Q: Can red light therapy reduce signs of sun damage and other skin problems?
A: Possibly, but it’s hard to generalize because there are so many devices—both for home and professional use—and so many conditions the treatment is touted for. Often referred to as photomodulation, it involves exposing skin to low-energy light, typically two or three times a week for several weeks, using a light-emitting diode (LED) device.
Though it’s called “red light” therapy, the devices use not just visible red light (around 600 nm) but also near-infrared (above 700 nm) or light below visible red (around 590 nm, technically amber light). Some use combinations of red and blue light. None emit ultraviolet light rays, and unlike some laser skin treatments, they don’t generate enough heat to damage tissue.
Some dermatologists offer photomodulation for treating wrinkles, age spots, acne and other skin conditions, as do many laser centers, salons and spas. The Internet is also awash with home devices. The theory is that the light penetrates below the skin’s surface, where it “energizes” cells to stimulate collagen and elastin formation, which is needed to repair and renew skin.
Some research suggests there may be something to it. In a study from Johns Hopkins and other institutions in 2005, for example, red light therapy improved skin texture and, as shown on biopsies, increased skin collagen. And in a 2007 South Korean study, red and near infrared light used alone and together improved skin both visually and on biopsy, compared to sham treatment. However, a 2009 study in Dermatologic Surgery found no objective changes in wrinkles, roughness, dark spots or other signs of skin aging.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there’s some evidence for the effectiveness of professional devices, but little for home ones.
If you have wrinkles, age spots or other skin issues you are uncomfortable with, you can discuss photomodulation with a dermatologist. You are not a candidate if you take medications that increase light sensitivity or have skin inflammation, rashes or open wounds. The treatment is costly (about $75 and up per session, and you need a series of sessions), usually not covered by insurance. Don’t waste your money on home “anti-aging” red light devices ($150 to $450) unless your dermatologist recommends a specific one.