In recent years, red light has been all the rage among the biohacking community. And for good reason, a growing body of scientific and clinical literature supports its use. To date, there have been nearly 2,000 scientific articles published about red light therapy.
A search of the clinical trials database, ClinicalTrials.gov, also reveals that approximately 300 studies have been completed in human patients.
As shown in the map below, the majority (133) of these studies have been completed in the United States. Europe and East Asia have also conducted a substantial amount of research, with 77 and 57 studies, respectively.
In recent months, Facebook/Meta and Instagram have been serving me up with an ever increasing number of red light therapy products.
Of course, dermatologists, medical centers, and spas are “all in” on red light therapy, utilizing a wide range of face masks, wands, and stands. At present, Celluma is one of the leading brands offering red light products to these providers, but the competitors in this space are rapidly expanding.
Even Massage Envy now offers a light therapy add-on service, which you can see here.
Red Light’s Potential Health Benefits
Red light therapy (RLT) appears to facilitate collagen production and anti-inflammatory mechanisms, which is why it is increasing in popularity—especially among biohackers, celebrities, and dermatologists.
With limited side effects documented to date, clinical studies show that RLT is an intriguing way to approach a number of skin problems like wrinkles and cellulite, as well as restore youthful skin glow.
While many women are drawn to red light’s dermatology applications, red light is gaining substantial popularity among men as a way to promote hair health. In particular, a wide range of red light therapy devices are being marketed to slow and potentially reverse male pattern baldness.
Dave Asprey, known as the “Father of Biohacking”, brought this RLT application into the spotlight when he featured Dr. Alan Bauman, a hair transplant surgeon on his chart-topping podcast, The Human Upgrade. You can listen to that episode here.
In that podcast, Dave and Dr. Bauman discuss the Bauman TURBO LaserCap as as cutting-edge way to prevent male pattern baldness. While this particular red light device has a hefty price tag of $5200, there are similar products emerging into the market that aren’t so steeply priced.
So what is red light therapy, and does it really work? Let’s dive into the research.
What Is Red Light Therapy, and How Does It Work?
Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) or photobiomodulation therapy, is a non-invasive treatment that uses specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light to promote healing and rejuvenation in the skin.
This kind of therapy is based on the concept that light energy can be absorbed by cells in the body and used to stimulate cellular processes that lead to improved health and overall well-being.
Here’s how it works. It starts by exposing the skin to red and near-infrared light, which is absorbed by the cells in the body. The light is administered through the use of LED light panels or lamps, which emit the specific wavelengths of light used in the treatment.
The light energy is then used to stimulate the production of ATP, the primary energy source for cells, as well as the synthesis of collagen and elastin, which are important for skin health.
The procedure lasts between 10 to 20 minutes and should be done regularly or as instructed to see results.
So, Why Red and Near-Infrared Light?
For red light therapy to work, it requires specific light wavelengths ranging between 660 nm and 800 nm. This is because it is on this wavelength range that light best penetrates through tissues and is easily absorbed by mitochondria—which are the powerhouses of cells.
Both red and near-red-infrared light fall under this said wavelength range, hence why they are both preferred for red light therapy. Red light wavelengths are located on the visible light spectrum and range from 625 nm to 700 nm.
In contrast, near-infrared wavelengths, which are invisible to the human eye, range from 700 nm to 1 mm.
What Are the Benefits of Red Light Therapy?
With a plethora of peer-reviewed medical studies showing positive findings related to red and near-infrared light, the list of potential health benefits of RLT to the body is quite extensive—and it is ever-growing.
In particular, let’s explore the potential benefits of red light therapy as they related to: General skin health, oral health/dental pain, and inflammatory conditions.
1. General Skin Health
Due to its ability to penetrate deep into the skin’s surface and facilitate optimal performance, the most visible difference that RLT makes is transforming the skin’s appearance and ridding it of its common issues like sunburns and bumps.
Here are more skin conditions that red light may be able to address:
- Acne: RLT’s anti-inflammatory properties help reduce the redness and swelling of the skin, both of which are associated with acne. In most cases, however, red light is combined with blue light to increase the efficacy of acne treatment—a technique that also helps clear up existing breakouts and prevent new ones from forming. (Blue light has been shown to provide antibacterial effects and has a shorter wavelength of 450 to 495 nanometers.)
- Combat signs of aging, wrinkles, and fine lines: Red light therapy appears to promote collagen production in the skin, making it appear smoother and more youthful. This is because collagen gives the skin its structure and elasticity, which helps lift and tighten sagging skin. To that effect, RLT seems to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and it may reverse sun damage as well.
