Red Light Therapy: Effectiveness, Treatment, and Risks

Light therapy has been used by doctors at the cutting edge of science since the early 60s for its positive effects on the human body. It was a Hungarian surgeon named Endre Mester who discovered that low-level ruby laser light caused hair regrowth by pure chance. In the years since his 1967 publication, scientists have experimented with red light therapy with some impressive results.

There are unending news articles and publications today touting the benefits of red light therapy or warning of its dangers. Unfortunately, most of this advice is given by misinformed individuals who lack both knowledge and experience.

Red light therapy (RLT) has been a part of my life for years, and I’ve spoken to experts in the field, so I felt it my responsibility to provide people with the right information so they can understand this field of therapy that is constantly evolving. This article aims to cut through the noise and help you as the reader feel confident and knowledgeable about this treatment.

Whаt іѕ Rеd Lіght Thеrару?

Red light therapy (RLT), also referred to as Low-level light therapy (LLLT), is a form of treatment that utilizes light energy operating at a wavelength of 630-670 to penetrate the skin. The amount of energy used in RLT is considered to be quite low compared to other laser treatments because it only penetrates 10 millimeters of the skin. The machines used to emit this light can range from small handheld devices to full-body LED emitters.

The specific wavelength of light used impacts mitochondrial functions to generate biochemical processes that have positive effects on the human body. It does this by encouraging the production and circulation of a chemical compound known as Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). 

ATP is an organic compound found in all living things and is primarily responsible for intercellular energy transfer. ATP captures the energy that is produced from the breakdown of food and distributes it to energize other cells.

Hоw Dоеѕ Red Light Therapy Work?

When red light hits human skin, the energy which exists in the form of photons travels through the skin to reach a specialized type of cell called a photoreceptor. This cell is unique because it has the ability to absorb photons, which then trigger biological processes. (As a side remark, photoreceptors are very heavily concentrated in the eye’s retina, and they are primarily responsible for our ability to absorb light through the human eye.)

Once the photons reach the photo-receptor, they initiate the release of nitric oxide, which is a neurotransmitter that triggers the release of ATP. As Adenosine triphosphate is released into the bloodstream, it jumpstarts the biochemical processes that provide the health benefits which draw people to Red light therapy.

Red light is a form of radiation that’s visible to the human eye, and which we have collectively agreed to call red.

Most wavelengths of light, such as ultraviolet, blue, or green light, don’t penetrate the skin deeply at all and are instead absorbed by the surface layers of the skin. Conversely, red light easily penetrates the skin, which makes it useful therapeutically for reaching cells and tissues deeper inside the body.

Over the past 100 years, red light therapies have been studied extensively on human beings and many other animals for dozens of diseases and conditions.

As it turns out, the cellular metabolic processes for humans and other creatures are very similar, which is why we see consistently similar health benefits among different species.

What Does Red Light Therapy Treat?

Since the first experimental study in rats, hundreds of clinical studies and thousands of laboratory studies have been conducted to determine if RLT has medical benefits.

While some studies have shown promising results, the benefits of red light therapy are still controversial. Additional clinical research is needed to demonstrate that RLT is effective. At the moment, however, home evidence suggests that RLT may offer the following benefits:

Pain Relief: There is some evidence that red light therapy modulates the inflammatory process and relieves acute pain in the short term. In one small study from 1992, red light therapy led to a 50% reduction in arthritis pain in degenerative osteoarthritis patients.

Hair Growth: Androgenetic alopecia, a genetic condition that causes hair loss, affects an estimated 80 million people worldwide and is the most prevalent cause of hair loss in men and women. According to a small study published in 2013, laser light therapy using red light significantly improved hair growth in men with androgenetic alopecia.

Reduce Inflаmmаtіоn: In animal studies, red light therapy was shown to reduce inflammation by reducing the level of pro-inflammatory molecules.

Improve Acne: Light-based and laser therapies are frequently used to treat acne because they penetrate deep within the skin. Red light targets your sebaceous glands, which release pore-clogging, acne-causing oils called sebum. This light therapy can reduce inflammation within the sebaceous glands, which may improve acne symptoms.

Prоmоtе Wоund Healing: Although research on adults is limited, anatomical and in vitro studies have shown that red light may accelerate the healing process of cutaneous wounds.

Improves Skіn Cоmрlеxіоn: Your skin is largely made up of collagen, a protein that prevents it from sagging and keeps it looking and feeling plump. Although collagen is naturally produced by the body, UV exposure, smoking, pollution exposure, and aging lower collagen production, causing the skin to lose elasticity and appear wrinkled. Researchers found that full-body exposure to red light over 30 days, twice a week, increased collagen density on patients’ faces and caused visible improvements in wrists and fingertips.

Currently, RLT is not endorsed or covered by insurance companies for these conditions due to a lack of sufficient evidence. However, some insurance companies now cover the use of RLT in order to prevent oral mucositis during cancer treatment.

