Red vs Infrared and NIR Light Therapy: Which Is Better?
If you’ve researched red light therapy, you’ve probably seen the terms “infrared” and “NIR” tossed around, but might not really know what they mean. Maybe you know that they’re associated with light therapy, or that they help complement standard red light, but still feel like the terms are still shrouded in a bit of mystery. If that’s the case, you’re in the right place.
If you’ve wondered:
What are infrared and near-infrared lights?
How do they compare to red light?
Is one better than another?
When should I use red, infrared, or near-infrared lights?
This resource is for you. Below we’ll discuss the differences, break down when to use each one and uncover how they can work together to improve your health and vitality.
The Many Wavelengths of Red, Infrared, and Near-Infrared Light
At the core, red, infrared, and near-infrared light are similar. To start, the wavelengths of each fall at or near the upper limit of the visible spectrum of light, and in many cases, they provide similar health benefits (Note that red light is visible; NIR and infrared are not). Though similar, these types of light are distinct, with applications that stem from one primary difference: the specific wavelengths of light they inhabit.
Red light–the most popular variety for health and wellness applications–is comprised of light from the 600nm (nanometer) wavelength range, up to about 700nm. That’s where light becomes classified as near-infrared. And while 700nm provides a pretty clear line red and NIR light, the transition to full-on infrared is a bit more of a gray area.
Red, near-infrared, and pure infrared light all exist towards the top of the visible spectrum.
One study, for example, classifies infrared light as anything above 760nm, but some place the limit as high as 900 or 1000. Here at PlatinumLED, we don’t typically make a clear distinction between the two, and instead refer to our line of full-spectrum panels as R+|NIR+, because they include beneficial waves all the way up to 850nm.
How Is Each Type of Light Different?
When you’re comparing red, infrared, and near-infrared light, here’s a helpful rule of thumb to keep in mind: As you increase the wavelength of light, you also increase how far the light penetrates into the body. So while red light might only benefit surface-level organs (i.e. your skin), pure infrared light will reach below your skin to soft tissue cells deep in your body.
As you review the remainder of this article, you may see benefits that look the same for each type of light, and that’s because in a lot of ways, they are similar. The differences are a matter of depth and detail, not composition. Keep that in mind as we forge ahead.
Image: Red and infrared light penetrate deep into the skin and muscle tissue.
The Benefits of the Red Light Spectrum (600-700nm)
In general, the visible red light spectrum primarily benefits skin-depth ailments and cellular health. That’s part of the reason red light therapy is so popular in general; light is widely used for skin conditions, and the visible red wavelengths are ideal for that application. But as you’ll soon see, skin applications only scratch the surface of the possible benefits.
Other benefits 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;
Specifically, the 630nm wavelength we use at Platinum LED is effective at treating the outermost layers of skin, while the 650nm wavelength penetrates a bit deeper through the entire range of skin tissue.
The Benefits of Near-Infrared (NIR) Light (700-900nm)
The near-infrared wavelengths are able to penetrate much deeper than red light, including all soft tissue, connective tissue, and bone. Most notably, these wavelengths can penetrate the skull, which allows for effective treatment of neurological disorders and deep injuries.
- Improved muscular healing and accelerated recovery.
- Improved recovery from moderate to severe stroke.
- Improved recovery/reduction of neurological damage from traumatic brain injury (TBI).
- Improvement of psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression
- Reduced recovery and accelerated healing following plastic surgery.
- Accelerated healing and reduced infection.
- An increase of “feel-good” endorphins (the body’s natural pain-relieving opiates)
- Improved bone repair and growth.
- Accelerated return to athletic activity after injury
The three wavelengths we use in this range include the 810, 830, and 850nm varieties, as they work very effectively for a wide range of applications. And staying true to our rule of thumb, the 850nm provides the deepest penetration, which helps amplify the therapeutic effects of the lower wavelengths.
Infrared Light Benefits and Usage (900nm+)
Infrared (IR) is a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from 780nm to 10,000nm+, depending on which resources you consult.
Nerve cells in particular appear to respond particularly well to infrared light, which makes it an effective therapy for:
- Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders
- Pain relief
- Inhibiting cancer cell proliferation
- Enhancing the effects of chemotherapy
- Accelerating healing of the brain after injury
As you can see, the benefits of pure infrared light start to diverge a bit from what is offered by the other options. This is partly because the infrared light penetrates deeper, and partly because the research simply indicates different outcomes.
Either way, this is the least widely used of the light therapies mentioned here, and is best suited for very niche applications. If you’re looking for a wavelength for everyday use, stick with red and NIR technology.
Red vs NIR Light: A Faceoff
As you might have noticed, there is plenty of overlap between each type of light--especially red and NIR light--which can make it difficult to select one for a specific ailment or goal. For example, red light benefits include “wound healing,” while NIR lists “accelerated healing and reduced infection.”
So which is best for your situation? When in doubt, return to our rule of thumb. Doing so means examining each goal or issue on a case by case basis. For example:
First things first: if you have a wound, you must see a doctor before using light therapy. But for purposes of an example, keep the rule in mind. Is the wound shallow or deep? Red light therapy would be helpful for relatively widespread, surface wounds, while NIR therapy would work best for deeper cuts, or as an infection preventative.
Again, always see a doctor before use. That said, if you’re thinking about skin conditions such as acne or psoriasis, keep red light in mind for very top-level conditions, and use NIR for deeper ailments such as cystic acne.
But remember that you don’t have to have something bothering you to use light therapy. In fact, using it regularly improves cellular function, which increases collagen and elastin production. This helps the skin heal itself from and become more resilient to the effects of environmental toxins, aging, and sun damage.
Red Light and NIR: Better Together
At the end of the day, red light and NIR are highly complementary and work best when combined. When used together, the wavelengths provide a balancing effect on the body’s internal systems, and a more comprehensive approach to overall health.
The combination of wavelengths work synergistically to target not only skin cells, but muscle tissue, organ tissue, connective tissue, brain tissue, and bone tissue... a harmonizing approach that restores health and wellbeing.
Pure infrared is the most niche option of the three. While it has been demonstrated to have positive health effects, it’s usually best for edge cases that typically require specialized care and treatment. If you or a loved one has a serious issue and you think infrared might be a good fit, contact a doctor to learn more.
And remember, if you’re purchasing a red light panel, sometimes the best option is to not pick one wavelength over another: simply choose both, and reap the rewards.
If you’re interested in purchasing a red light therapy panel that targets multiple wavelengths of red and near-infrared light, take a look at our series of panels.
If you’re still not sure which panel is right for you, just contact us, and we’ll get back to your question as quickly as possible.