Photodynamic Therapy: What is It?

What is Photodynamic Therapy Used For?

You may already have heard about light therapy for skin such as: anti-aging, for acne and wrinkles.  A somewhat similar therapy is photodynamic therapy, or PDT. Photodynamic therapy and other types of light therapy, such as blue light therapy, often get mixed up. So here we are going to answer the question: what is photodynamic therapy?

Photodynamic therapy is a type of light therapy for skin treatment where a photosensitizer is first applied, making the skin much more reactive to the light that follows. This can be used for many different conditions. PDT is typically done by a physician.

So what is PDT good for? Well, one condition it is sometimes used to treat is skin cancer.

For example, in 2007 Braathen et al. described the use of photodynamic therapy as being a useful technique  to treat some of non-melanoma skin cancers . This is very interesting, as the fundamental basis is the same as it is for low level light therapy (or LLLT) cosmetic treatments. You can see the effect I am talking about in the PDT before and after photos below.

Effect of treatment described by  Braathen et al. 2007,  J Am Acad. Dermatol.  AK lesion in field cancer-ridden area before (A) and after (B) PDT treatment.

skin cancer before and after photo photodynamic therapy

If you would like to learn more about the scientific side,  click here to read the complete article.

If you want see more red light therapy before and after photos, check out this page. Different dermatologists and also people that already tried light therapy post their comments and pictures there.

What I can say is that PDT is a trusted, established medical technique. Its effects are scientifically demonstrated. Obviously, PDT should only be done by a qualified medical professional.

Often, PDT gets confused with blue light therapy, which is a treatment that does not need to be administered by a doctor. Click here to read more about blue light therapy.

What is Red Light Therapy Good For?

woman using red light therapy for skin rejuvenationRed light therapy– the use of diffused light in the wavelength range of 620 to 750 to cause changes in a living organism’s tissue- has been researched for many different uses.  The research has steadily increased over the past few decades and now we have more information on which conditions red light therapy is good for (and which it is not).

Often, you will see the term “light therapy” referring to the light boxes made to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD lights have gained popularity in mainstream medicine because doctors and scientists agree that they are effective. They are ultra bright lights that mimic sunlight, which is another type of light known to help people suffering from SAD. This helps a person with SAD regulate his or her circadian rhythm (known to be part of what causes SAD). What’s great about SAD lights is that not only do they help people who have SAD, they expose people to the idea of light therapy.

However, there are many, many more uses for light therapy that have been researched. (Note: This does not mean light therapy was determined to be effective in all cases on this list.)  Some of these potential uses for red light therapy or other light therapy include:

What Uses of Red Light Therapy are FDA Approved?

The FDA has approved certain light therapy devices to be marketed for specific conditions. These conditions include:

  • Diabetic neuropathy (880 nm infrared light therapy)
  • Ulcers of the mouth in those taking chemotherapy (660 nm red light therapy)
  • Wrinkles (infrared light therapy)
  • Pimples/acne (infrared, blue and blue/red light therapy combinations, respectively)
  • Tendonitis
  • Joint pain
  • Fibromyalgia

Types of Light Used in Light Therapy

light therapyRed Light Therapy, Blue Light Therapy, Near-Infrared Light Therapy and Far-Infrared Light Therapy

Some of the most common types of light therapy you’ll find used are red light therapy, blue light therapy, and infrared light therapy (either near- or far-infrared). While there is some debate over which wavelength is best, it’s generally becoming clear that certain wavelengths are best for certain conditions. If you were thinking of trying light therapy, you would first want to decide what result you are trying to achieve. Then you would select the wavelength and type of light believed to be effective for that condition (based on the research available).

Red and near-infrared light wavelengths can penetrate anywhere between one to six inches deep (scientists don’t agree on how deep). While scientists do not know for certain how light therapy works, there are theories. One popular view is that the light triggers the cell to make more energy (ATP) and increases DNA and RNA activity.

