Red light therapy is a safe, natural treatment method that shines red and/or near-infrared (NIR) light onto the skin via light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. As the light absorbs into the skin, it stimulates healing at a cellular level.
This non-invasive and painless treatment is used for a variety of cosmetic and medical conditions, such as tissue repair, skin conditions, pain relief, and reducing inflammation.
This article will discuss how red light therapy works, and how it can benefit your health and well-being.
What Is LED Light Therapy?
Red light therapy uses devices fitted with specifically calibrated LED bulbs. These bulbs produce non-invasive wavelengths of red and/or near-infrared light to promote cellular health, which can be the key to relieving a range of conditions.
Wavelengths of light, which are measured in nanometers (nm), absorb to various depths of the body’s tissues. Red light in the 620–660 nm range and NIR light in the 810–850 nm range is considered to be in the “therapeutic window” of light that delivers benefits without side effects.
Red light therapy is safe to use since it is non-invasive and the light does not generate heat in the cells. Red and NIR light photons have clinically proven positive effects on the body’s tissues, and no adverse side effects have been reported.
Is All Red Light Therapy the Same?
You may have heard red light therapy called other names, such as low-level light therapy (LLLT), low-power light therapy, or photobiomodulation. These are all names for the same type of treatment with devices that use LED bulbs.
Several other terms are also frequently used in reference to red light therapy, including low-level laser therapy, soft laser therapy, low-power laser therapy, and cold laser therapy – all forms of red light therapy that use lasers rather than LED lights. Both lasers and LEDs are considered effective ways to deliver light to the body’s tissues.
What's the difference? LED light panels deliver the same wavelengths, but to a larger area of the body, which makes LED light therapy more convenient than low-level laser therapy.
Are there any advantages to using LED lights over lasers? The main advantage of LED devices is the ability to treat larger areas of the body at the same time. Laser lights have a narrower irradiance (power output) when compared with LED lights. The greater irradiance with LED lights allows larger areas of the body to be treated.
Also, multiple LED devices can be arranged into planar arrays. This is easier to do with red light therapy panels as opposed to other forms of red light treatment. LED light produces a non-thermal emission of light, making it a safer option to use. With at-home panels, you can also avoid expensive in-clinic low-level laser therapy treatments, although clinical red light therapy treatment also remains an effective option.
What Does Red Light Therapy Do?
The most common use for red light therapy is skin rejuvenation. The result of light therapy treatments is healthier skin cells, which can help to restore a more youthful appearance by supporting the skin’s natural cellular regeneration.
But, the treatment has many diverse applications that go far beyond skin rejuvenation.
Studies have shown red light therapy to be an effective treatment for wound healing, chronic skin disorders, muscle recovery, low back pain, chronic pain from arthritis, neck pain, neuropathy, weight loss, and hair growth, among others.
The PlatinumLED Therapy Lights Learning Center page offers a wealth of information on the many applications of red and NIR light treatments.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
As mentioned earlier, different wavelengths of light have different effects on the body. There are four major ways the body can benefit from red light therapy.
Increased Cellular Energy Production
Inside cells are tiny organelles called mitochondria, which are responsible for producing cellular fuel known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Sometimes, for a multitude of reasons (aging, illness, lifestyle, etc.) the mitochondria can’t produce enough ATP.
When that happens, cells struggle to survive, rather than being able to function optimally or effectively repair or regenerate themselves. This mitochondrial dysfunction, as it is known, can snowball, as depleted cells in one bodily system cause a ripple effect in other systems. Mitochondrial dysfunction is considered to be at the heart of most major diseases and disorders.
Red light therapy triggers a reaction that helps reverse this downward spiral. Light-sensitive molecules in cells (chromophores) in the mitochondria are especially responsive to red and NIR light photons. This interaction excites the mitochondria and stimulates ATP production.
Energized cells are happy cells. They perform better, repair themselves more efficiently, and replace themselves faster. As old, damaged cells are replaced, healthy new cells emerge. This is one of the reasons that red light treatments are so popular for improving skin complexion and speeding up wound healing.
