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The first time I tried an LED treatment in my aesthetician’s office, I was sure I’d been “Punk’d” (that’s an old Ashton Kutcher show — look it up). During the course of my 20-minute session, I was subjected to a total of zero burning chemicals, painful injections, and/or blinding lasers.
Instead, I lay in a comfy bed with my face positioned directly under panels that emanated different colored lights. That was it.
I’d just forked over a significant portion of my paycheck to receive a service I assumed would change my life, as I do with all skin care services or products. I also expected it to hurt. Wasn’t beauty supposed to equal pain?
Despite being told that I’d need to repeat sessions at least once a week for a solid amount of time before seeing significant results, I fell off the wagon after about a month of bi-weekly treatments (yes, your math is correct — I quit after two treatments).
At the time, I had trouble justifying the price (about $60 a pop) and commitment for what seemed like no difference at the end of my sessions. But based on the wisdom of skin experts, my acute impatience probably prevented me from seeing some pretty sweet benefits. Babes, don’t skimp on LED therapy like I did.
“LED stands for Light Emitting Diode,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital and co-creator of Pure BioDerm. It involves exposing your skin to various wavelengths of light, including red and blue, to address a wide range of concerns.
“Anti-aging — fine lines, wrinkles, collagen synthesis,” Robinson lists. “Acne — bacteria reduction and sebum regulation — and inflammation, including acne, rosacea, and psoriasis.”
It’s also got a pretty hi-tech background. “LED was created for NASA,” says third-generation aesthetician Angelina Umansky, who co-founded San Francisco’s Spa Radiance along with her mother Galina more than 4 decades ago.
“When astronauts go out into space, their cells stop multiplying because there’s no gravity, there’s no sunlight, no oxygen, so if they got a cut or a bruise, it wouldn’t heal. So what they needed to do was create something that would help their cell regeneration, so if there was an issue, their body could heal. So, LED was created for astronauts and then the health industry got a hold of it and started doing incredible treatments, and then of course the beauty industry got a hold of it and we started doing treatments.”
The machine Umansky’s staff use is from the company Lightwave, which she says also manufactures handheld devices for home use.
“But of course nothing compares to the bigger, better version of LED panels,” she says. “We also have an LED bed which is so good because it charges up the whole body — it’s wonderful for inflammation, for cellulite, and even jet lag.”
You can also book an LED session alongside another treatment. Robinson notes that it works in combination with facials, microneedling, RF (radiofrequency treatments), or other energy/laser treatments.
When I received my LED treatments, the machine switched between red and blue lights, before I plunged into what seemed like total darkness (I later learned this was actually near-infrared light, but it’s the portion of the treatment that felt particularly useless at the time).
“Red is used for anti-aging, stimulating collagen synthesis,” Robinson says. “While blue is used for acne treatment — it kills P. acnes, the acne-causing bacteria.”
While red and blue are the colors with the most research behind them, other shades may have piqued your interest.
Details in the hues:
- Both red and near-infrared lights treat the outer layer of skin and stimulate collagen proteins. The idea is that more collagen means smoother, fuller skin, i.e. less fine lines and wrinkles. Experts also say the red light reduces inflammation while improving circulation, which may give you a healthy glow over time.
- Blue light makes oil glands less active, which may help reduce acne breakouts. And as Robinson points out, it can also kill acne-causing bacteria under the skin, which can help treat severe pimples like cysts and nodules.
- There’s some evidence to suggest that green LED therapy can promote wound healing.
- Other research suggests that yellow LED therapy may be helpful for photoaging and as an adjuvant (supportive) therapy to laser treatment.
Prices range a ton depending on where you go and whether you’re combining LED therapy with other treatments, but according to self-reported costs on RealSelf.com at the time of this article, the price tag of one single session can range from about $25 to $85.
And, as I discovered after my totally ineffective two-treatment journey, you can’t expect results from a single session, or even a handful of sessions. Experts recommend repeating treatments once per week for several weeks and then dropping down to one every few months for maintenance.
“It greatly depends on their overall treatment plan,” Robinson says. “But for many acne patients, I suggest 20 minutes weekly, for 4 weeks, and then maintenance treatments every 2–3 weeks.”
If all that upkeep sounds like more effort than it’s worth, you may be pleased to know LED therapy doesn’t necessarily have to involve commuting to and from an aesthetician’s office.
“The strength and efficacy of the in-office light is more effective, but the at-home devices are great for maintenance,” Robinson says. “I like LightStim at-home devices for acne and for wrinkles.”
While the LightStim home device costs $250, there are cheaper brands of masks and wands out there, some for as low as $25. It’s tough to say, however, if lower priced products will actually be effective. It’s a safe bet that any at-home item isn’t going to deliver the high-caliber results of the more powerful professional sessions.
Prepping for the pro
If you’ve decided to bite the bullet and go with a pro, then you’ll want to come prepared.
Remember to carve out at least 20 minutes for your actual treatment and if you can, come in with a cleansed face that’s free of creams, serums, and makeup. Your treatment provider will give you protective goggles because while the light can be great for your skin, it can also be gnarly for your eyes.
But if you’re looking to save some cash over time or maintain the results you’re getting at the spa, a quality home machine might be worth the investment.
While Umansky likes Lightwave and Robinson recommends LightStim, experts do agree that the do-it-yourself versions can’t replace professional-quality machinery.
Still, if you’re looking to dip your toe into the LED lifestyle or want to maintain your results between sessions, you may want to put your money toward your own product.
We scoured the internet and rounded up the best reviewed devices, along with expert approval:
Dermashine Pro 7 Color LED Face Mask
Get it via Amazon ($110)
Skin Rejuvenation Photon Mask
Get it via Amazon ($200)
Dr. Dennis Gross SpectraLite™ FaceWare Pro Mask
Get it via Sephora ($435)
Eternal Beauty Red Light Therapy Device
Get it via Amazon ($197)
Déesse Pro Mask Next Generation
Get it via Shani Darden ($1,900)
In general, at-home masks can be applied to the face for several minutes at a time per day, but always be sure to read the specific instructions for your product.
In a word: yes — when done properly and as instructed. Neutrogena recently had to recall their Light Therapy Mask out of caution as their design had the potential to cause retinal damage. If you’re choosing a full-on face mask, you may want to invest in medical-grade eye protection.
When it comes to your skin though, the risk is close to none.
According to Robinson, “the light does not contain any UV rays, so they are safe.” Plus, they are non-invasive and unlikely to cause any harm or damage to your skin. So far there have been no side effects reported in clinical trials.
You should, however, always keep an eye out for anything alarming post-procedure, like increased inflammation, rash, redness, pain, or hives.
Certain conditions or medications may also make you an unlikely candidate for LED therapy.
“If you have photosensitivity to the wavelengths being used, you should avoid LED,” Robinson says. That means if you’re on any medications (like isotretinoin for Acne), or any other skin products that could make you more light sensitive, you may want to avoid making that appointment.
You’ll also want to steer clear of this treatment if you have an active rash. Got psoriasis? In some cases, LED therapy can help the condition, but it’s best to talk with your physician first.
The good news is that when it comes to wrinkles, acne, and inflammation, there are more alternative treatments than we can count… on both hands.
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech.