What Is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy is a wellness treatment that has been gaining popularity lately.

Red light therapy is a wellness treatment that uses low-wavelength infrared LED light to treat cosmetic and medical skin conditions like acne, scars, and wrinkles. The goal of red light therapy is to stimulate healing in the body.

This non-invasive procedure is painless and likely low-risk. However, there is still a lack of evidence to determine if red light therapy is an effective treatment for chronic diseases. 

Red light therapy is sometimes referred to as:

  • Biostimulation
  • Cold laser therapy
  • Low-level laser light therapy
  • Low-power laser therapy
  • Photobiomodulation
  • Soft laser therapy 
A woman undergoing red light therapy in the face

puhhha / Getty Images

How Does Red Light Therapy Work? 

Red light therapy works by affecting the mitochondria in your cells. Mitochondria are known as cell energy generators. 

Mitochondria are responsible for generating energy, which is stored as the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Over time, our mitochondria produce less ATP due to changes related to aging, illness, and lifestyle factors. Red light therapy may improve healing in the body, by stimulating your mitochondria to produce more ATP, and therefore helping your cells do their work more efficiently. For example, repairing skin, and boosting new cell growth. 

Exposure to red light can also activate the cells to speed up the production of antioxidants. This results in lower levels of inflammation. 

Why Red Light?

Red light therapy utilizes red light specifically because of its ability to penetrate body tissues. This type of wavelength is more easily absorbed by the parts of the cells that capture light energy. This allows the cells to better utilize red light as opposed to other types of wavelengths.

What Can Red Light Therapy Treat? 

Skin conditions that may benefit from red light therapy include:

  • Acne: More research is needed but red light therapy may treat acne by lowering the amount of inflammation and oil in the skin.
  • Hair loss: Red light therapy may stimulate new hair growth in both men and women experiencing alopecia or hair loss.
  • Signs of aging: Red light therapy may improve the appearance of the skin that has been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. It works by stimulating collagen production to minimize wrinkles and tighten the skin.
  • Chronic wounds: The wavelengths from red light may stimulate new growth of skin cells and blood vessels. This increased circulation could speed up wound healing.
  • Psoriasis: Red light therapy is a common treatment for mild to moderate psoriasis because of its ability to lower inflammation in the skin.
  • Cold sores: Red light therapy may be an effective treatment for herpes cold sores. The procedure may even prevent cold sores but more research is needed to establish this link.

Other conditions that red light therapy may improve include:

  • Osteoarthritis: Research has found that exposure to red light therapy may improve pain and disability level in those with osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis affecting the joints. 
  • Tendinitis: Those with tendinitis, a condition where the tissue that connects muscles to bones becomes inflamed, or other muscle strains may benefit from using red light therapy before a workout. The procedure has been shown to improve sports performance in those with muscle pain.
  • Mouth pain: Your dental provider may recommend red light therapy if you suffer from mouth pain or ulcers. It could also help to eliminate harmful bacteria in the mouth.
  • Anxiety: Red light therapy may improve anxiety symptoms and promote better sleep in those with generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: Red light therapy may break down a substance in the brain, known as formaldehyde, that is associated with memory loss. The procedure may improve the cognitive function of those with mild Alzheimer’s disease. 

What Can't Red Light Therapy Do? 

Red light therapy has several potential benefits but more research is needed. At this time, there not sufficient evidence to conclude that red light therapy is beneficial or safe for treating the following conditions:

  • Cancer: Red light therapy has not been proven safe to be used during cancer treatments or near tumors.
  • Obesity: Some small studies have examined the effect of red light therapy on waist circumference. However, there is no evidence to support using red light therapy for weight loss.
  • Back pain: Red light therapy has been used to treat mouth pain but there is not enough evidence to know if it can treat other types such as back pain.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): You may have heard of light therapy for SAD treatment but red light therapy has not been proven effective.

Types of Red Light Therapy Treatment

Red light therapy is available from a health or cosmetic provider. It can also be performed at home. Red light therapy may be available at the following locations:

  • Healthcare provider’s office
  • Dental office
  • Medical spa 
  • Beauty clinic 
  • Tanning salon 
  • Home 

Is Red Light Therapy Effective? 

Red light therapy is a noninvasive procedure that is safe for most healthy adults. It does not use UV rays, which are linked to an increased risk of skin cancer. It’s considered a nontoxic treatment. 

More research is needed to determine if red light therapy is effective. There is evidence of red light therapy improving the appearance of the skin. However, most studies on red light therapy are small and need larger sample sizes.

Are There Any Cons to Red Light Therapy? 

Red light therapy appears to be safe for most healthy adults. However, because there is a lack of research about this procedure, we do not know the long-term effects of it. There may be complications of using red light therapy too often or incorrectly.

It is always important to talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new health regimen. If you have sensitive skin or diabetes, do not use red light therapy without talking with your healthcare team. Red light therapy has not been proven safe for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Alternatives to Red Light Therapy

If you’re not sure if red light therapy is for you, there are other natural ways to treat skin and chronic conditions. Start with a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and exercising each day. 

A healthy diet can provide many of the same benefits of red light therapy, including improved skin appearance and lower inflammation. Talk with your healthcare provider about following an anti-inflammatory diet to improve chronic inflammation.

Acupuncture and cupping are two alternative treatments that have been found to improve pain, stimulate blood flow, and reduce inflammation.

To treat anxiety, consider meeting with a therapist to learn about cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy has been proven to effectively manage anxiety and depression.

A Quick Review

Red light therapy is a treatment that uses infrared light to treat both cosmetic and medical conditions such as acne, scars and wrinkles.

Red light therapy has many potential benefits and may be an effective treatment for skin conditions, dental pain, inflammatory conditions, and other chronic health problems. However, more research is needed to determine if red light therapy is a safe and effective treatment option. 

If you’re interested in trying red light therapy, talk with your healthcare provider. Red light therapy can be provided at home, a healthcare office, or a medical spa.

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22 Sources
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