Inflammation is one of the main contributing causes of mitochondrial dysfunction. Red light therapy has an astonishingly powerful effect on reducing inflammation in treated areas of the body.
Red/NIR light treatments increase blood circulation as well as lymph circulation in skin tissue and beneath the skin, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the treatment area and removing waste and toxins.
Increased Collagen and Elastin Production
One of the key components of healthy skin is an ample supply of collagen, the protein that makes up about 80 percent of the skin’s structure. Collagen production declines naturally with age. It is also influenced by inflammation, oxidative stress, chronic emotional stress, poor diet, too much sun exposure, and other factors that cause thin, crepey, sagging skin.
Red/NIR light stimulates collagen synthesis and helps promote the optimal organization of collagen proteins. This is most noticeable on delicate facial skin, where users report seeing significantly reduced fine lines and wrinkles after one to four months of regular use.
Intradermal collagen density increase is essential for reducing crepey skin and regaining firm youthful skin. Yet, intradermal collagen density increase isn't the whole picture when it comes to skin rejuvenation. Red and NIR light treatments also promote the synthesis of elastin, the protein that gives skin its youthful elasticity, treating stretch marks as well.
The Benefits of Red Light Therapy
Now that you know how red light therapy works, let’s look at what this natural treatment has been clinically proven to do.
The anti-aging properties of red light therapy are well-documented.
In 2014, for example, German researchers conducted a study on the effects of red light therapy on aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, and skin roughness. A total of 128 participants completed the study. Those who received red light treatments experienced significant improvement in skin feeling and appearance, including noteworthy intradermal collagen density increase and patient satisfaction with the treatment.
Overall Skin Health
Chronic skin disorders have been shown to respond well to consistent red and NIR light treatments. One of the main benefits of red light therapy is reducing inflammation. This could be beneficial in treating inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis.
One study with positive results involved 81 patients who suffered from atopic dermatitis, which is the most common form of eczema. The study found that 830 nm NIR light therapy effectively decreased itching and skin eruptions. This study used low-power laser therapy; more recent studies are increasingly using LED light therapy devices.
Faster Wound Healing
A series of studies compared the effects of red light on helping heal skin wounds. They compare the effects of light delivered via light-emitting diode (LED) devices versus lasers. Both mechanisms delivered results including reduced inflammation, angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels), increased fibroblast proliferation (fibroblasts are the precursors to collagen), increased collagen synthesis, and formation of granulation tissue, which is the first tissue you can see as a wound is closing and healing.
In the past, lasers were the only way to deliver light photons to cells. Many original studies used low level-laser therapy.
Today, you can achieve similar results with a high-quality, powerful medical-grade red light therapy device. LED lights are coming into the spotlight because results could be more easily reproduced outside of a clinical setting.
Red light therapy supports tissue regeneration. When used immediately after injury, red light shows great potential for reducing the growth and appearance of scars. If a scar has already formed, regular use of red light can gradually soften the scar and reduce its appearance as new, normal, healthy skin cells work their way to the surface.
Treatment with 633 nm light has been shown to inhibit the migration of skin fibroblasts involved in skin fibrosis, which is excessive growth of scar tissue.
Better Muscle Performance and Faster Recovery After Workouts or Injury
Red light therapy can be used to precondition muscle tissue before a workout to enhance performance and stimulate faster recovery of workout-stressed muscle tissue. A review of 46 studies involving 1,045 participants used red/NIR light to increase muscle mass and decrease inflammation.
In fact, the benefits outlined in this review are significant, leading the review’s authors to question whether red light therapy offers an unfair advantage in athletic competition.
An exciting development in red and NIR light therapy is its potential to help you lose excess fat.
A 2015 study by researchers from Brazil tested whether a combination of red light therapy and aerobic exercise could reduce obese women’s chances of developing heart disease. The researchers gave 62 women an exercise regimen. The participants were randomly assigned to receive red light therapy or a placebo for four months. At the conclusion of the study, the red light group had greater losses in waist circumference and other measures.
