Is Red Light Therapy a New Miracle Skincare Treatment?

Or the next beauty gimmick designed to lighten your pocket? Read on! 

Everyone seems to be jumping on the red light therapy beauty bandwagon. Is it the next great leap in beauty treatments or yet another fad? Image by Freepik


Gadgets are nothing new.

In fact, we love gadgets. You know who really knows we love gadgets? The social media AI algorithms that keep showing you all sorts of fun-looking beauty tech. 

Bright lights, sleek design…


 As I recently talked about on the channel, I’ve noticed red light therapy geared towards improving skin, particularly the at home devices, has really been trending. Purported to do everything from helping wounds heal, mitigating scars, reducing inflammation, and stimulating collagen, is there nothing that these handheld devices, masks, even full body booths can’t do?


If you aren’t already partaking of the red glow trend, are you missing out? Or, if you’ve already shelled out hundreds of dollars, were you duped? You may be asking yourself,  does any of this stuff work? 


Like most things out there in the aesthetics and beauty world, the answer isn’t straight forward. Read on for my takes, caveats and – as always – a breakdown of the research. 


Does red light therapy really work? 

Short answer? Yes, BUT… 


Unlike a lot of other technologies out there being marketed to the masses, there’s enough evidence out there to show that, yeah, red light can make positive changes in your skin. Image by senivpetro for Freepik


Red light therapy has been around for over a hundred years, and (as far as science goes) its history is fascinating. Danish physician, Niels Finsen, received a Nobel prize in 1903 for discovering that exposure to concentrated red light accelerated the healing of sores in lupus patients, but no one really understood how it worked (and Nielsen was reluctant to use it) so it’s use in medicine fell to the wayside. It wasn’t until 1967, when a Hungarian researcher, Endre Mester, noted that red laser light helped promote wound healing and hair growth in rats that red light once again garnered some attention. Later, during the 80s and 90s, when researchers on the International Space Station were using red light emitting diodes to grow potatoes (red light therapy is actually a technology developed by NASA), they noticed that, when working with the red lights, wounds on their hands healed better – a big concern for space travel as our cells much prefer gravity. Astronauts are still hoping to use red light therapy one day to improve wound healing, muscle atrophy, and potentially the bone density loss that are all a barrier to long space flights. 


On the cosmetic end of the spectrum, research studies do indicate that red light can increase healthy (well ordered) collagen, improve skin texture, and assist with wound healing. It’s already used to treat some medical skin conditions, including psoriasis and acne (inflammation), vitiligo (encouraging melanocyte proliferation and inhibiting autoimmune depigmentation), and early research shows that red light therapy may inhibit melanoma skin cancer, making it a potential future treatment. Consumers are keen to use it for wrinkles and other signs of photoaging.

Sounds promising, right? Unfortunately, most (if not all) of these kinds of studies are being performed with very powerful lasers and high energy light emitting devices, the kinds that are too powerful, expensive, and dangerous to sell to people for use at home. Red light from an app on your phone just doesn’t cut it.


Red light therapy works through a biological process called photobiomodulation – Yes, it’s a real thing, though whether at home devices deliver measurable results is up for debate. Image by kroshka_nastya for Freepik


How Does it Work? Photobiomodulation


Unlike the early 1900s when the effects of red light were first discovered, we now have a much better grasp on how and why it works. 


Red light affects the skin through a process called photobiomodulation, where specific light wavelengths (600 nm -1050nm red, deep red, and near infrared) trigger biochemical processes in your skin cells. It’s science, not science fiction. 


The idea of light affecting the way your skin cells behave might sound vaguely reminiscent of your high school biology class on plant photosynthesis, and that’s because they are very similar processes. 


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Like photosynthesis, where photons excite specialized pigment molecules (chlorophyll) in plants to produce sugars and oxygen (without heat), certain wavelengths of red light can excite a chromophore in your mitochondria (cytochrome c), and make it behave more efficiently. The net result is an increase in the production of ATP (the energy unit your cells use), and an uptick in nitric oxide (NO) and reactive oxygen species (ROS), and the upregulation of downstream tissue repair pathways and collagen synthesis. 

Interestingly – and unlike many other kinds of light therapy – red light can actually penetrate quite deep into the hypodermis (particularly deep red – 650-950nm) of your skin. It’s capable of reaching keratinocytes and fibroblasts, which are crucial for producing collagen and elastin, and research is demonstrating that red light might be capable of making skin behave younger.


Photobiomodulation works by stimulating mitochondria (an organelle in your cells) to essentially produce more ATP. Decreased cell death, increased blood flow, growth factor activation, MMP reduction, and collagen upregulation – what’s not to like? Image by julos on Freepik


What does this all mean for you?

Some of you may have skipped right here to find out if you should be buying an at home device (or you’ve already got one in your cart). 


Well…that’s where things get complicated. 


Yes, researchers are confident that red light treatments can really work to improve some skin conditions but there aren’t a lot of reliable clinical trials at this point, and the devices online you might be considering? 


They’re not nearly as powerful as the ones used in clinical settings (or research) and the regulation (as one team of researchers put it) is currently akin to the wild west. Though many products are what’s called FDA cleared and safe for at home use, that’s different from being FDA approved for efficacy. Do these red light devices work? We have no idea. 


There’s also the time and cost that you need to factor in. The devices on the market are pricey and need to be used regularly to see any kind of result. Unfortunately, after the novelty wears off, these kinds of devices tend to migrate to the back of the ‘cool stuff’ drawer, only to be found a few years later. 


My Red Light Takeaway


Gadgets are fun but think hard before you buy and make sure you stick to your budget. Red light devices are far from a slam dunk and definitely not a replacement for medical intervention or surgery. 


If this is something you’re super keen to try, look into medical grade treatments first to see if it works for you. If you’re set on an at home option? Go with a known brand (Foreo, Dr. Dennis Gross, CurrentBody, etc) as they’ve staked their reputations on these devices and are under more scrutiny than a ‘no name brand’ deal. 


And remember – they aren’t risk free – especially where your eyes are concerned. Only use as directed.  


What’s in your Red Light Device?


LEDs (light emitting diode): What most red light therapy devices sold to consumers contain. LEDs are low power, cheap to produce, and small, so they’re easy to fit into a device. Omnidirectional – meaning the light is scattered and unfocused. Ultimately why they’re not very powerful. 


Conventional Lasers: Expensive, big, very, very powerful. Directional, stimulated – meaning a single beam of light can be focused with precision to specific depths. Very large and require an excitation medium (argon, mercury, helium etc). Not available in a device. Medical offices and research only. 


Laser Diode (LED powered laser) – A hybrid laser available in at home laser devices. Laser diodes are similar to a conventional laser in that the light is stimulated and directional but they’re small and much less powerful. Less control over depth of the laser penetration. 


Looking for skin care products that can really help your skin look and feel it’s best? My Feel Confident skin care products are launching very soon – sign up to our mailing list to be the first to know!  

Written by
Kristi Charish
Edited by
Dr. Gary Linkov
The content of this newsletter is for entertainment and educational purposes only. This content is not meant to provide any medical advice or treat any medical conditions. Patients must be evaluated by an appropriate healthcare provider on an individual basis and treatment must be tailored to meet that patient’s needs. Results and particular outcomes are not guaranteed.
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