This time of year, it's hard not to feel the winter blues. But do those light therapy boxes really work?

By Alison Mango
Updated December 22, 2015
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This time of year, it's hard not to feel the winter blues. The shorter days and limited sunlight leave many of us with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that hits during the winter months.

Luckily, there are a few therapies that can successfully treat SAD—most notably cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and light therapy. CBT, which is a form of talk therapy, teaches people to change the negative thought patterns and action ("It's too cold to go out tonight") that can lead to seasonal depression.

Light therapy, on the other hand, uses super-bright, full spectrum light to counteract the mood-dampening effects of short days. Sitting in front of a light therapy box may alter brain chemicals and help correct the body's internal clock, which gets thrown off balance with the change in season.

"It works because it's fooling your system in a positive way," said Ben Michaelis, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy ($12.95, "It modifies the amount of light you're exposed to, which affects the levels of serotonin and melatonin in your body."

Interestingly, new depression research suggests that light therapy may even help people with major depressive disorder. The study, out of Canada, found that 60% of patients on a combination therapy of an antidepressant plus light therapy went into remission, as did 40% of patients treated with light therapy alone.

Dr. Michaelis advises sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes each day (just check in with your doctor first). Many people find that light therapy works best when they do it within an hour of waking up, but others have success using the device in the middle of the day or even the evening.

Side effects aren't common, but may include headaches, nausea, or eyestrain. Cutting back on light therapy time should alleviate these symptoms, Dr. Michaelis says.

If you have bipolar disorder or the condition runs in your family, steer clear unless you get a green light from your doctor. "Some get an agitated mania after extensive exposure to bright light therapy," Dr. Michaelis explains.

When shopping, look for a model that emits no less than 10,000 LUX (which is the highest recommended output) with the least UV output, Dr. Michaelis advises. Most light boxes use a screen to filter out the UV rays, making it safer for your skin and eyes. Also stick with a device designed for the treatment of SAD (there are light therapies for other conditions, such as phototherapy for skin problems, but they won't help your mood).

Need some suggestions? These are three light boxes with 10,000 LUX and a low-to-no UV ray output. Each comes with a recommended seating distance based on its size and light output.


Verilux HappyLight Liberty 10K ($100;

A top-rated light box, the Verilux HappyLight Liberty features an intensity control and a tilt design, letting you adjust the direction of the light. Most importantly, the Liberty emits no UV rays, so you can feel good about using it.


Aura Light Therapy Lamp ($80;

Our cheapest pick, this pick is a few inches shorter than the Verilux lamp and is also UV-free. The only downside? It isn't adjustable.


Carex Day-Light Classic ($200;

This gizmo is great if you have some space—it is over 30 inches tall—and want a box that can tilt and swivel. It shields you from 99.3% of UV rays.