What is Red Light Therapy?

red-light-therapyRed light therapy uses low level lasers or light emitting diodes (LED’s) in the red wavelength range to cause a variety of effects in human and animal tissue. Some of the most common uses of red light therapy are cosmetic (reducing acne, for example), but it is also used to provide temporary pain relief and to speed up the healing process. Still, most people have never heard of it before, and so our number one FAQ is: “What is red light therapy?”

Red light therapy, which opened the door to other types of light therapy, was first developed by NASA as part of experiments for space shuttle missions. Scientists noticed that astronauts exposed to the light healed faster than normal. NASA’s researchers were excited about this discovery, because it had previously been a problem that astronauts in space wouldn’t heal as fast as normal. It is this observation that led to further development and studies on LED red light therapy.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

In studies, red light therapy has been shown to greatly speed up cell healing and repair. Scientists do not know for sure how it works, but most believe it works by altering the energy that is available to the cell. It is possible that LLLT triggers an increase in cellular energy production. However, there is little consensus among scientists as to how does red light therapy work. The bottom line is, scientists just do not know for sure how red light therapy works.

One thing scientists have noticed about red light therapy is that cytochrome c oxidase, an enzyme involved in cellular energy production, seems to accept a transfer of energy directly from the light.

However, there are other effects scientists have noted from LLLT which could also explain its mechanism of action. (Or, perhaps, red light therapy has more than one mechanism of action.) These include:

  • Lowering levels of prostaglandin E2
  • Lowering levels of prostaglandin-endoperoxide synthase 2
  • Lowering levels of interleukin 1-beta
  • Lowering levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha
  • Lowering swelling
  • Slowing bleeding
  • Lowering oxidative stress
  • Lessening the influx of neutrophil granulocytes into the cell

Some people are skeptical that some sort of light could have these effects. While I am a die-hard fan of healthy skepticism, a bit of research and logic easily shows that the effectiveness of red light therapy is not only possible- it’s probable.

We already know, for instance, that the human body does react to light. In some cases, the light required to achieve these effects is very small. Consider, for example, that the body produces its own vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight. Or that the reaction of the retina to light exposure is how we have vision. Or that the reason we see in color is that our eyes react differently to various wavelengths of light. And there is no debate that the body reacts to lasers, which are made up of condensed light.

So the idea that the skin, hair or other type of tissue might react to light is not as far-fetched as it may sound at first.

You might ask: “if light or even certain colors of light have effects on the body, how come we didn’t know that before?”  Well, lights were just to bright and too hot for anyone to get close to them without being burned. The invention of the light-emitting diode has allowed us to more fully examine how light affects us. An LED is capable of producing a bright, powerful light with little heat. This makes it possible to safely place the light closer to the skin (or other tissue) than was ever possible before.

What is Red Light Therapy? Is It a Type of Laser Therapy?

No. Red light therapy is not the same as laser treatment. What is confusing is that many people refer to red light therapy as “low level laser therapy” or “cold laser”. This is a misnomer.

Both laser treatments and red light therapy (or other types of LLLT) use light. The difference is that laser light is “coherent”, meaning all its photons are synchronized. LED light is non-coherent. It does appear, though, that non-coherent light can have beneficial effects. Those effects and the question, “what is red light therapy?” are what this site is all about.

Does Red Light Therapy Work?

red light therapyNow you see red light therapy everywhere- on TV, in doctors’ offices, in med-spas. Despite its growing popularity and glowing reviews, only one questions really matters. Does red light therapy work?

The answer: yes and no. Does red light therapy for pain or skin rejuvenation work? Yes. Does red light therapy work for promoting hair growth? Yes. Red light therapy, a type of Low Level Light Therapy (LLLT) has been found to be effective for many different conditions. Is LLLT effective for everyone? No. Is it some sort of new cure-all? No. So as you can see, the question does red light therapy work doesn’t have a simple answer.

Does Red Light Therapy Work for Pain Relief?

Yes, there is evidence that LLLT, in particular red light therapy, can temporarily relieve pain and speed up the healing process. The initial effect of pain relief usually lasts for several hours.

LLLT is easy to use and may be combined with other treatments (such as pain medication), making it an ideal adjunct treatment. It’s always advisable to consult your doctor before adding any sort of new treatment and LLLT is no exception. If your doctor approves, LLLT can be an excellent addition to your pain management plan.

Does Red Light Therapy Work for Skin Care?

Yes, in most (but not all) cases, LLLT in the form of red light therapy is very helpful for skin issues. Skin rejuvenation, acne, acne scars and stretch marks are some of the most popular uses for LLLT.

Red light therapy usually works for reducing wrinkles and fine lines. You can multiply this benefit by using other types of light therapy, especially near infrared therapy. If you can spend a little time in a near infrared sauna AND you use LLLT, you’ll be golden. Not tan. What I mean to say is that you will look fantastic! Red light therapy and near infrared exposure improves skin elasticity. Red light therapy also increases collagen production.

Red light therapy works on most people to trigger collagen repair, healing and restoration of the skin. Sagging skin tightens and regains some of its plumpness. Under eye circles due to aging may be improved if they are caused by the skin thinning in the under eye area (letting the blue veins show through).

Another effect of LLLT is that it can improve scars, although the degree to which it helps seems to vary from person to person.

What Does Red Light Therapy Work For?

Red light therapy has been used for these skin problems:

  •  Improve fine lines and wrinkles– yes
  •  Heal acne scars- yes, although the effect varies
  •  Make skin look tighter, smoother and plumper- yes
  •  Encourage the production of new collagen– yes, LLLT has been well studied for its effects on collagen
  •  Heal or prevent blemishes- yes, for the majority of people
  •  Reduce skin redness and inflammation- yes
  •  Heal scars from burns or cuts- yes, although the result varies.

Red light therapy works for other conditions as well. In one study published in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, scientists determined that for angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels), low level lasers and LED light sources were equally effective.

A study published in Lasers in Medical Science found that LED-based red light therapy was effective for increasing periodontal bone levels and concluded that “collagen matrix deposition and realignment appeared to be accelerated” in rats. (2)

But How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

Scientists have known for a long time that light affects the human body. We produce vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight. And we wouldn’t be able to see if it wasn’t for the way light affects our eyes. So it isn’t surprising that researchers have discovered that LLLT, including red light therapy, has an effect on our bodies.

Overall, scientists don’t agree on an explanation for how LLLT works. Yet it is clear that light at certain wavelengths gives your skin the energy it needs to repair itself. Placing a powerful source of light of the proper wavelength close to the skin cells transfers to them the energy they need to carry out their repair processes. Cellular energy is the rate-limiting factor in many processes, so this infusion of “free” energy can be put to use right away in most cases.

Dermatologists used to believe that the skin stops repairing itself after a certain age, but this has turned out to be incorrect. We now understand that the skin constantly works to repair itself- it’s just that as we age, it’s not so easy for energy to get to our skin cells anymore. LLLT appears to donate energy to cells, which is increasingly useful the older a person is.

Red light therapy is being used in doctors’ offices and spas with promises that it relieves pain, promotes healing and reverses the signs of aging, among other things. It’s natural to be skeptical that such a simple idea could possibly be effective. The most important thing you need to know before considering whether red light therapy is right for you is: does red light therapy work? And the answer is that for most people, yes, it does.