Red light therapy has been used in the context of healthy living for dozens of years. Many swear by its effects, while others claim the benefits are extremely overstated.
As with most health claims, the truth tends to lie somewhere in between. As Healthy But Smart recently noted in their analyses of 45 scientific papers/reviews among nine popular claims:
“Red light therapy has been used for decades, and for decades it has been proved useful. The question is what it is useful for. It seems that the claims that it has mysterious molecular properties and that its panaceaic effects are a result of those are unfounded. The panaceaic effects, themselves, seem to be overstated.”
Nevertheless, the site notes, it is helpful with issues of pain and inflammation, particularly “for pain, joint and musculoskeletal inflammation and a few other inflammatory conditions.”
In the following article, we’ll be discussing the implications as well as some of the apocryphal claims you’ll run into when considering this therapy type.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Commonly found in tanning salons and as a premium feature in fitness clubs like Planet Fitness, red light therapy is defined as low-level laser therapy (LLLT). Unlike many “altnerative health” therapies, this one has quite a bit more scientific backing than most, though users may tend to overstate, or claim benefits as definite that are still unproven.
We’ll be trying to separate the fact from the not-for-certain-fact throughout this piece, so bear with us. Let’s start with one of the better-defined benefits.
Skin Restoration and Red Light Therapy
A March 2013 article published through Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery found that LLLT was effective in “stimulating, healing,” and restoring the skin.
The authors, among them Pinar Avci, MD, note that “Although skin is naturally exposed to light more than any other organ, it still responds well to red and near-infrared wavelengths.”
This makes red light therapy a particularly effective treatment option as photons “are absorbed by mitochondrial chromophores in skin cells.”
As a consequence of this happening, “electron transport, adenosine triphosphate nitric oxide release, blood flow, reactive oxygen species increase, and diverse signaling pathways are activated.”
It is said that LLLT can activate stem cells, making way for an increase in healing and tissue repair. From a dermatological perspective, red light therapy can benefit those with the following conditions, the authors note:
- Acne scars
- Hypertrophic scars
It also may be beneficial to pregnant women trying to get back their pre-baby bodies or men and women who’ve struggled with obesity, being overweight, and the development of cellulite on legs and arms.
Word of warning, though: some have complained after using red light therapy that their skin feels dried out or sore. This is due to either too long of usage, too high of an intensity, or both.
Consult with a professional before going it alone.
Metabolism and Performance
A 2012 article by researchers Cleber Ferraresi, Michael R. Hamblin, and Nivaldo A. Parizotto pointed out recent movements in the use of LLLT activity.
Since 2000, the practice has been largely focused on dermatological effects — see above — but this trio documented the growing use for performance, fatigue, and repair. It was this study in particular that caught the attention of the Planet Fitnesses of the world.
The authors observe that LLLT is moving more rapidly into the fields of medicine “that were not previously thought of as the usual applications such as wound healing and inflammatory orthopedic conditions.”
“One of these novel application areas is LLLT for muscle fatigue and muscle injury,” the authors observe, adding that since science had agreed mitochondria are the main “photoacceptors” inside of cells — and muscles are “rich” in mitochondria — red light therapy would be beneficial in muscle injuries.
As with skin, the light’s ability to generate or stimulate stem cells and progenitor cells “means that muscle satellite cells may respond well to LLLT and help muscle repair.”
Those who stand to benefit the most:
- People with injured muscles
- Patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy
Because fatigue plays a factor in our desire and ability to workout, it stands to reason that the less of it your muscles have, the more likely you’ll be able to burn calories and create the daily deficiencies needed to reduce weight.
Of course, given the nature of this benefit, you can’t really say that red light therapy creates weight loss, so we wouldn’t call it a direct benefit of LLLT per se.
But the evidence shows that it could certainly lead to it, which is another reason why it makes sense to have this option available in health clubs and why many have signed on board.
A 2009 study out of Germany found that facial aging ties into something called “interfacial water layers,” which “play a key role in biological aging.” Over time these layers can break down the elasticity of your skin.
While the study itself gets pretty technical, the gist of it is this: by using low-level laser therapy, you can stimulate the stem cells needed to preserve elasticity and prevent, slow, or, in some cases, roll back the aging process.
More on the findings by authors Andrei P. Sommer and Dan Zhu can be found at this link.
Osteoarthritis, commonly found in the knee joint, can cause a great deal of pain and restrict the ease of movement. As a result, sufferers complain of feeling stiff or achy, and it can lead to worse health problems, particularly when it leads one to reduce their activity levels.
But a journal article published in 2014 found that red light therapy can produce beneficial effects when applied to the acupuncture points for those with an osteoarthritic condition.
