When it comes to developing skin care solutions, there are several key players: dermatologists, biomedical engineers, facialists and… NASA? Yep, the renowned space agency (inadvertently) pioneered a popular skin care treatment back in the early 1990s.
Initially conceived to encourage plant growth in space, scientists soon discovered red light therapy (RLT) also helped heal wounds and treat bone loss in astronauts; and the beauty world took note.
RLT is now mainly used and talked about for it’s ability to improve skin appearance, such as fine lines, wrinkles, and acne scarring.
While the full extent of its effectiveness remains in discussion, there’s an array of research and anecdotal evidence that agrees, when used correctly, RLT can be a bona fide skin care solution. So, let’s get this skin care party lit up and find out more.
Red light vs. LED therapy
Light emitting diode (LED) therapy refers to the practice of using different light frequencies to treat the out layer of your skin.
There are different colors of LED — each with its own wavelength frequency. Red light is one of the frequencies, which practitioners use primarily to stimulate collagen production, reduce inflammation, and improve circulation.
“RLT is the application of specific wavelengths of light energy to tissue for therapeutic benefits,” explains Dr. Rekha Tailor, founding doctor at the Health and Aesthetics Clinic. “This energy is used to improve cellular performance, and can be delivered through cold lasers or LED devices.”
While the mechanism isn’t *entirely* understood, it’s hypothesized that when pulses of RTL light hit the face, they’re absorbed by mitochondria — vital organisms in our skin cells responsible for breaking down nutrients and transforming them into energy.
Energized by the light, the mitochondria fuels cell growth and rejuvenation.
“A good way to think of it is like plants absorbing sunlight to power photosynthesis and boost tissue growth,” says Tailor. “Human cells can absorb light wavelengths to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin.”
As mentioned previously, RLT is mainly used to improve the appearance of skin, especially by enhancing collagen production, which naturally decreases as we age. Although research is still growing, the results look promising.
A German study found that, after 30 sessions over 15 weeks, RLT patients saw improved skin rejuvenation, smoothness and collagen density; while a smaller US study of RLT on sun-damaged skin, administered 9 times over 5 weeks, revealed thicker collagen fibers resulting in a softer, smoother and firmer appearance.
Furthermore, research found receiving RLT twice a week for 2 months greatly reduced the appearance of burn scars; and preliminary studies indicate the therapy’s efficacy in treating acne, psoriasis, and vitiligo.
If there’s one point you take away from this article it’s that RLT isn’t a quick fix. Tailor recommends having treatments done 2 to 3 times a week, for at least 4 weeks, to see results.
The good news is, there’s no reason to be scared or nervous about getting RLT. The red light is beamed from a lamp-like device or a mask which sits gently on top of your face — you’ll barely feel a thing. “The treatment is painless and just feels warm,” Tailor assures.
The cost can add up
Although costs vary between clinics, a 30-minute session will set you back around $80. At the recommended 2 to 3 times a week, you can rack up a hefty bill in no time. And, unfortunately, it can’t be claimed on insurance.
RLT is a nontoxic, and noninvasive alternative to drugs and hard topical treatments, says Tailor. Plus, it doesn’t contain damaging UV rays, and clinical trials haven’t found any side effects.
So far, so good. However, we recommend visiting a qualified and trained therapist to receive RLT as improper treatment means your skin might not obtain the correct frequency to be effective, and in rare cases could cause burns. They’ll also make sure your eyes are properly protected.
You might be tempted to save some cash and buy an at-home RLT device. While these are generally safe to use, their lower wavelength frequency means they’re less powerful. “I would always suggest seeing a specialist who will be able to advise a full treatment plan alongside RLT,” Tailor says.
If you’re going to use an at-home device, Tailor notes a few factors to be aware of:
- Make sure your eyes are well shielded.
- Follow the instructions from the manufacturer.
- Be careful not to fall asleep during the treatment.
- Take good care of the device to avoid broken wires or corrosion.
Still want to go it alone? We’ve lined up some of our top purchase picks to save you on researching.
While skin issues are the the primary target of RLT, some members of the scientific community are excited about the potential to treat other conditions as well. Some promising research has been found for the following:
- Inflammation. A review of research found a bounty of positive results for using RLT to treat inflammation.
- Edema (the swelling of tissue around a joint). When used in conjunction with RICE — rest, ice, compression and elevation — one RLT session significantly reduced swelling in second-degree ankle sprains.
- Wound healing. One study found wound size in rats decreased by 36 percent following laser treatment, while another revealed faster healing time in humans.
- Side-effects of chemo. Cancer patients often experience painful mouth lesions following chemotherapy, but researchers found just 1 dose of RLT reduced their development.
- Alopecia. Combined with infrared laser, red light can be used to encourage hair growth and density in those with this condition.
Save your money
The internet is full of claims of what RTL therapy can achieve. However, there’s no solid scientific evidence to support its use when it comes to these issues:
- mental health concerns, such as depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and postpartum depression
- body “detoxification”
- boosting immunity
- banishing cellulite
- weight loss
- managing neck and/or back pain
- treating cancer
If you love trying new skin care treatments, have the cash to pay for it, and time to spare for weekly sessions, there’s no reason not to give RLT a try. Just don’t get your hopes too high since everyone’s skin varies and so do results.
Plus, minimizing your time in direct sunlight and applying sunscreen is still the most effective approach to staving off signs of aging — so don’t be fooled into thinking you can lay out and then attempt to undo damage by going for some RLT.