Red light therapy (RLT) is a type of photomedicine, a wellness approach that uses light of different wavelengths to treat various health conditions. Red light exists at wavelengths between 620 nanometers (nm) and 750 nm, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research. According to the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, certain wavelengths of light cause changes in cells that affect how they function for the better.
Red light therapy is considered an adjunctive therapy, meaning it is intended to be used alongside conventional health care and MD-approved treatments. For example, if you have fine lines and wrinkles, you can use red light therapy with dermatologist-directed topicals, such as retinoids, or in-office treatments, such as injections or lasers. If you have a sports injury, your physical therapist may also treat you with red light therapy.
One of the problems with red light therapy is that research is not clear on exactly how and how much of this approach is needed, and how these protocols change depending on the health problem you want to address. In other words, there must be standardization everywhere, and such standards have not yet been established by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, according to some research and experts, red light therapy may be a promising adjunctive therapy for a number of health and skin care issues. Just remember, as always, to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment.
Here are some of the possible health benefits that red light therapy can bring to your overall health care routine.
1. It can deal with skin and hair problems, from acne to wrinkles
One of the most popular uses of red light therapy is for skin diseases. Devices at home are readily available and have become fashionable as a result. These are the conditions red light can (and can’t) treat.
- Lines and wrinkles Red light therapy can be used to treat and prevent lines and wrinkles, says Jared Jagdeo, MD, founding director of the Center for Photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, New York. Some research shows that red light can stimulate collagen to smooth lines and wrinkles. Note: You may see best results for moderate lines rather than those that are already deeply etched. At that point, says Dr. Jagdeo, you’ll probably need additional treatments in combination with red light (such as laser treatments).
- Acne Pimples don’t automatically disappear with age—there are many people who deal with acne along with lines and wrinkles. And you may be able to manage both with one treatment. In a small randomized controlled clinical trial published in January 2022 in Photodermatology, photoimmunology and photomedicinered light therapy reduced lesions by 36 percent in people with mild to moderate acne. Red light can help reduce inflammation and can help kill bacteria, both known causes of acne, Jagdeo says.
- Redness It seems counterintuitive that red light would counteract redness, but one of its primary functions is to reduce inflammation. Less inflammation in the skin can ease redness, Jagdeo says. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research to show that red light is effective in treating skin conditions like psoriasis, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- Hair growth Red light can be another treatment for hair loss, notes Jagdeo. “Red light helps reduce inflammation and promotes more blood flow to the scalp and hair, allowing the follicles to receive more oxygen and nutrients,” he explains. A literature review published in July 2020 in Disorders of skin appendages of 10 controlled studies of low-level laser therapy (LLLT), which uses light in the red and near-infrared spectrum, concluded that this treatment may have increased hair thickness and density compared to controls and is very safe, with minor side effects such as itchy scalp.
2. It can reduce pain
Research is still emerging on red light’s ability to reduce pain in various chronic conditions. “If you use the right dose and protocol, you can use red light to reduce pain and inflammation,” says Praveen Arani, Ph.D., associate professor at the University at Buffalo and interim director of the Center of Excellence for Photobiomodulation at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown. , West Virginia.
How so? “There is a specific protein on the surface of the neuron that, when it absorbs light, reduces the cell’s ability to conduct or perceive pain,” explains Dr. Arani. Past research has shown that LLLT may be helpful in controlling pain in those who have neuropathy (nerve pain usually caused by diabetes, according to the Cleveland Clinic).
As for other issues, such as pain from inflammatory conditions, much of the research is still done in animals, so it’s unclear how red light therapy might fit into a pain treatment plan in humans.
That said, according to a study published on October 17, 2018 in Lasers in medicine on chronic back pain in humans as well as temporomandibular disorder (jaw pain and discomfort) published in Medicine in February 2019 red light therapy may be useful in treating pain from a complementary perspective, and further research is needed to better understand the relationship between RLT and pain relief.
3. May aid in athletic performance and injury recovery
Red light can stimulate your mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells), triggering an enzyme that drives ATP (the cell’s “energy currency” according to StatPearls), which ultimately benefits muscle growth and recovery, according to research published in April 2020 d. c Limits in sports and active life. Therefore, photobiomodulation (PBM) treatment with red or near-infrared lights before exercise can improve muscle performance, heal muscle injuries and reduce pain and soreness after exercise, notes research published in AIMS Biophysics in 2017.
Again, these conclusions are not well established. Review published in December 2021 in the journal life points out that there are still questions about how to use these light therapies in terms of the right wavelengths and timing, depending on the sport, how to apply them to each muscle, and whether and how they translate into performance gains.
4. It can help with brain health
One emerging potential benefit of red light therapy is brain health—yes, applying light to your head via a helmet.
“There are striking studies that show photobiomodulation treatment [can potentially] improve neurocognitive abilities,” says Arani. PBM can not only reduce inflammation, but it can also improve blood flow and oxygen to form new neurons and synapses in the brain, which may be beneficial in people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or strokes, according to an article, published in Journal of Neuroscience Research in April 2018
According to research published in BBA Clinical as of December 2016, scientists are still learning when to administer PBM treatment and whether it can be used immediately after a brain injury or years later; still something to keep an eye on.
Another promising benefit? Ongoing research into the use of red and near-infrared light to treat post-concussion symptoms may show benefits, according to the Concussion Alliance.
5. May improve wound healing
From skin to oral wounds, red light can be used to enhance healing. In these cases, a red light will be applied to the wound area until it fully heals, Arani says. A small study from Malaysia published in May 2021 in International Journal of Lower Extremity Wounds shows that PBM can be used in conjunction with standard care to close diabetic foot ulcers; preliminary animal studies published in July 2021 c Photobiomodulation, photomedicine and laser surgery suggests it may be useful in burns; and other research published in May 2022 c BMC Oral Health shows that PBM can help wound healing after oral surgery.
In addition, PBM can improve cell function, reduce inflammation and pain, stimulate tissue regeneration and release growth factors, among other benefits, to speed healing, notes research published in October 2021 in International Journal of Molecular Science — larger studies and human studies are needed.
6. May reduce side effects of cancer treatment
One possible side effect of chemotherapy or radiation therapy is oral mucositis, which is pain, sores, infection, and bleeding in the mouth, according to MedlinePlus. It is well established that PBM can prevent or treat this specific side effect, according to a systematic review published in August 2022. Frontiers in Oncology.
In addition, PBM has been used successfully in skin damage from radiation treatment and lymphedema after mastectomy—and light therapy did not cause any additional side effects, notes a review published in June 2019 in Oral oncology.
PBM itself is seen as a potential future cancer treatment, as it may stimulate the body’s immune response or enhance other anti-cancer therapies to help kill cancer cells. More research is needed.