Red Light Therapy vs Infrared and NIR Light Therapy: Which Is Best?
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, all light therapy — also called low level laser therapy (LLLT), and photobiomodulation— is similar. This is especially true for red, near-infrared (NIR) and infrared light.
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 between 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 Red & Infrared Light Different Than Each Other?
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.
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.
Also note that all light therapy is completely safe and has no permanent side effects. Your skin may become slightly red after treatments, but this is simply due to increased blood flow, not burning. Red light therapy generates little to no heat and can be applied to your entire body.
Example: Red Light For Skin Health
Multiple studies have shown potential benefits for skin health from the use of red light therapy.
For example, one trial that was published in February 2014 by Doctors Alexander Wunsch and Karsten Matuschka in Germany, showed promise for the use of red light therapy to reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and increase collagen production.
In the study, Drs. Wunsch and Matuschka treated 113 patients with either pure red light, or a combination many wavelengths of light. After 15 weeks and 30 treatments, both groups were compared to a placebo group and showed improved skin complexion and skin feeling, and an increase in collagen density.
Said simply, the group that was actually treated saw real improvements in skin tone. You can see pictures of the results on this page:
Example 2: Red Light for Wound Healing
In 2009, a group of four doctors tested the affect of red and infrared light on diabetic leg ulcers. For the test, the doctors assembled a group of 23 patients with ulcers and split them into two groups:
- One group that received standard wound dressings
- Another that received the same wound dressings and regular photobiomodulation treatments.
Within 90 days, 58.3% of the non-placebo patients’ ulcers had healed completely, and the rest of the group had shown improvement. The placebo group’s ulcers got worse over the first 30 days, and then gradually improved.
However, the results were clear: the PBM helped the ulcers heal much more quickly.
Other Red Light Therapy Benefits:Other possible health benefits include:
- Stimulating hair regrowth in both men and women; [Source]
- Reducing acne inflammation and breakouts; [Source]
- Reduction of fine lines, sagging skin, sun damage, and wrinkles; [Source]
- Elimination of psoriasis; [Source]
- Healing of non-melanoma skin cancers; [Source]
- Accelerated wound healing; [Source]
- Reduction of inflammation due to pleurisy; [Source]
- Reduction of neuropathic pain (sciatic nerve pain); [Source]
- Reduction of post-injury swelling and inflammation; [Source]
- Reduction of training fatigue/faster athletic recovery; [Source]
Specifically, the 630nm wavelength we use in Platinum panels is effective at treating the outermost layers of skin, while the 660nm 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.
Near-Infrared Therapy for Brain Health
Near-infrared light is ideal for penetrating deep into the body. In fact, it can even penetrate through the skull and stimulate brain health.
We’ll review an example in a moment, but first consider this quote from a 2016 article, by world-renowned red light therapy expert Michael Hamblin:
“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’s powerful isn’t it?
It should be mentioned that near-infrared light therapy is NOT approved by the FDA to treat brain conditions, but some studies still show promise. So let’s review one below:
NIR Light for Patients with Dementia and Cognitive Impairment
In 2016, a team of five doctors — including Dr. Hamblin — tested the affects of daily PBM treatments on a small group of 19 patients with dementia and other “mild cognitive impairments.”
The test combined regular treatments at home and in a clinic over the course of 12 weeks. Then the patients were assessed using MMSE and ADAS-cog scales (two common assessments meant to test mental fitness) and all treatments were stopped for four weeks.
At the end of the first 12 weeks, all non-placebo patients showed improvements. Then, after four weeks of no-treatments, they also showed signs of regression.
Now, this is admittedly a small trial group, and most of the other trials and other studies in this area are small or lack statistical significance.
But again, the results show promise, and they demonstrate how effective PBM is at penetrating bone and other tissue.
Other Near-Infrared Light Therapy BenefitsOther possible health benefits include:
- Improved muscular healing and accelerated recovery. [Source]
- Improved recovery from moderate to severe stroke. [Source]
- Improved recovery/reduction of neurological damage from traumatic brain injury (TBI). [Source]
- Improvement of psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression. [Source]
- Reduced recovery and accelerated healing following plastic surgery. [Source]
- Accelerated healing and reduced infection. [Source]
- An increase of “feel-good” endorphins (the body’s natural pain-relieving opiates) [Source]
- Improved bone repair and growth. [Source]
- Accelerated return to athletic activity after injury. [Source]
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 a potentially 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 Light Therapy vs Near-Infrared: 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.
In the comparison between NIR vs infrared vs red light, the last one seems to be the safest choice for most, however it's always best consult a physician before using IR lights.
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.