In recent years, red light therapy has become far more popular as an everyday wellness routine.
It is used for a variety of applications including skin treatment, managing chronic pain, improving sleep, anti-aging, hair loss, and more.
In this article, we discuss some of the key historical developments around red light therapy.
It wasn't until the discovery of specific wavelengths of light, and the development of optics that light therapy began its shift into what we know today.
Natural Light Therapy Throughout the Ages
Historically, the use of natural sunlight for therapeutic applications has been referred to as Hilotherapy. It is derived from the Greek word ‘elios’ meaning ‘sun.’
Sunlight therapy was for medical and psychological treatment for thousands of years, all over the world, by ancient healers who knew that the sun could heal.
In 1666, the so-called ‘annus mirabilis’ or miraculous year, marked Isaac Newton’s scientific experiments with prisms and light, which lead to breakthroughs in understanding the properties of light.
Newton conducted experiments with sunlight and prisms, which demonstrated that clear white light was composed of seven visible colors, described as the light spectrum. His work in 1666 led to his second masterwork book in 1704 about optics.
The Advent of Light Technology
In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the first practical electric lightbulb, which paved the path for light therapy that previously relied on sunlight.
Another breakthrough was acknowledged when Niels Ryberg Finsen won the Nobel Prize for the scientific discovery of light as therapy.
In 1893, Danish physician Dr. Finsen used ultraviolet light therapy for the first time using artificial light sources rather than the sun. This was the first instance of using isolated wavelengths of light for healing.
Finsen had developed Pick’s disease, a severe neurodegenerative illness. He found that sun exposure helped his symptoms, and this sparked his own interest in the therapeutic powers of light. He had success treating smallpox and lupus vulgaris, a type of tuberculosis.
Finsen received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1903 for his use of light to treat tuberculosis (using UV light) and smallpox scars (using red light). Although these initial light treatments were painstaking since Dr. Finsen could only treat a 2cm area at a time and treatments took several hours every day. They were nonetheless successful in clearing lesions.
Advancements in Light Therapy Science
The 1900s saw great interest in sunlight therapy in various fields, including ophthalmology, cardiology, and dermatology.
In 1917, Albert Einstein proposed a theory of ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’ or LASER. However, the technology wasn’t developed until 1960.
By the 1920s and 30s, researchers understood that vitamin D was essential for good health and that sunlight stimulated vitamin D production in the body. Ultraviolet light was specifically good for this purpose.
Researchers showed that UV exposure to the skin was enough to cause beneficial changes in the body. For this reason, bright light therapy became far more popular in the 20th Century. ‘Sun lamps’ that emitted UV rays were used for treating emotional issues as well as a host of physical ailments including rickets, psoriasis, lupus, fungal infections, eczema, and vitiligo.
In the 1950s, UVB light was still widely used to treat dermatological conditions. Its use became more widespread when it was discovered that UVB light could treat hyperbilirubinemia (neonatal jaundice).
When a nurse at Rochford General Hospital in Essex, England, found that a jaundiced infant experienced a reduction of jaundice in sun-exposed areas, Dr. Dobbs, the attending physician, agreed that exposure to direct sunlight was indeed the cause of the decrease in symptoms.
Even today, phototherapy, or the therapeutic use of light, is used to treat high bilirubin in newborns. Although instead of UV light, modern photobiomodulation for jaundice involves the use of wavelengths of light between 310-490 nm.
The Invention of Laser Technology
In 1960, engineer and physicist Theodore H. Malman developed the first laser. Laser light is emitted in a consistent wavelength. This allows it to be incredibly focused in a tight beam.
In 1967, Hungarian physician Endre Mester developed the first low-level laser therapy device, which delivered concentrated red and near-infrared light for skin cancer treatments. Later, the device was used to accelerate the wound-healing process.
Laser therapy is used in dermatology, surgery, and other applications depending on the intensity of the laser. For example, low-level laser therapy is used in the same way as LED light therapy, while "hot" lasers are used to kill and remove damaged cells.
Lasers have become part of everyday life, including the consumer entertainment market. They also have their place in a multitude of industrial and healthcare contexts.
The Invention of LED Technology
In 1961, the light-emitting diode (LED) was invented by Robert Biard and Gary Pittman.