Some believe that this beneficial energy effect only occurs if the cell is damaged. This idea makes sense because it is usually damaged or diseased cells that one is trying to treat. However, light therapy could also have benefits for healthy cells.

Which Type of Light to Use: LED’s, Sunlight, Infrared, Etc.

The type of light that is best depends on your condition and what effect you are trying to achieve.

Sunlight is one type of light people use for light therapy. Sunlight may be chosen to increase vitamin D levels or improve fibromyalgia symptoms, for example. While sunlight can be very bright (and therefore very powerful), not everyone has access to full, bright sunlight year-round. When a more powerful light is needed, or when sunlight is not sufficiently available, another light source can be chosen. Usually, the choice is LED’s (light emitting diodes).

LED’s are by far the most popular light source used for red light therapy and blue light therapy. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is that LED’s are capable of producing extremely bright, powerful (and therefore effective) light. Despite being extremely bright, LED’s require little energy and do not get as hot as other types of lighting. So using LED’s can be practical and also save on energy and costs. LED’s, because they’re stronger, can get the same effects faster than other light sources.

Other types of light can be used for different types of light therapy. For some conditions, these types are actually better than LED’s. An example might be using a halogen or fluorescent bulb.

What about Halogen Lights for Light Therapy?

Halogen lights put off light with a mixture of wavelengths. This “mix” is not that different from regular sunlight- it’s in the 600 to 900 nm range. This type of light can be effective and inexpensive, but it is not ideal for most applications. That is because the light it produces is not concentrated in the specific wavelengths known to be ideal/most effective.

Halogen can still have beneficial effects, however. For instance, some users of halogen light claim it temporarily reduced pain and irritation from injury. At least one other claim I’ve seen is that exercising in front of a halogen light burned more calories.

Infrared Light Therapy

Red light therapy for pain is not a new idea- people have been using infrared light for quite some time. It was believed that the heat the lamp produced was what helped so much. Now it is known that near-infrared light plays a role in relieving pain.

How Much Can Light Therapy Help Me?

There are a lot of factors in determining how much light therapy might help you: your condition, power of light used, source of light and more.

Light therapy is a very useful tool for some purposes, but it is not a magic cure-all. It is usually best used in addition to other treatments or therapies. For instance, if you are using light therapy to relieve pain, you might also apply ice and take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Light therapy should never be used as a substitute for professional medical care.

If you are using red light therapy for acne, you’d probably get maximum benefit from using it in addition to other treatments, such as topical antioxidant or anti-acne creams.

Results vary from person to person, but to give you an idea, some people say that after using light therapy for pain, their pain is reduced by 50-75%. The pain relief is temporary and usually lasts 4-6 hours. However, it is believed that using light therapy could help the injury actually heal faster.

If you have pain or a potentially serious injury, be sure to seek medical advice first!

What Wavelengths Should I Use?

The wavelength and type of light you choose depend on the results you are trying to achieve. Generally speaking, the most effective wavelengths of light are specific ranges:

  • 610 to 625 nm
  • 660 to 690 nm
  • 750 to 770 nm
  • 815 to 860 nm

How Much Light Therapy Should I Do?

When it comes to light therapy, more is not better. Doing light therapy treatments too much can cancel out the benefits you receive and depending on the type and source of light, it could also cause harm. For instance, in the case of sunlight or UV light therapy, more is not better.

If you are using light therapy for a condition that causes pain, it’s advised that you use it only long enough to cause a reduction in pain. This helps ensure you don’t overuse it and only use it enough to get the optimal result. The pain relief experienced is usually temporary and you will have to treat the area again in a few hours if pain persists. However, light therapy treatments are likely to help reduce healing time.

What’s difficult is determining how much light therapy is “too much”. That depends on the type of light source, the strength of the light, type of light, where the injury/condition is located on the body, etc. But because too much could cancel out the benefits you can get, it’s always best to err on the side of too little.