The researchers tested their theories on two groups — a “placebo” group and a group that received LLLT. The findings: “The results demonstrate that short-term application of LLLT to specific acupuncture points in association with exercise and advice is effective in reducing pain and improving quality of life in patients with knee osteoarthritis.”
It should be pointed out here that red light therapy is to be used in conjunction with exercise, so in a way, it’s another indirect benefit as there is no conclusive evidence that LLLT alone would produce long-term benefits.
But it can reduce inflammation enough to make one exercise-ready. And the more you exercise, the more you can strengthen the muscles and joints for problem areas.
More on the study and the methodology can be found here.
Increasing Peripheral Blood Flow
When you hear the term “peripheral vascular system,” you may be curious as to the significance. To put it simply, the PVS pertains to the arteries and veins that aren’t located in the chest or abdomen.
More specifically, it refers to the network located in your hands, feet, legs, and arms. A 2013 single-blind study tested the effects of LLLT on increased blood flow to this peripheral system and found more significant activity in red light therapy subjects compared to those receiving the placebo light therapies.
Of course, the result of this is better circulation, and that can be beneficial to everyone, but especially those who suffer from conditions of the circulatory system.
A 2014 analysis of 68 individual studies on LLLT as it relates to wound healing showed that the technique had benefits for those healing from wounds and lacerations. According to researchers Maria Emilia de Abreu Chaves, Angélica Rodrigues de Araújo, André Costa Cruz Piancastelli, and Marcos Pinotti found that this form of phototherapy, either through laser or LED, “is an effective therapeutic modality to promote healing of skin wounds.”
The research team added that biological effects promoted by both resources are similar “and are related to the decrease in inflammatory cells, increased fibroblast proliferation, angiogenesis stimulation, formation of granulation tissue and increased collagen synthesis.”
Formulating the right treatment protocol based on the patient is of the utmost importance, so wavelength of light and dosage amounts will vary.
Other Claims About Red Light Therapy
While the studies mentioned above deal with the known benefits of red light therapy, there are a number of other ancillary benefits that may not have the scientific backing to “prove” them outright, but the individuals who regularly receive LLLT treatments swear by them.
In this section, we’ll be discussing each of the claims as well as where they come from and what, if any, clinical research has been performed on the claims. Let’s continue!
LLLT and Psoriasis
While there is still much to be learned about the low-dosage effectiveness of red light therapy on psoriasis, a study in 2011 found that both it and its blue light counterpart — more on that one in a bit — showed some degree of improvements on psoriasis.
However, Healthline notes, the doses were administered in high quantities in a medical setting. “The results may vary greatly if the therapy is performed at home or a salon or wellness center,” the site adds. Lesson: don’t be averse to trying it, but do talk to your doctor first.
Red Light Therapy and Your Thyroid
Keeping in mind these were Brazilian studies and not subject to the same reviews as US studies, some previous research has shown a significant degree of effectiveness for LLLT when dealing with thyroid issues. Forefront Health notes that a routine battery of red light therapy reduced the need for medications even nine months after treatment.
Almost half of the patients in the studies required no more thyroid medication whatsoever while enjoying a “39 to 49 percent” reduction in anti-thyroid antibodies.
This study is a very small one, but it has proven effective. Apparently higher dosages of red light therapy (870-930 nanometers) has shown improvement in toenail fungal infections for 63 percent of the subjects, as reported by Light Therapy Options, LLC.
It is worth noting that studies like this one are not open to the same level of scrutiny and FDA oversight, so do with that what you will.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, melasma is a common skin condition that occurs when brown or grayish-brown patches form on the skin.
This typically affects the face, usually around the “cheeks, bridge of their nose, forehead, chin, and above their upper lip,” the organization adds. It tends to show up on the parts of your skin that are heavily exposed to sunlight.
Alternative health practitioners have started to experiment with red light therapy as a treatment for this non-threatening condition. Hormonal imbalances are a common trigger making women going through pregnancy or menopause susceptible to it.
As with other skin conditions, red light therapy is used by some specialists to treat eczema due to its anti-inflammatory qualities.
Red Light Therapy Effects on Tattoos
On the surface, it does seem like red light therapy would be an effective tool for tattoo removal. That’s because a tattoo is essentially skin damage in a fancy pattern. Tattoo artists/applicators use a needle to damage the skin in a pattern that is then filled in with ink to become “permanent.”
But tattoos are not permanent. They can be removed through a variety of methods, which are best shared in another article. Here are some quick suggestions if you just can’t wait.
Laser removal has become the go-to for most, and it can take multiple treatments to various effects. Red light therapy is just one of the options that people use, usually in higher doses.
