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Red Light Therapy: Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Red light therapy is becoming the go-to solution for a variety of health and beauty concerns. This easy, non-invasive treatment uses low-level red light to penetrate the skin and boost cell repair and growth.

Red light therapy promises a lot, from reducing wrinkles and scars to easing chronic pain and inflammation. While many people see great results, it’s important to know both the benefits and any potential downsides. In this article, we’ll dive into what red light therapy is, the different types available, its potential benefits, and any possible side effects. We’ll also explore the latest research and alternative treatments so you can make an informed decision.

What is red light therapy?

Red light therapy uses low-level wavelengths of red light to promote cell growth and regeneration. This non-invasive treatment works by penetrating the skin to a depth that aims to reduce inflammation, enhance collagen production, and improve circulation.

Red light therapy as a skin treatment shows promising initial results, although evidence is limited for many of these claims. There is early research to suggest that it may reduce wrinkles, scars, and acne, help with chronic pain and inflammation, boost muscle recovery, and potentially even aid weight loss. These benefits are being explored in research, yet their effectiveness is not established.

Treatments are usually done using devices like LED panels or handheld gadgets, which emit red light onto the target areas. This painless method offers a natural approach to improving skin health and boosting your body's healing processes.

Types of red light therapy

There are several different types of red light therapy, each designed to target specific needs. Your choice will depend on your intended use for the treatment, your budget, and whether you plan to use it at home or a spa or treatment center. Here’s a breakdown of the main types:

LED light panels

LED light panels are the most common type of red light therapy device. They can cover large areas of skin, making them a great choice for full-body treatments. These panels emit specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light and are often used in spas and at home as a skin treatment or for post-workout recovery.

Handheld devices

Handheld red light therapy devices are portable and convenient, making them ideal for smaller areas such as the face, joints, or specific muscle groups. These devices are popular for treating acne, fine lines, and localized pain relief.

Red light masks

Red light masks are specifically designed for facial treatments. They are often used to improve skin tone, reduce signs of aging, and treat acne. These masks fit over your face to provide an even distribution of red light.

Reviewing the benefits of red light therapy

Early research points toward many potential benefits of red light therapy. Here are some of the top ways this promising treatment may help:

  • Reducing wrinkles and fine lines while improving skin texture, elasticity, and tone. Some research suggests that it may also be beneficial for acne treatment and may help reduce the appearance of scars.
  • Improving pain and swelling associated with chronic conditions like arthritis. However, all current studies on arthritis and red light therapy use animal subjects or human cells in a lab setting. Clinical trials are needed on humans with arthritis to confirm this link.
  • Improving hair growth in people with hair loss conditions like male pattern baldness, although larger studies are needed to confirm this.
  • Improving healing for skin wounds, making it a potential postoperative or post-injury treatment. However, consulting a medical professional before using red light therapy for wound healing is crucial.
  • Losing weight, although further research in this area is needed as current studies need to be developed to prove this link.

Not all of the proposed benefits have sufficient evidence from studies involving humans. The parameters of red light therapy used in different studies are highly variable, and there is a lack of consensus on the parameters most effective for the listed conditions.

Does red light therapy have any side effects?

Red light therapy is generally considered safe and well-tolerated, with minimal side effects. However, as with any treatment, some people may experience mild reactions.

People with darker skin should take particular care, as research shows darker skin is more photosensitive and may require a lower dose than paler skin. People taking medications that increase their sensitivity to light may also have a higher risk of skin damage.

One study investigated high-dose red light therapy to identify side effects. If the dosage of red light is too high, you may experience:

  • Blistering
  • Skin redness
  • Darkening of the skin

No serious side effects are associated with red light therapy. However, as an emerging treatment, its long-term safety is unknown. To minimize risks, follow manufacturer guidelines and speak to a healthcare professional before starting treatment, especially if you have sensitive skin or underlying health conditions.

Concerns exist about eye damage and red light therapy, but research on myopia in children suggests red light therapy can be effectively used as a treatment for eye conditions. This research suggests it is safe for the eyes, although further studies specifically on red light therapy and the long-term effects on eye health are required. If you have a medical condition affecting your eyes or find the treatment uncomfortable, seek medical advice before continuing.

The effectiveness of red light therapy: does it work?

Studies on red light therapy show promising results for a wide range of conditions. In terms of skin health, research from 2014 suggests it can improve skin complexion, collagen density, and skin roughness, as shown in a group of volunteers who were treated with red light therapy twice per week.

Many studies on the effects of red light therapy on joint pain have been conducted using animal models. A 2010 study on rats with arthritis found that low-level light therapy reduced swelling by 23% and joint movement problems by 59%, suggesting these findings are worth exploring in humans.

Light therapy, including red light, has also been shown to improve physical performance through several methods. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training explored the details of these methods. It found that red light therapy delays the onset of fatigue, reduces the feeling of tiredness, improves recovery after exercise, and protects cells from damage caused by exercise.

Finally, a 2013 study published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine looked at red light therapy as a treatment for male pattern baldness. Forty-one men with this condition completed the study, and the red light group showed a 39% increase in hair count compared to the placebo group. This resulted in a 35% increase in hair growth for the active group compared to the non-treated group, a promising result for red light therapy as a hair loss treatment.