While the internet is buzzing with news about miracle treatments for just about anything, red light therapy certainly isn’t a cure-all. RLT is considered experimental in most conditions.

There is limited-to-no evidence that red light therapy does the following:

  • Treats depression, ѕеаѕоnаl аffесtіvе dіѕоrdеr, аnd роѕtраrtum depression
  • Aсtіvаtеѕ thе lуmрhаtіс system tо hеlр “dеtоxіfу” the body
  • Boosts the іmmunе system
  • Rеduсеѕ cellulite
  • Aids in wеіght lоѕѕ
  • Treats back оr neck pain
  • Fіghtѕ реrіоdоntіtіѕ and dеntаl infections
  • Trеаtѕ саnсеr

As a reminder, when RLT was used with cancer treatments, the light was only used to activate another medication. Other light therapies have been used to treat the conditions above. Studies have found that white light therapy is more effective at treating symptoms of depression than red light therapy. It is more commonly used for acne, though it has only limited effectiveness.

Alternative Treatments To Red Light Therapy

Red light wavelengths aren’t the only wavelengths studied in formal research. In humans, blue light, green light, and a mixture of different wavelengths have also caused similar effects.

Various kinds of light-based therapy are available. Ask your doctor about:

  • Laser treatments
  • Nаturаl ѕunlіght
  • Bluе оr grееn lіght thеrару
  • Sаunа lіght therapy
  • Ultrаvіоlеt lіght B (UVB)
  • Psoralen and ultraviolet lіght A (PUVA)

Advantages Of Red Light Therapy Over Other Treatment Options

The medical and aesthetic issues mentioned above can be treated in many alternative ways. These include surgery, prescription medications, and herbal remedies, among others. RLT can provide similar, if not better, results than them without their downsides. The following are some of the advantages:

1. RLT Is Noninvasive

In a non-invasive procedure, no tools are used to insert into the skin or through bodily openings. All RLT devices merely project red light, but they do not break into the skin. Arthritic patients have been known to undergo surgery to relieve pain and inflammation. With RLT, both can be reduced without the need for invasive procedures.

Gum disease patients also undergo surgery to repair damaged tissue and stop tooth loss. The RLT reduces the pain associated with gum disease and helps the tissue grow back without requiring surgery.

2. RLT Is Affordable

Red light lamp devices are available on online platforms like Amazon for a mere $40 while whole body panels cost as low as $190. These kinds of prices are a steal when compared to hair transplant surgeries that are known to cost a minimum of $4,000 or sleeping/antidepressant medications, which can be equally expensive when taken for years. A single RLT device can serve your needs for years without needing to be replaced.

3. RLT Reduces Signs of Aging

RLT can improve the appearance of skin by removing wrinkles, stretch marks, and acne scars. Boosting energy and improving sleep cycles enable the body to function at higher levels of performance that were lost with age. In addition, increasing your hair count can make you look a decade younger because people associate more hair with youth.

4. RLT Does Not Negatively React With Alcohol

Drinking alcohol can have very adverse effects on many medications used to treat illnesses. Over the last two decades, many celebrities have died after mixing alcohol with medication before going to bed.

Red light therapy does not have any contradiction with alcohol intake, and some studies have shown that it can reduce the addictive feeling that alcoholics have. The field of optogenetics focuses on using light to influence brain neurons. Wake Forest University researchers used light to influence how dopamine is released by the brain. Addiction has been closely associated with dopamine.

At-Home vѕ. Prоfеѕѕіоnаl Red Lіght Thеrару Trеаtmеnt

As opposed to home beauty treatments, red light therapy doesn’t leave you feeling overly relaxed. As the light warms your skin, you will feel some warmth on your skin, but most people find it to be very relaxing.

You can perform red light therapy in a professional setting as part of your dermatological treatment, as part of your facial treatment by an esthetician, or at home using a device. You may even see red light therapy treatment booths in your fancy gym. 

Tools for professionals and home users are available in a wide variety of designs but are often in the form of handheld wands or masks, or even in full-body beds or stand-up panels. Even though the at-home version may be less potent than the professional version, they can still be beneficial.

In case you are planning on using red light therapy at home, make sure you do your research when looking for devices, especially with so many on the market now. 

Red light therapy is still debated, but most manufacturers recommend pointing the light at the hand’s several inches away for a few minutes. Treatments are gentle and require no downtime. To reap all the benefits, you must be consistent.

Cost of Red Light Therapy 

A professional red light therapy treatment can range from $25 for a facial add-on all the way to $200 for individual treatment. Some providers even include it in their treatment prices. It also depends on whether you are treating just your face or an entire bed.

You can find home facial devices ranging in price from $65 to $600 based on factors such as energy output (radiance), surface area, frequency shown in nanometer, and the variety of features & treatments the device offers. The price range for a full body panel or bed is $2,000 to $12,000, depending on the model.

Red Light Therapy Side Effects

Most of the side effects that red light therapy users have reported have been the result of their own lack of diligence.

