What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a form of low-level phototherapy that uses wavelengths to penetrate the skin. The development of lasers for medical use began over 50 years ago in 1967. Red light therapy is non-invasive and used to help heal health conditions, and for cosmetic purposes. Other names like low-level laser therapy, biostimulation, photonic stimulation (photomodulation or photobiomodulation), or light box therapy are also used.
Red light therapy emits red wavelengths. A rather low-level therapy, wavelengths are transmitted in the range of 1-1,000 nanometers (nm) to produce a biological response (1). Other light therapies transmit wavelengths at higher intensities (over 1,000 nm) to produce their intended effect. Higher-level wavelengths damage the tissue to promote healing. The low-level wavelengths used by red light do not produce heat, sound, or vibration. The intensity is too low to produce pain or damage tissue. This explains the safety of red light therapy for eyes and skin.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy benefits our skin, tissue healing, anti-aging, lymphatic stimulation and increased energy, just to name a few. Could something as simple as sitting under red light really have such myriad benefits…
Red light therapy is proof that you do not need to damage tissue for effect. The low-level wavelengths are mighty in power and able to penetrate the skin directly into our bodies on a cellular level. The wavelength works by inducing a photochemical reaction in the cell. This means that when skin is exposed to these specific light waves, biological reactions occur. The wavelengths target the cell’s mitochondria, which improves mitochondrial function. This action proves vital for therapy benefits (2).
The low-level wavelengths stimulate our cell’s mitochondria causing an increased production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and electron transport (1, 3). This boost of ATP provides more energy to our cells and allows them to grow and repair more efficiently. One study showed that the enhanced ATP production and electron transfer translated to a greater production of reactive oxygen species. This increases our body’s ability to fight off fungi like Candida albicans (4).
Nitric oxide is also stimulated by the wavelengths, allowing for an increase in blood flow and formation of new capillaries. By increasing blood flow we enable more efficient oxygen and nutrient delivery to tissues. Increased oxygenation and nutrition to tissues allows for efficient regeneration of new tissue and speedier healing of damaged tissue. This improved blood flow gives a “glow” to skin after treatments. Increased blood flow increases lymphatic system circulation. Improving circulation leads to reduced swelling and puffiness of the skin. It also detoxifies the body naturally.
Red light therapy treatments stimulate stem cells and tissue regeneration (2). This is a crucial benefit (and one of the reasons FDA approved red light therapy in chronic joint pain treatment and wound healing). By stimulating stem cells and tissue regeneration, the body speed along its natural healing process to repair and improve damaged tissue and wounds. For cosmetic purposes, this keeps skin looking youthful!
Low-level wavelengths directly enhance action potential of certain skin cells, including: mast cells, macrophages, endotheliocytes and fibroblasts (5). Or in simpler words, the wavelengths promote cellular stimulation. The increase in action of these cells in combination with increased blood and lymphatic flow proves effective in anti-aging. Dermatologists use red light therapy for stimulating healing and rejuvenation, as well as reducing inflammation and cell death (3). Red light also lowers effects of oxidative stress and free radical damage on tissues, which translates to anti-inflammatory and healing benefits.
Red light therapy even stimulates growth of hair follicles by promoting specific gene activity and decreasing cell death, an accidental discovery in an experiment with mice in the 1960s. Nowadays, doctors use it for alopecia. Alopecia is a common disorder where your own body attacks the hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. The low-level wavelengths have shown hair growth, making it a common alternative to hair transplants (6).
Benefits to red light therapy
- Increased energy production
- Cell regeneration
- Better ability to fight off fungal infections
- Increased oxygen and nutrient delivery to tissues
- Improved lymphatic system circulation
- Faster wound healing
- Faster tissue healing
- Improved muscle fatigue and muscle injury recovery
- Relief in chronic joint pain
- Increased immunity
- Benefits in inflammatory response
- Increased skin elasticity and fullness
- Anti-aging benefits: reduction of fine lines, wrinkles, sun-damage, hyperpigmentation
- Improvement in skin conditions: acne, rosacea, scars, stretch marks
- Hair follicle regeneration
Side Effects of Red Light Therapy
There are no known adverse side effects to red light therapy. The light itself does produce a glare, so although not damaging to the eye, the glare can cause discomfort if looking directly into the device. Wear eye protection during each treatment. Precautions exist for pregnant, those with cancer or hemorrhages, or those taking immune suppressant drugs, according to Light Therapy Options LLC.
Clearly, many research studies have been conducted on the benefits and use of red light therapy. Unfortunately, the science falls short in determining the precise wavelength nm range for each condition and individual person. Doctors or specialists administering the therapy must consider parameters for each individual treatment. These include: wavelength number to use, the fluence and irradiance on the target area, timing and repetition of treatment, to name a few. Because no universally agreed upon protocols or condition-specific wavelengths exist, the results vary with each person. This prevents widespread acceptance as a standard treatment.
Optimal treatment length for each condition is also not yet agreed upon. Generally speaking, red light therapy treatments occur a few times a week over a one or two month period. Keep in mind that seeing results from these treatments takes time. The scientific community needs to agree upon standardized protocols for each condition, consideration for individual factors, and standard time frames for treatment.
How to Get Red Light Therapy
The FDA has already approved red light therapy for chronic joint pain, wound healing, and cosmetic purposes. The scientific community expects to see more FDA-approved treatments, depending on more scientific evidence and agreed upon protocols.
Doctors like your primary care physician can refer you to the right specialist depending on your health condition. Specialists who use red light therapy include: dermatologists, rheumatologists, chiropractors, functional medicine providers, or others. Most insurance companies do not cover red light therapy treatments because they consider it experimental and “alternative.” Speak with your physician or your insurance company if you’re interested in finding out potential coverage.
You may also find red light therapy at some medical spas or for home use. Make sure you receive treatment from a qualified professional. Ask questions to make sure the device being used is both safe and effective.