What makes it effective are two things we’ve already mentioned: increased peripheral blood circulation and reduction of inflammation.
LLLT to Treat Rosacea
Most of what you find with this claim is anecdotal, but with bloggers documenting their progress, it’s hard to simply dismiss the reported results off-hand. Take Julie B. Campbell with Talk Health Partnership, for instance.
Campbell says that she used red light therapy for about three months from June-September “missing very few days” along the way. Her approach was to use a store-bought lamp for 90 to 180 seconds per day.
The results: “I found a 2-minute balance for my skin that seemed to provide optimal results and the itching and burning essentially disappeared, the pimple-like bumps healed and over that summer, I had fewer flare-ups than I’d experienced in a long time.”
Campbell postscripts this by stating that the LLLT treatment did not cure her rosacea, but it had a calming effect and made a significant difference in how she felt inside and out.
Hair Growth Claims
With hair growth claims, it is important to note that LLLT has a stimulating effect on active follicles, but there are no claims that it will activate follicles that have never grown hair.
It’s best used to coax regrowth from receding areas. You can buy red light lamps like this one that is specially designed for hair regrowth.
High-intensity wavelengths between 800 and 1,200 nanometers are sometimes used to treat chronic back pain. When administered, they’re usually delivered through packs that are strapped across the lower back or other affected areas. The boost in blood flow also can expedite the healing process.
Light Therapy and Depression
With treatment for depression, you need to be very careful. Some have made the claims, but there is no scientifically-backed evidence of effectiveness. Also, some suggest shining a light in your eyes as a way to treat it. This is an awful idea. As we’re talking about infrared lights, even at low intensities, it can do long-lasting damage.
Instead, use red light therapy only to treat the conditions it is most effective at treating. It’s possible that by using it to clear up other issues, it can elevate your moods and indirectly combat depression.
Red light therapy’s ability to stimulate the growth of stem cells has given it vast crossover appeal, and that goes for the teeth, or more specifically, the gums.
Products like this one from Hammacher Schlemmer run about $100 but have been reported as having beneficial effects on gum health.
The typical intensity needed to enjoy any benefit from red light therapy is 660 nanometers, and these products fall in the 660-880 range. You may wish to consult with a dentist before giving this a go.
Red Light Therapy’s Effects on Testosterone
There are probably better ways to boost your testosterone, at least from a scientific point-of-view, but if you read this colorfully-titled article from Men’s Health, you may second-guess that.
The gist of it is this: the author tried expensively, supervised red light therapy on his testicles and said “I’ve never felt better,” adding that the treatment ended up “tripling” his testosterone levels.
We probably wouldn’t have included that here since the scientific journals have little to say, but the guy makes some compelling points, and Men’s Health isn’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill blog.
While any publication can overstate their case, there is a degree of vetting that goes on there that at least gives one pause for dismissing the claim.
Lupus claims regarding red light therapy are undocumented, and if you go to forums like this one, you’ll hear differing accounts of the experience using it. Some complain the intensity of the light results in rashes and soreness, while others report clearing effects.
Either way, there are better ways to treat lupus, so make sure you consult with your doctor to see what his/her thoughts are.
Side Effects and Precautions
While we’ve covered some of the details in individual sections above, it bears repeating that sensitivities to infrared light vary by person. To see any effectiveness at all, you’ll either want an at-home lamp or torch that emits at a minimum of 660 nanometers.
Anything more than that, and you’ll want to consult with a doctor or specialist before moving on with a treatment option.
The good news is that no study has yet to tie cancer risks to red light therapy, and it could even have soothing effects for those suffering with the condition, though it should not take precedent over other treatments, nor administered without the knowledge and approval of your doctor.
LLLT is largely considered harmless, but there is some disagreement to effectiveness. As we’ve discussed and shown in the examples above, there is a spectrum filled with both researchers and users who see at least some benefit, in some cases to a significant degree.
That said, you’ll want to limit the amount of time that you use infrared light per treatment and try to keep it to just one time per day on the affected area(s).
Also, pregnant women will want to consult with their OBGYN before beginning use. Lastly, remember that while there are a lot of opinions on its effectiveness, there is not yet FDA approval on any of the claims found above.
Red light therapy is one form of light therapy treatment, with others including amber, blue, and green. All have their strengths, weaknesses, and intersections, and each shares the common theme of being relatively new in the realm of healthcare.
If you decide to use any of these to treat a legitimate medical condition, don’t do it in a vacuum. Also, explain to your doctor why you would like to try it and see what they have to say.
Now it’s your turn, readers. How many of you have tried red light therapy? What were the effects? Sound off in the comments section below.