How does red light therapy help with fat reduction? Research has shown that red and NIR light cause temporary perforations in fat cells that allow lipids to leak out; then, they are naturally expelled by the body. This shows potential for targeted fat reduction and body contouring.
This does not mean, however, that red light therapy is a “miracle weight loss” approach – because there is no such thing. You can achieve the best results by combining LED light therapy with a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management techniques.
Hair growth is one of the most popular uses for red light therapy because results have been promising. One study, for instance, found significantly greater hair counts in men with androgenetic alopecia (male- and female-pattern hair loss) who self-treated with 655 nm red light once daily for 16 weeks.
Red light stimulates the cells in dormant hair follicles and promotes two important hair growth phases in hair follicles: anagen (growth phase) and telogen (reentry from dormancy). At the same time, the treatment inhibits early transition to catagen (regression), keeping hair follicles in “production” mode longer.
Whether you’re injured or are looking at treating rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis pain, red light therapy could help.
A large, promising study on university athletes with a variety of injuries found faster return-to-play after 830 nm near-infrared LED treatment.
In another double-blind study, elderly patients with degenerative knee osteoarthritis and similar pain levels were randomly split into groups receiving red light treatment, NIR light treatment, or a placebo. The patients self-applied the treatment to their knee for 15 minutes twice daily for 10 days.
After the 10-day treatment, pain had been reduced in the red and infrared groups by more than 50 percent. The red and infrared groups also experienced functional improvement after treatment, with no improvement in the placebo group. And, the red and infrared groups experienced longer intervals between the need for additional pain relief treatments.
The Pros and Cons of Red Light Therapy
You may wonder if it sounds too good to be true. It’s perfectly natural to wonder, of course … so here are the pros and cons of this safe, all-natural, non-invasive treatment.
Red Light Therapy Pros
There are far too many positive aspects of red light therapy to list here, so here are the most important pros:
Red light therapy presents a wide range of benefits. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies point to statistically significant improvements in the conditions discussed earlier, as well as many others. Check out our Learning Center page to discover the many uses for red light therapy on yourself – and even your pets.
Red light is considered a low-risk treatment. It will not cause burns and there are no known side effects other than potential brief redness/tightness in the treated area in sensitive individuals, which is likely due to increased blood flow to the area.
You can self-treat at home. A large, powerful LED light therapy panel allows you to treat virtually any part of your body without having to visit a clinic. Since red light therapy is not (or extremely rarely) covered by insurance, this is a potential way to complement medically prescribed treatments without additional ongoing costs.
Red Light Therapy Cons
Does red light therapy have any cons? When used as directed, it's arguably the easiest self-care practice there is. But here are a few points to ponder:
People with sensitive skin should start slowly. It can be easy to overdo LED light treatments because the therapy is painless and feels warm and soothing.
If you have sensitive skin, start slowly to avoid temporary redness or tightness that may stem from increased blood circulation.
Using Red Light Therapy Panels
More usage is not necessarily better. Research has determined that three to 20 minutes daily is the optimal treatment time. Beyond that, extending the treatment time will not yield faster or greater benefits. As easy and pleasant as the treatments are, always follow the recommendations.
There’s a huge difference in the quality and efficacy of light therapy devices. Always choose a high-quality FDA-cleared medical-grade device, which will deliver more energy needed for the light to absorb effectively into your tissues.
Larger panels deliver much more energy than small devices – meaning, more intense light and a greater coverage area. The intensity of LED lights is close to that of low-level laser therapy, but with more broadly dispersed light to reduce treatment time.
Go easy on the eyes. Although red light therapy has been used successfully for eye health, always wear proper eye protection to prevent eye strain and potential damage, especially from longer NIR wavelengths. Because NIR light is invisible, you can’t see it; thus, it may not seem intense, but the eyes are still affected.
Red Light Therapy vs. Other Types of Light Therapy
Every visible and invisible wavelength of light has different effects on the body. Depending on your treatment goals, you may be tempted to use a combination of light therapies. But you do not need to do that, and here is why.
Red and near-infrared wavelengths are more easily absorbed by the parts of cells that respond to light energy, especially deeper in the body. Longer wavelengths are important. If light can’t absorb into the tissue to reach the cells, it won’t have any benefits.
