Red light therapy has made its way to the skin-care obsessed masses: While it was once a treatment only at the doctor’s office, the number of devices you can now use at home has grown at a viral pace. Just search “red light therapy” on TikTok or Instagram for evidence. Red light therapy is one form of multiple light-emitting diode (LED) therapies—but of all of them, red light penetrates the deepest into the skin. The attraction to this kind of skin treatment has grown because it’s noninvasive (meaning no downtime and minimal side effects), it works on almost all skin types and tones, and it’s said to help with a host of skin issues, from acne and inflammation to signs of aging, including fine lines and wrinkles.
Celebs and influencers alike have touted the treatment’s skin-enhancing effects with posts of themselves in their homes casually wearing glowing masks, or waving red-light wands over their faces. But as technology and skin care continues to merge, it’s often hard to tell what’s real from what’s hype.
The good news is that, depending on what you’re using it for, experts say the evidence behind the benefits of red light therapy ranges from solid to solidly promising. To help clarify exactly what these devices can (and cannot) do—and whether at-home red light therapy devices are worth your money—we asked a few leading dermatologists some of our most pressing questions on the subject. Read on to see how they broke down red light therapy for us.
What is red light therapy? | Does red light therapy actually work? | What are the side effects of red light therapy? | What about red light therapy at home? | How often can you use red light therapy? | What about red light therapy for hair loss?
What is red light therapy and what is it used for?
As you may have seen in your dermatologist’s office or in online ads for home devices, red light therapy usually takes the form of a face mask, light panel, or wand built with tiny LED bulbs that emit low-level wavelengths of red or near-infrared light.1 These devices are then “applied”—panels and some masks are kept a short distance from your face; other masks and wands are applied directly—to the skin for brief periods of time (typically around 15–30 minutes) to help treat various skin conditions. These skin concerns can range from the medical—including actinic keratosis (a common skin growth that can lead to cancer), acne, and rosacea—to the cosmetic, namely fine lines and wrinkles.
So how does all of this happen just from pointing red light at your face? “Red light waves stimulate the mitochondria, which is the energy center within each cell. We believe that sets off a cascade of changes within the cell that allow for the different benefits that we’re able to see, such as the upregulation of collagen production and the reduction of inflammation, pigmentation, and redness in the skin,” Jared Jagdeo, MD, founding director of the center for photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and chief medical officer of Ever/Body cosmetic dermatology spa in New York City, tells SELF.2 “We’ve also found it helps prompt cellular repair and circulation, which, along with the increase in collagen, can lead to healthier-looking skin and a more vibrant complexion.”3 4
When it comes to skin health, red light therapy is primarily used to treat actinic keratosis. “We use it as part of something called photodynamic therapy, in which we apply a photosensitizer to the skin first,” Angela Lamb, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells SELF. Topical photosensitizers are creams or solutions that “allow the red light to be better absorbed by the skin so that the rays penetrate deeper and have more of an effect,” she explains. The red light can destroy the abnormal skin tissue without harming the healthy skin.5
Because of its anti-inflammatory effects, doctors may also use red light therapy to help treat acne, often in conjunction with blue light, which doesn’t penetrate as deeply as red light but has been shown to kill the bacteria on the surface that causes acne.6 “Both blue and red light have been reported to be helpful in acne—the choice really depends on physician expertise, preference, and the kind of devices being used,” Elma Baron, MD, professor of dermatology at Case Western University and chief of dermatology service at VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, tells SELF. “For light-based therapies, a lot of parameters are a little more flexible than prescribing a drug, which has a definite dosage and duration.” (More on how frequently experts recommend red light therapy below.)
So does red light therapy actually work?
When it’s used for its indicated medical treatments, red light therapy absolutely can. “When used with a photosensitizer, the therapeutic effects of red light—whether it’s the anti-inflammatory effects for acne or the destructive and anti-oxidative-stress effect on pre-cancerous cells—have been proven,” says Dr. Baron. Research also shows it can help with wound healing, psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea.7
“But of course, there are many other things that people are using red light for, and the evidence for those applications is not as strong,” adds Dr. Baron. Namely, its use strictly for anti-aging purposes. “There have been some preliminary studies that show that this type of light has some effects on cells known as fibroblasts.8 These are the cells that produce collagen, so we know that red light has some beneficial effects in terms of promoting the growth of and maintaining healthy collagen in your skin,” says Dr. Baron.
Experts say you will likely see some skin-enhancing effects with red light therapy, but as with most skin rejuvenation treatments, most visible results will be temporary. “This is not going to stop the clock,” says Dr. Baron. But that’s why regular use is recommended, either in an office, spa, or at home. “The results you get from red light therapy work cumulatively, additively, and synergistically,” says Dr. Jagdeo. In other words, if you’re looking to achieve smoother skin and see a reduction in fine lines, you’ll need to keep up your sessions so that each one builds onto and supports the other; then over time—usually in a matter of weeks or months—you should start to see noticeable changes, according to the doctors we talked to.