- Scarring: Research has found that red light therapy can improve tissue regeneration, thus reducing the appearance of scars. Additionally, it helps promote circulation within the skin, speeding up healing time for existing wounds and minimising their visibility.
- Tone, texture, and hyperpigmentation: Through the power of LED light technology, red light therapy can help even skin tone by reducing melanin production in the affected areas. For this reason, it offers an intriguing way to reduce the appearance of dark spots, skin discoloration, and other types of hyperpigmentation.
2. Oral Health and Dental Pain
Apart from its cosmetic benefits, dental professionals are beginning to use red light therapy to address several types of oral complications. This is because RLT helps appears to reduce dental pain, particularly after oral surgery or tooth extraction.
It likely does this by addressing local inflammation. It may also help to maintain a healthy balance of oral microbes.
In particular, there are three applications of red light therapy may be well suited to dental use.
The first one is the use of RLT for the treatment of periodontitis, also called gum inflammation or gum disease. This disease involves a build-up or chronic accumulation of dental plaque that gradually eats away at the tooth-supporting structures. At least in early stage studies, there is evidence that RLT may help to manage periodontitis.
The second area is the use of RLT to treat temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD). People with TMD have symptoms associated with facial swelling, muscle spasms, and may experience a reduced range of motion in the jaw. This can lead to pain and discomfort. From improving jaw function to alleviating jaw pain, RLT has shown intriguing effects in reducing inflammation of the jaw muscles and relieving the symptoms associated with TMD.
The third area is the use of RLT to address recurrent aphthous stomatitis (RAS). Stomatitis is a chronic ulcerative condition characterized by painful lesions on the mouth, lips, and lining of a person’s cheeks. On average, it takes almost nine days for this condition to heal.
In a study conducted by Khademi et al., low-level laser therapy (also called “LLLT” or “red light therapy”) was found to notably reduce the healing time of RAS to an average of only three and a half (3.52) days. This was likely facilitated by red light therapy’s ability to increase blood flow to local tissues through vasodilation, thereby reducing the lesion size and pain.
Other dental conditions that may be treatable with red light therapy (RLT) include burning mouth syndrome, tooth sensitivity, and tooth whitening—but we need more research to be done in these areas.
3. Inflammatory Conditions
Studies also show that red and near-infrared light may help to lower inflammatory markers and stimulate the production of antioxidants.
Thus, some of the inflammatory conditions on which RLT are besting tested include:
- Arthritis– A group of conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissue.
- Tendinitis – An inflammation of the tendons, which can cause pain and limited mobility.
- Psoriasis – an autoimmune disorder that causes raised, red plaques on the skin.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) – A condition that affects the hand and wrist, causing pain, numbness, and tingling.
- Sports injuries – Physical injuries caused by intense physical activity.
Yet again, this research is in its early stages, but the preliminary results appear to be promising.
Emerging Areas of Research for Red Light Therapy
As more research is done, we will get a better understanding of the benefits of red light treatments. Other conditions that seem to respond well to RLT treatments include hair loss, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and mood disorders.
As described above, there is accumulating evidence that red light therapy could impact human health and how we treat various health and skin conditions. In most cases, it appears to have a good safety profile, which makes sense because red light is a natural part of the visible light spectrum.
However, it still is a medical modality, so do not attempt to treat yourself with RLT without the guidance of a medical professional.
Red Light Therapy FAQ
Below are answers to commonly asked questions about red light therapy.
What are other names for red light therapy?
Red light therapy is also known by several names that include: Cold laser therapy, low-power laser therapy (LPLT), low-level laser light therapy (LLLT), photonic stimulation, biostimulation, and soft laser therapy.
How long does it take for red light therapy to work?
Early stage research suggests that you may see improvements in 4-6 weeks. However, the duration will vary depending on the condition being treated and the individual. Research around RLT is still in its early stages.
Can you do DIY red light therapy at home?
Yes. You can purchase a range of red light therapy devices designed for home use. These typically consist of handheld wands or lamps that emit near-infrared and red light. When using an RLT device, ensure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety guidelines. You should always consult with a medical professional about your intended use.
Who should not do red light therapy?
Anyone using photosensitizing medications like phenothiazine antipsychotics, melatonin, lithium, and certain antibiotics should not use red light therapy. People with heart diseases, eye-related illnesses (such as diabetes), and pregnant women should also avoid light therapy.
How much does red light therapy cost?
A typical 20-30 minute spa session can cost as low as $25 to upwards of $200—depending on the type of procedure and the location of the service. At-home red light therapy devices range from $165 to $60,000.