However, these early LEDs were small and impractical.
In 1962, General Electric scientist Nick Holonyak, Jr. (now known as the ‘Father of the Light Emitting Diode’) invented the first viable, functional LEDs. LEDs were first used as lights for circuit boards and small electrical equipment, offering a highly efficient alternative to incandescent light bulbs.
Today, LEDs are ubiquitous in lighting since they are vastly more efficient than incandescent and halogen lights.
Most importantly, LEDs can produce a single wavelength of light, instead of the many wavelengths produced by incandescent light bulbs. Initially, they only produced red wavelengths but were later developed to produce any desired wavelength of light.
Today, LED light therapy devices intended for consumer use typically include blue, amber, red, and near-infrared light, either alone or in combination. However, the exploration into colors other than blue or red light for treatment has in most cases been fruitless.
NASA Experiments with Light Therapy
NASA was interested in developing the ability to grow plants in space with a vision to reshape the future of interplanetary exploration. They experimented with this by growing food indoors.
NASA's red light therapy experiment aimed to see if red wavelengths of visible light would stimulate plant growth aboard spacecraft, where it’s difficult to use conventional grow lights due to their heavy power consumption and heat.
Red light emitting diodes (LED) lights were shown to be a viable light source for plants because of their small size, safe operation, and low heat output.
In a ‘happy accident,’ the researchers responsible for growing these plants were also exposed to red light, and they experienced rapid and unexpected healing of hand wounds.
Subsequent studies into the effects of red light on human health soon followed, using both red and near-infrared (NIR) light. Red light therapy is an umbrella term that can mean red light from 620-650 nm, near-infrared light from 810-850 nm, or a combination of both.
In zero gravity, astronauts experience significant and dangerous bone and muscle loss, as well as slow healing. Research showed that these problems resulted from poor cell growth in zero-gravity conditions aboard spacecraft. This sparked interest in how red light affects the body.
One of red light therapy's first applications was to counteract poor cell growth in zero-gravity environments. Red light was found to have a stimulating effect on cellular metabolism that allowed astronauts to maintain muscle mass and bone density while in space. With this groundbreaking discovery, red light therapy was born.
Red light has also been used for grow lights in horticulture here on Earth, but the 90s saw increased interest in red and near-infrared light as the ‘therapeutic window’ of visible and invisible light that has multiple health benefits without side effects.
Developments in LED Technology
LED technology took a leap forward in the 1990s with manufacturing advances that made the technology affordable and efficient. Most importantly for healthcare, it was able to deliver consistent wavelengths just like lasers (although not as concentrated). In fact, LED devices have replicated the effects observed in red light studies that used lasers.
The main benefit of modern LED light therapy devices versus lasers is the ability to deliver specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light to a larger part of the body. This makes LED light therapy more convenient for full-body well-being as well as for the treatment of large-scale conditions like psoriasis.
With the explosion of research into this natural treatment, the use of red light therapy expanded into the realms of chronic pain management, supportive cancer care, neurological diseases, traumatic brain injury, oral mucositis, hair restoration, chronic skin disorders, and much more.
Conclusive Medical Research Findings on Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy was found effective in treating the skin, and a lot of early research focused on the ‘how’ of this natural treatment.
Study after study, including this one co-authored by world-renowned red light researcher Dr. Michael Hamblin, outlined the core effects of red and near infrared light, including an increase in cell metabolism and energy production, which later studies confirm as a key element in supporting the body in healing.
In 2001, NASA-sponsored researchers built on previous NASA research and exposed US Navy SEALs to red light. The result was significantly faster wound healing.
In 2002, the FDA approved a low-level laser therapy device, which brought red light therapy into the realm of clinical applications in dermatology and the wellness industry.
A 2008 landmark study published in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery was the first to explain how red light therapy affects the body. Researchers found that red light stimulates the mitochondria in the cells to produce more energy. This positively affects cellular function.
More studies quickly followed, including one that found red light therapy could promote improved sleep quality among elite basketball players. Another found that red light therapy produced improvements in cognitive function.