I hear it’s safe, but what side effects of red light therapy should I expect?
Yes, all of our experts agree: Red light therapy is generally safe. The great thing about red light therapy is that it’s noninvasive and, when used properly, does not damage the skin. (Improper use can damage skin, though—see “How often can you use red light therapy?” below for more.) Side effects are minimal and downtime, which is sometimes necessary with common skin laser treatments, is nonexistent. “In an office treatment, you might feel a little bit of stinging when using a photosensitizer with the light, but for most people, you might feel your skin get warm, and maybe you’ll look red right after the treatment, but that should go away in a day or two,” says Dr. Baron.
Also unlike some lasers, people of all skin tones and types can undergo this kind of treatment, say our experts. “I conducted research that was funded by the NIH that looked at red light therapy and its safety amongst different skin types. We found that with short treatment times—30 minutes or less—there was no concern with redness or hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Jagdeo. Once you start trending up towards much longer treatment times, though, then the risk for those issues increases.”9
That said, if you know you’re easily prone to hyperpigmentation, you might want to talk to your dermatologist for help with choosing a home device, says Dr. Lamb. “If a patient came to me who was prone to pigmentation, I probably would recommend that they avoid getting a device that rests directly on their face and instead stick to ones that are held away from your skin.”
The bottom line is that, when done correctly, “Red light therapy is something that’s safe and very manageable for the average adult,” says Dr. Baron. When used medically for treatment of actinic keratosis, photodynamic therapy may be covered by insurance, but don’t expect your insurance to cover it for acne, rosacea, or skin rejuvenation. Out-of-pocket prices vary depending on treatment area and office locations, though they typically fall between $35 to $400 a session.
So red light therapy at home is safe and effective too?
Yes: In-home devices are as safe to use as in-office ones, according to our experts. Remember though, the devices used in a medical office will be bigger and emit more energy than those you can use at home, says Dr. Baron, so at-home ones will be milder, which means you may not see the kind of results you might get from an office visit. That said, “these less powerful home devices can be safely used more frequently, without any redness,” says Dr. Baron.
The price range varies widely for at-home devices—anywhere from $100 to $2,000-plus. Again, they should all be safe when used as directed, but there isn’t a lot of research on the efficacy of specific models, adds Dr. Baron, so choosing one is somewhat of a guessing game. Dr. Jagdeo recommends the Omnilux Contour Face mask ($395), which has clinical trials behind it (full disclosure: He sits on the company’s medical advisory board), and he also suggests reading reviews and asking a dermatologist if you’re not sure about a particular device. Once you do find one you like, you should eventually see a softening in the appearance of fine lines, better texture and tone, and a decrease of any redness of the skin, says Dr. Lamb. “It’s a really nice home treatment,” she adds.
How often can you use red light therapy?
“For actinic keratosis treatment, we ideally aim for a single session, but the more severe cases will need more than one,” says Dr. Baron. “A patient should expect to be under the light for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the light source. For acne, we really don’t have great data, but multiple sessions are definitely needed. It’s reasonable to prepare for a series of 3 to 4 sessions.”
For photorejuvenation—reducing redness and promoting collagen production—Dr. Jagdeo says that since in-office devices have higher power outputs, “I’d recommend going in for treatment a minimum of once a month, but preferably every other week.” If you’re going to do your treatment at home by using a facemask, for example, he says you could probably use that three to five times per week, or whatever the manufacturer recommends. “It’s usually on an every other day regimen for about 5 to 15 minutes per session,” says Dr. Jagdeo.
You can also do a combo of in-office and home treatments to get the most noticeable results, he says. As noted above, since any changes you might experience will be temporary, keeping up a regular schedule of treatments is key to maintaining the desired results.
One note of caution: Don’t get overzealous and think the more you use red light therapy, the better results you’ll get. Remember that great safety profile we mentioned above? That will go out the window if you don’t follow the directions with your device, says Dr. Jagdeo. “Overuse of your device could result in undesirable adverse events such as redness lasting longer than one day, blistering, burns, decrease in collagen, increase in wrinkles, tanning or darkening of skin that may take several months or longer to resolve, and other side effects or complications,” he warns.
I heard it can also help with hair loss. Is that true?
Yes, it may very well be an effective treatment for hair regrowth. “There is actually over a decade worth of research using red light—oftentimes LEDs, sometimes lasers—to promote hair growth,” says Dr. Jagdeo. Indeed, a 2020 review in Skin Apendage Disorders examining the safety and efficacy of low-level light therapy looked at ten randomized controlled trials and found that devices using wavelengths that included red light appeared to be effective for treating pattern hair loss in both men and women.10 “I know some clients who have had a great outcome by using this sort of treatment,” says Dr. Jagdeo. “It’s a really promising approach.”