810 to 850nm can penetrate deeper than red light, including connective tissue and bone. Most notably, these wavelengths can penetrate the skull, which allows for the effective treatment of neurological disorders and brain injuries.
Example: Near-Infrared Therapy for Brain Health
In a 2016 article, world-renowned red light expert Michael Hamblin discusses the exciting potential of red/NIR light therapy for treating myriad disorders of the brain. He writes: “Many investigators believe that PBM for brain disorders will become one of the most important medical applications of light therapy in the coming years and decades.”
That is encouraging, although more studies are needed on the effects of NIR light and brain health. Anyone suffering from a brain injury or neurological disorder should always receive treatment as prescribed by a medical professional.
Other potential health benefits of NIR light include:
- Improved muscle healing and accelerated recovery
- Improved recovery from moderate to severe stroke
- Improved recovery/reduction of neurological damage from traumatic brain injury
- Improvement of psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression
- Reduced recovery and accelerated healing following plastic surgery
- Accelerated healing and reduced infection
- Improved bone repair and growth
- Accelerated return to athletic activity after injury
Nerve cells in particular appear to respond well to infrared light energy; most studies reference infrared waves in the 800 to 900nm range.
Therefore, infrared light in the NIR spectrum could be a potentially effective therapy for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative disorders
Another potential use for NIR light is treating neuropathy. This can be exciting news for those who suffer from diabetes or anyone who has nerve damage in their hands, feet, or other parts of the body.
Benefits of Infrared Therapy (900+nm)
Beyond 850nm, infrared waves penetrate even deeper. Infrared light therapy is most commonly used in infrared saunas, which typically use wavelengths in the 1000nm range.
What’s really interesting is that the human body reacts differently to these longer wavelengths. Instead of light, the body perceives them as infrared heat.
When infrared waves come in contact with your body’s tissues, it causes the molecules to vibrate, which produces heat and causes a rise in body temperature.
Because of this infrared heat effect, infrared radiation can promote local blood circulation and reduce muscle tension, which is one of the reasons infrared saunas are so popular worldwide.
Used with caution, infrared therapy is seen as a potentially effective treatment for:
- Pain relief
- Cancer, when used as photoimmunotherapy
- Reducing the side effects of chemotherapy
- Accelerating healing of the brain after injury
Overuse of infrared light, however, could be potentially harmful. For instance, the eyes are particularly sensitive to damage from infrared radiation. It’s important to know that infrared saunas should always be used carefully, and infrared treatments should be administered by qualified medical professionals.
The takeaway: Infrared light therapy (over 900nm) has the deepest penetration along with positive health effects, but should be used with caution to prevent thermal damage to the body’s cells.
Red vs. Near-Infrared vs. Infrared Therapy … Which Is Best?
The greatest benefits could come from a combination of red and NIR light. Here’s why:
If you’re looking for a device to provide skin rejuvenating benefits or to treat chronic skin disorders like eczema or psoriasis – for which red light has been shown as an effective treatment alongside conventional medicine – you may find red light to be enough.
However, we recommend a combination of red and NIR light. Light therapy using both red and NIR wavelengths has been clinically proven to stimulate positive biological processes in the body, including:
- Enhancing cellular functioning by stimulating energy production within the cells
- Stimulating collagen and elastin production
- Improving blood flow
- Reducing inflammation
Among the many potential benefits of light therapy using red/NIR wavelengths, these four benefits stand out as the keys to supporting the body’s self-healing mechanisms.
While red light can do that at the skin level, if a condition is caused by inflammation deeper in the body – and many are – you’ll need the deeper penetration of NIR light to reduce the inflammation.
Red and NIR wavelengths are highly complementary and work best when combined. When used together, they work synergistically to target not only skin cells, but muscle tissue, organ tissue, connective tissue, brain tissue, and bone tissue, as well as increased blood flow.
The three wavelengths used in BIOMAX series therapy devices in the red range include 630 and 660nm; wavelengths in the NIR range include 810, 830, and 850nm.
Staying true to our rule of thumb, the 850nm wavelength provides the deepest penetration, which helps amplify the therapeutic effects of the lower red/NIR wavelengths.
Red and NIR light have no known side effects and multiple studies suggest they can both be used long-term such as preventive maintenance for chronic skin conditions, or as a regular post-workout therapy to improve athletic performance.
What To Look for in a Red Light Therapy Device
Some light therapy devices such as the BIO red light therapy devices offer a choice between red light (660nm) and NIR light (850nm). This is a great starting point that will give you the most effective red and NIR wavelengths.
When you use a light therapy device that delivers red and NIR light individually, remember: red is visible light, so the panel will appear very bright (be sure to use protective goggles). You won't see the NIR wavelengths because they’re invisible.
For the most profound results, check out the BIOMAX red light therapy devices, which feature a proprietary blend of five of the most beneficial red/NIR wavelengths delivered in a specific ratio designed for the most comprehensive skin-to-deep-tissue treatment.
The BIOMAX light therapy devices are powerful, delivering superior irradiance (light power energy) compared to anything else on the market.
Which device is the right size for you? It all depends on your goals. This informative guide may help you make the right decision.
Now that you know the benefits and differences between red, NIR, and infrared light, you can choose the right device and start experiencing the benefits of these health-enhancing wavelengths today.
Users report amazing effects from using red/NIR light to enhance their health. Check out some testimonials here.
To learn more here about the dozens of potentially life-changing benefits of red light therapy, visit this page.