Red light therapy has head-to-toe applications, ranging from hair restoration to chronic skin disorders, neuropathic pain, and muscle recovery. The many scientifically-validated uses for red light therapy can be found in the Learning Center.
Red Light Therapy in Clinics and Spas
The desire to look younger is an important reason many people visit dermatology clinics and spas. With more and more research finding that red light therapy is effective for anti-aging, skin care clinics and spas quickly got on board to offer their clients a non-invasive and natural way to turn back the clock on aging.
LED light therapy devices, infrared saunas, and “cold lasers” have become key elements of skin care and quickly found applications in athletic training.
Advances in LED technology made red light therapy more accessible as spas, fitness facilities, professional sports teams, and skin care clinics adopted the technology.
However, it was still out of reach for much of the general public.
The First Consumer Red Light Therapy Panels
In 2012, PlatinumLED researched and developed the industry’s first 12-wave spectrum for horticultural use. These high-powered LEDs became a staple in horticulture across the globe.
2015 saw a shift to human therapy with PlatinumLED offering the first high-powered LED panel that featured one red and one near-infrared option.
Finally, red light therapy was accessible to the consumer.
Subsequent Research Findings on the Benefits of Red Light Therapy
What’s new in the world of red light research?
First, a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of action, particularly in the realm of inflammation which is believed to be the root of all diseases in the body. A 2017 study confirmed the anti-inflammatory effects of red light therapy. This helps to explain why red light therapy is so effective in treating inflammatory arthritis.
In recent years, red light therapy has come to the forefront in modern medicine as a potent treatment for various physical and psychological conditions.
One of the most prominent researchers in the field of red light therapy is Dr. Michael Hamblin.
Dr. Hamblin was a principal investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, and a member of the affiliated faculty of Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology.
Since the early 1990s, Hamblin has studied red light therapy as a treatment for wounds, traumatic brain injury, arthritis, and hair regrowth. He has published nearly 300 papers about his research findings.
In a March 2020 interview, Hamblin was asked if he used red light therapy personally, and if so, how he uses it. He explained that he indeed uses the technique regularly to alleviate soreness in his knees and elbows, and applies it to his forehead twice weekly to boost brain health.
For example, according to Hamblin, red light therapy has an anti-inflammatory response in those who do have chronic inflammation.
As confirmed by numerous studies, red light therapy can speed up healing. And in cases where underlying inflammation causes autoimmune or other disorders, red light has a powerful healing effect.
Recent Findings on Cancer Treatment
Some exciting preliminary findings also relate to cancer treatment. Although Hamblin does not believe red light should be applied to a tumor, he says that applying red light to the thymus (a lymphoid organ just below the breastbone) may stimulate the body's ability to fight off cancer. He also stated that preliminary studies on infrared therapy for advanced cancer have been promising.
A 2021 article stated that “a reasonable body of clinical trial evidence exists to support the role of low-energy red/near-infrared light as a safe and effective method of skin rejuvenation, treatment of acne vulgaris and alopecia, and, especially, body contouring.”
Red Light Therapy Solutions
The development of high-quality medical-grade devices such as the BIOMAX series from PlatinumLED Therapy Lights means that anyone can enjoy the benefits of red light therapy at home.
Are LEDs as effective as lasers? Most early research used lasers but with the advances in LED technology, many studies are now using LED light therapy devices.
A study that explored the differences between lasers and LEDs on wound healing found that the biological effects and parameters of LEDs and lasers are very similar. They cause a decrease in inflammation, increased collagen synthesis, and more.
Check out the Learning Center to discover the many benefits of light therapy using blue, red, and near infrared light.
The new BIOMAX Panels harness the power of red light and blue light together, for ultimate synergistic benefits.
Into the Future
While the history of red light therapy is fascinating, researchers are continuing to realize that ancient healers knew what theory were doing. The future holds incredible promise, partly due to the most advanced red and blue light therapy panels on the market.
For the first time ever, the SaunaMAX Pro also allows for red light therapy and sauna treatment simultaneously.
Emerging technology has helped us take LED light therapy to a new level.
New research is constantly revealing more ways that this natural, non-invasive, safe, and even pleasurable treatment can enhance your health.
From targeted applications to whole-body wellness, LED light therapy could one day be seen as the next evolution in light therapy.