Red light therapy alternatives

If you're seeking alternatives to red light therapy, several remedies and products may address similar issues. Many of these can also be used alongside red light therapy. For skin health and anti-aging, topical treatments like retinoids, vitamin C serums, and hyaluronic acid can potentially improve skin texture and reduce wrinkles.

Regular exercise and a balanced diet rich in antioxidants can improve your overall health and skin appearance. Natural supplements like turmeric (curcumin) and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Additionally, practices like yoga, acupuncture, and massage therapy can be relaxing, improve circulation, and ease pain. If you’re unsure where to get started or feel overwhelmed by the huge number of treatments available, consult a healthcare professional for a personalized health improvement plan.

How to choose the best red light therapy device?

Choosing the best red light therapy device involves considering several factors.

  • First, assess your needs and what specific conditions you aim to address.
  • Look for devices with the appropriate wavelengths (usually around 630-660 nm for red light therapy) and optimal power output for effective treatment.
  • Additionally, consider the device's size, portability, and ease of use, especially if you plan to use it frequently or while traveling. Don't forget to look for safety certifications and user reviews to ensure reliability.
  • You may also need to compare features like timer settings, intensity levels, and additional functionalities such as interchangeable heads or adjustable stands.
  • Finally, consider your budget and weigh the cost against the features and effectiveness of the device to find the best value for your needs.

📝Healthnews editor's top picks

If you're considering red light therapy, our dedicated article might offer valuable insights. Explore some of the leading red light therapy devices on the market, tailored to address various health needs such as hair loss, skin issues, and pain relief.

Kiierr Laser Cap Hair Growth System
  • FDA-cleared for hair loss
  • Portable
  • Two size options available
  • 7 month money-back guarantee

What we liked most about Kiierr is its strong online reputation, with many customers reporting positive effects. However, one downside is that the cap can be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods.

Mito Red Full Body Mat Light Therapy
  • Portable and light-weight
  • Features comprehensive manual
  • Targets full body
  • 1 year of warranty

What we liked most about Mito Red Light is its design with premium neoprene, which is gentle on sensitive skin. It also has the potential to enhance full body wellness. However, it is one of the more expensive devices on the list, so it may not be the most affordable option for everyone.

NovaaLab Light Pad knee pad
  • Certified and FDA-cleared
  • Adjustable velcro strap for versatile usage
  • Free shipping included
  • 2-year warranty

We appreciated Novaalab's user-friendly design and the brand's support from various certifications, including RoHS, CE, and FDA clearance, indicating high-quality standards. However, we were disappointed by the lack of reviews for this particular device on Novaalab’s website.

Solawave 4-in-1 Red Light Therapy Skincare Wand & Activating Serum Kit
  • Offers 4 different types of skincare treatments
  • Galvanic current helps improve the efficacy of other skincare products
  • 100% satisfaction guaranteed
  • Free shipping over $20

We liked that Solawave is designed to address various skin concerns, potentially reducing the appearance of tired under-eye circles and bags. It also offers convenient applications that may enhance the absorption of serums and creams. However, the device is quite expensive, given its targeted use is only for the face.

Omnilux Clear
  • Dual LED technology for targeted application
  • Comfortable design
  • Clinically tested
  • FDA-cleared

We appreciated that the Omnilux mask is FDA-cleared, tested, and supported by peer-reviewed studies, making it an exceptional medical-grade red light therapy device. However, the mask is only intended to treat mild to moderate acne. If you're seeking a device for revitalizing aging skin, you would need to consider other options.

Diving into the latest research on red light therapy

Further research is needed on the effects of red light therapy. Most research on this up-and-coming treatment involves animal subjects or small groups of human participants. However, results are promising so far.

Muscle recovery

A 2013 study published in Lasers in Medical Science examined the effects of red light therapy on muscle soreness after exercise. This small study included 17 young, healthy male volunteers who received a single red light therapy session at a dosage of 630 nm. Muscle soreness, muscle strength loss, and range of motion impairments were significantly reduced up to 96 hours after a tough workout for the group treated with red light therapy compared to the placebo group.

Acne

According to some clinical trials, red light therapy may be beneficial for the treatment of acne, especially when combined with blue light.

However, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2021 concluded that there is a huge variability in study results and a lack of large-scale studies examining red light therapy for acne. When compared to conventional treatment methods, red light therapy was not linked to superior results in treating moderate to severe acne vulgaris.

Spinal cord injury

Research from 2016 investigated the effects of red light therapy on pain and function after a mild spinal cord injury. This study, published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation, used rats as participants. Red light treatment reduced pain hypersensitivity and improved function, suggesting this is worth further research on human subjects.

Wound healing

A 2016 review explored red light therapy as a treatment for skin wounds. This research, published in Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, reviewed the available studies on this topic. These were mostly on rats and mice, but a few human studies existed.

Results suggested that red and near-infrared light therapy may improve wound healing from burns, diabetic ulcers, and other types of skin wounds. It may also encourage faster and more effective wound healing, reduce inflammation, boost collagen production, and accelerate tissue repair.

Weight loss

Studies suggest red light therapy may be a useful weight loss tool that could help you reduce body fat. A 2009 study published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine investigated this link. It found that 67 people who received red light therapy three times a week for two weeks lost 3.5 inches from their abs, hips, and thighs combined, compared to the control group, which lost less than one inch.

More recent studies exist on red light therapy for weight loss, but many lack a control group or have an even smaller number of participants. Further research is needed to confirm this link.

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