There is some evidence that the more recent an injury, wrinkle or other problem is, the more light therapy will help. So if you have a choice, it may be best to begin using light therapy soon afterwards. But not too soon! If you’re treating an injury, it is best to let inflammation subside before doing red light therapy or other light therapies. The reason is that red light therapy and most other light therapies increase blood flow to the region. If an area is already swollen and inflamed, more blood flow is not going to feel good and it is unlikely to help. Once inflammation goes down (if applicable), light therapy is often used multiple times in a day (for example, two to four times for 10 minutes each). However, in no case should you begin light therapy for a medical condition or potentially serious injury without first seeking professional medical advice. It would also be wise to discuss your case and how light therapy might be helpful with your doctor.

How Deep Can Light Therapy Penetrate Through Skin?

There is much debate over how deep light therapy devices can penetrate through the skin. This is an important matter, because if the light cannot penetrate deep enough into the body, it cannot help with problems occurring there.

One thing that is generally accepted is that the power of a light source has a big impact on how far through the skin it can reach.

Some argue that even very strong light therapy devices can only reach 1” to 1.5” deep through the skin. That implies that light therapy cannot work for anything that is deeper than that, such as a joint that is not on the surface.

Others claim that light therapy devices can sometimes reach 3” to 6” through the body- even through the skull into the brain.

How to Use a Low Level Light Therapy (LLLT) Bulb for Red Light Therapy or Blue Light Therapy

low level light therapyUsing an LED light therapy/LLLT bulb is pretty easy. Simply take the bulb and screw it into a lamp or light fixture, the same way you would screw in a regular light bulb.  I recommend a gooseneck clip lamp because it can be attached to an object and then adjusted easily (leaving your hands free). The best lamps are those with a plastic shade, which can be removed.

Another solution is to use a lantern cord, which is a bulb socket on a long cord. This allows you to move the bulb around very easily, but the downside is that using it hands-free could be difficult.

Turn on the lamp or light fixture you’re using and place the bulb directly on the skin. Some people prefer to keep the bulb very close to the skin instead and seem pleased with the results they get. Personally, though, I think it is best to have the bulb as close as possible to you. Since it is painless, I see no problem with doing it this way, except that for 5 to 10 minutes after a treatment, you are going to have little dimples in your skin where the LED’s were.

To keep the bulb surface clean, you may cover it with a single layer of plastic wrap each time you use it. I think it is best to do this each time you use your bulb because cleaning the bulb is difficult.

Keep the bulb on your skin for the duration of time recommended by the manufacturer. For most LLLT bulbs and devices, this will be anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes per session.

The manufacturer should say how many sessions per day you should use. Typically, up to 3 sessions per day on the same area are recommended.

Take care not to overuse your LLLT bulb. Not only will excess use produce no additional benefit, but it could even reverse the benefits you’ve gained for the day. More is NOT better when it comes to LLLT.

Cleaning and Care for an LED Red Light Therapy or Blue Light Therapy Bulb

Because it is a bulb, it cannot be immersed in water or any other liquid. You should also not spray water or any other liquid on the bulb.

Therefore, preventing dust and dirt from accumulating on the bulb is important.  For this, I recommend covering the bulb’s light emitting LED’s with a single layer of clear plastic wrap.  Do not put plastic wrap on or around the metal part of the bulb that is screwed in.  Change the plastic wrap on the bulb each time you use it, especially if you are using it for acne or wound healing.

You can use a slightly damp cloth or Clorox/Lysol cleaning wipe to gently wipe clean the bulb housing. Make sure to remove the bulb from the socket before attempting to clean it.

To keep dust off of the bulb, use a soft microfiber dusting cloth.

Safety for LLLT Bulbs

Safety first! Read the instructions that come with the LLLT bulb before using it. You can also read more general safety tips here.

While an LED light therapy/LLLT bulb may become warm during use, it should never feel hot or cause pain or discomfort of any sort.  If the bulb becomes hot or causes discomfort, discontinue using it immediately and contact the manufacturer.