An example of this is that some people have reported burns after they fell asleep exposed to an RLT device all through the night. Low-intensity light cannot burn skin unless you expose yourself to it for several hours at a time.

Skin burns can also occur when people deliberately expose themselves to RLT for hours because they believe the more they expose themselves, the faster they will reap the benefits. There is a limit to how much light you can absorb per session with this strategy. It is recommended that you spend about 30 minutes a day on healthy therapy.

Another potential risk involves a malfunctioning RLT device. If a device starts acting up, it can either produce too much or too little light. The excess light will cause burns, while too little will result in ineffective treatment.

Recent research has linked RLT to retinal damage in people who do not wear proper eye protection gear. When excess light reaches the eyes, the retina’s photon sensing cells are overstimulated and consequently release an excess of signaling chemicals, which destroy the back of the eye. This results in declining vision and in extreme cases, complete blindness. Blackout goggles are sometimes used on patients who are undergoing laser surgery near the eyes. They are also effective at protecting the eyes during red light therapy treatments because they block or dim light energy before it can reach the eyes.

Last but not least, if you are taking photosensitizing drugs like antihistamines or sulfa drugs, speak to your doctor first to prevent adverse reactions. The same goes for digoxin, which is a drug used to treat heart irregularity problems.

Red Light Therapy (RLT) FAQs

Is Red Light Therapy Safe For Use During Pregnancy?

Red light can be used by pregnant women without any negative side effects. In fact, there are several doctors who recommend its use because it has been shown to alleviate depression in women. Up to 7% of women experience depression at some point during their pregnancy. Depression presents as a feeling of sadness, self-loathing and low energy. The most likely cause of these feelings changes in hormones and chemicals in the brain. RLT alleviates depression by increasing energy levels by powering up mitochondrial function.

Should Red Light Therapy Be Used With Clothes On Or Off?

Red light therapy should always be done with the area being treated directly exposed to the light. Clothing material dampens or completely prevents the photons from adequately reaching the skin for absorption. The rest of the body can be covered during the treatment procedure.

How Long Will It Take To Start Getting Results?

To start getting positive results for skin wrinkles, you have to use RLT consistently for at least 2 weeks. You will start to notice small changes in skin tone, smoothness, and even a glow. Within two months, the results will be as clear as day for everyone to see. As for pain relief, it may take up to a month before the results start pouring in, depending on the location and intensity of the pain.

Can RLT Be Combined With Other Wavelengths?

Many researchers have gotten very positive results by combining red light and blue light, which operates at a wavelength interval of 490-450 nm. When treating acne, the red light boosts collagen production while the blue light targets acne-inducing bacteria called Propionibacterium. Together, you get far better results than you otherwise would if the two treatments had been used separately.

Is It Okay To Use Makeup When On RLT?

There is nothing wrong with using ordinary skincare products as long as you clean your face off them before using your RLT device. This is because they can either prevent the light from properly penetrating the skin or they can negatively react to the light. An example of this is found in acne creams that contain Benzoyl peroxide, which will cause skin irritation when under red light.

Is RLT Linked To Higher Cancer Rates?

The misconception that RLT can cause cancer is based on its conflation with tanning treatments that rely on UV light. Ultraviolet rays cause DNA damage that results in cells replicating at rapid rates resulting in cancer. Red light, on the other hand, actually aids in healthy DNA and RNA replication as well as cell growth. The only connection between RLT and cancer is that it helps to prevent cervical cancer by killing HPV.

Does RLT Lead To Weight Gain?

The answer here is a firm no, and in fact, there is some evidence that the exact opposite is true. It may sound farfetched to say that a person can lose weight just by sitting in front of an array of lights, but this is the power of RLT. Red light causes weight loss in two ways; the first is that it causes fat tissue to break down and be used for energy or converted to carbon dioxide, which is eventually removed from the body through urination or breathing.

The second way is that by increasing the amount of energy in the body through mitochondrial stimulation, your body feels more active, which encourages you to engage in physical activity for weight loss.

Red light therapy is so effective at causing weight loss that surgeons are turning to it as a safer option than liposuction surgery. About 1 in 50,000 people who undergo liposuction die during the procedure, and while this number may sound low, it is still a risk not worth taking if there is a safer alternative with zero chances of death.

Is Red Light Therapy FDA Approved?

The FDA has approved the use of several RLT devices for the treatment of pain. The FDA website allows you to search for a particular device and find out if it has been approved for use.

Does Health Insurance Cover RLT?

Unfortunately, health insurance companies do not cover RLT because they see it more as a cosmetic issue rather than a medical emergency. Their concern is that if they started covering cosmetic procedures, then people would overuse their insurance programs trying to improve their looks, leading to exorbitant costs on their part.

Can A Red Light Device Be Used On Plants?

Some of the earliest research into the impact of red light was done by NASA on plants. In fact, it was their research on trying to grow plants quicker in space that led to scientists testing the healing properties of RLT on humans. Today, many urban food growers who have the ability to control their growing environment use red light to have their plants germinate and flower quicker.

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