Ultraviolet (UV) Light Therapy
UV light is seen as “bad” wavelengths that are a leading cause of skin aging and contributor to skin cancer.
- When applied by a medical professional, UV rays can be useful for treating a variety of chronic skin conditions. But …
- Along with being much safer than UV wavelengths, red and NIR light have successfully reduced flare-ups of psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea.
Blue Light Therapy
Blue light is commonly used to kill acne-causing bacteria.
- A popular approach among acne sufferers is to use blue and red light together to support collagen production and reduce inflammation.
- There is some risk with blue wavelengths, however; they have been linked to accelerated skin aging and the eye condition known as macular degeneration. For that reason, we recommend sticking to a gentle but rigorous skincare routine, skin-friendly dietary alterations (such as eliminating added sugar), stress relief, exercise, and sun protection, along with skin-cell-stimulating red light therapy for optimal skin complexion.
Green and Yellow Light Therapy
Green and yellow (amber) light is often used to tone down redness in the skin and reduce skin roughness. This is another use for low-level light therapy (using these two wavelengths).
- While green and amber light can have some effect, the benefits are unfortunately limited because of their short wavelengths, with a very shallow absorption depth.
- Red light absorbs deeper than green and yellow light because its wavelengths are much longer; thus, it can stimulate chromophores, which are light-absorbing molecules within cells.
Because of red light’s cell-stimulating and anti-inflammatory effects, it can help reduce redness. NIR light absorbs into the layers beneath the skin where it can address the inflammation that could be contributing to facial redness.
- Combining a red and near-infrared light treatment can address various skin-deep and deep-tissue relief at different depths.
Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy
The term “red light therapy” can mean using red wavelengths from 620 to 660 nm or NIR wavelengths from 810 to 850 nm, or both.
- Red wavelengths absorb into the outer layers of the skin, while NIR wavelengths can penetrate deeper into the body, including joints and bones.
- “Infrared light therapy” typically refers to near-infrared wavelengths in the low 800 nm range.
- Longer infrared wavelengths, such as those found in infrared saunas, should be used with caution, since overuse can potentially cause thermal damage to sensitive cells in the eye and testicles. Shorter NIR wavelengths delivered by a non-thermal LED light do not have a significant heating effect on the cells, which makes near-infrared light treatment much safer.
How Long Does Red Light Therapy Take to Work?
As beneficial as red light therapy is, it should not be considered a miracle treatment for any condition. Whether benefits are skin-deep or deeper in the body, they often take time to manifest because red light therapy works at the cellular level. Cells need time to repair themselves or replicate, and for the effects of millions of cells working together to result in improvement.
Consistency is key to seeing results. You may see some results very quickly, but the full effects may not be visible for three to six months of daily use.
We recommend taking “before” and “after” photos to monitor your progress.
Once you’ve achieved the results you want, you can continue with less frequent treatments to maintain your results.
The Side Effects of Red Light Therapy
Scientists have found that red light therapy is free of side effects when used as directed, including using protective eyewear and not overdoing the treatment times. In every study we've reviewed, patient satisfaction has been very high.
The Best Red Light Therapy Devices for At-Home Use
Red light therapy devices found at high-end clinics, spas, and gyms are the very same devices you can purchase from PlatinumLED Therapy Lights. These are industry-leading devices with several key components:
- The highest irradiance (remember: light energy power) of any panels in their power class.
- A patent-pending combination of five of the most therapeutic red/NIR wavelengths in a ratio that delivers optimal results; and
- A medical-grade FDA-cleared device
These criteria naturally weed out most of the products on the market.
You will get much more value with high-powered panels that can treat your body literally from head to toe.
A Natural and Easy Way to Greater Well-Being
To recap, red light therapy is a natural, non-invasive treatment that stimulates a host of beneficial biological effects in the body. It is used for anti-aging, pain relief, muscle performance and recovery, skin health, and so much more.
Take a closer look at the best red light therapy devices on the consumer market for affordable, at-home treatment.