Is Red Light Therapy Beneficial or BS?
If you’re into natural healthcare, biohacking, or looking for alternative treatment options, you’ve probably come across red light therapy. Even our boy Dr. Andrew Huberman discusses it on the Huberman Lab Podcast (which should be in everyone’s Spotify top ten imo).
Red light therapy, or RLT for short, is a non-invasive treatment that uses therapeutic red light to penetrate the skin and jump-start tissue healing. It’s associated with glowing skin, fewer aches and pains, weight loss, and better mental health. Plus, thanks to advancements in LED technology, this therapy is more accessible than ever.
But is it an effective treatment or just another wellness trend?
Today, we’ll shed some light (ba-dum-tss) on this therapy and dig into the latest research to help you understand the red light therapy pros and cons.
Red light therapy is a natural healing technique that involves exposing different areas of your body to low-energy red and near-infrared (NIR) light waves to enhance collagen production, promote circulation, reduce pain, improve energy, and more.
It’s also known as phototherapy, photobiomodulation (PBM), or low-level light therapy (LLLT). But don’t worry; it’s nothing like a tanning bed and is completely free of UVA and UVB rays.
In the early 90s, NASA took an interest in red light to support plant growth in space. And after that, they started using it to help their astronauts minimize bone and muscle mass loss. In fact, if this hadn’t happened, the scientific support for RLT wouldn’t have grown as much as it has.
Light is made up of electromagnetic waves measured in nanometers (nm), but most of the light in our environment is invisible. Only a small portion is visible, which includes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet light waves in the range of 380-780 nm.
At one end of the spectrum, we have red light waves, most visible at sunrise and sunset. They’re low-energy, longer light waves that penetrate deeper into tissues than others. On the other hand, blue light wavelengths are short, high-energy, and scatter easily (that’s why the sky appears blue).
Natural light is essential for the well-being of all living species. Unfortunately, most of us are under-illuminated. We spend about 90% of our day indoors, bombarded by artificial blue light but lacking natural light, including red light.
I’m an advocate for getting daily natural light exposure for hormone balance, mood, energy, and sleep quality. But if you’re stuck indoors a lot, red light therapy is a simple way to expose your cells to these therapeutic light waves without worrying about sun damage.
Interestingly, ancient civilizations worshiped the sun. They knew about the power of red light and used natural sunlight to treat various ailments (known as heliotherapy). It’s not all about vitamin D, light is one of the most important signalers for our brain and body.
While it’s not a new discovery, modern red light therapy for professional and home use is more convenient and targeted. Devices range from large LED light therapy panels to red light helmets and handheld devices for smaller areas.
RTL is part of the biohacking trend – offering a shortcut to better health, performance, and productivity. Look, know biohacking is a douchey word – mostly used by bros who torture themselves with cold plunges, mushroom coffee, and semen retention to justify doing lines on the weekend. Was that too harsh?
Anyway, what’s great about RLT is that it’s well-studied, unlike many other “biohacks.”
(Okay, I’ll try to stop saying biohack now)
Red light therapy works by penetrating skin tissue without damaging it. Depending on the device, it may also penetrate deeper tissues and muscles to improve cell metabolism, reduce inflammation, support blood circulation, and promote nutrient delivery.
Here’s more on how RLT works:
RTL stimulates photoreceptors called cytochrome C oxidase in the mitochondria (1) of the cell to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the energy “currency” of your body, and mitochondria are “power plants.” Increasing ATP production and usage helps your cells function more efficiently, repair themselves, and heal.
Poor mitochondrial function is a hallmark of aging, illness, chronic oxidative stress, and a sedentary lifestyle. RLT protects and strengthens the mitochondria, allowing your cells to repair and regenerate. It may also strengthen your antioxidant defenses and fight oxidative cell damage.
RLT also appears to trigger a fascinating process called hormesis. It’s a form of low-level cellular stress that’s good for you (like the beneficial stress from exercise, fasting, or cold plunges).
Hormesis puts your body into repair mode, stimulating anti-inflammatory mediators, enzymes, growth factors, and blood flow. Overall, it improves your resilience or ability to adapt to stress.
Research suggests red light stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, proteins that give your skin and connective tissue strength and elasticity. It’s popular for reducing fine lines and speeding up wound healing and tissue repair.
At first, I found it difficult to grasp how a bunch of red LEDs could bring on physiological changes. What caught my attention was the non-invasive and painless nature of RLT.
To learn more about how it works, check out the aforementioned Huberman Lab Podcast.
There have been thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies on red light therapy, with overwhelmingly positive results and safety data.
Before I get into more detail on the health benefits, I want to remind you that I’m reporting on the research (and may mention anecdotal experience). I’m not a doctor, so consult a healthcare professional before using RLT.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a deeper look at some of the pros of RLT.
As mentioned, red light therapy improves collagen repair, which helps to firm up the skin and reduce premature wrinkles. It may also improve blood circulation, which speeds up the healing process and reduces skin inflammation.
While aging is inevitable, RLT might make the process more graceful without you resorting to Botox, surgery, or other invasive procedures. A 2014 randomized controlled trial found two sessions of red light therapy per week reduced signs of aging after 30 sessions. It increased collagen density and improved overall skin texture.
For what it’s worth, I’ve had positive results using RLT for annoying skin issues like acne and eczema. It takes time, but I prefer it to harsh chemical peels and prescription medications that aren’t safe for all skin types.
Fortunately, dermatologists are also catching onto the benefits, and most now offer low-level laser therapy (a concentrated and highly accurate form of RLT).
Aside from its skin benefits, many people buy a handheld red light device to alleviate joint pain and soothe sore muscles.
This study found that RLT may help alleviate chronic lower back pain, one of the most common reasons people seek physical therapy or chiropractic care. It also helps pain, stiffness, and disability in those with osteoarthritis (4, 5).
Furthermore, a meta-analysis revealed that RLT improves widespread pain and stiffness in those with fibromyalgia, a condition for which conventional medicine has limited solutions. That’s freaking impressive.
If you suffer from chronic pain, RLT is worth considering as a natural treatment. However, if you experience severe and persistent pain, get it checked out.
RLT is FDA-approved for speeding up wound healing. What’s cool about red light is that it doesn’t trigger healing by damaging the skin. Instead, it targets tissue regeneration via collagen production and reducing inflammation.
In a study on rabbits, RLT triggered tissue growth and accelerated wound healing. In humans, studies have confirmed just 30-80 seconds of RLT three times weekly for a month may heal diabetic foot ulcers – one of the nastiest side effects of diabetes (6).
Although more clinical trials are necessary, RLT could also be a game-changer in reducing the risk of infections post-surgery.
Transcranial red light therapy may support mental and cognitive health. It may even help with neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change (7). I can’t hide my excitement about this as I am always looking for ways to keep my brain sharp.
Various animal and human studies have shown that red and near-infrared light therapy supports people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and depression (8). It also benefits short-term attention, executive function, and working memory in people with dementia (9).
However, you don’t need to have cognitive issues or depression to notice the brain benefits. Interestingly, this study found red light therapy may help shift workers stay alert and perform well.
That said, at-home red light LED panels probably don’t have the firepower to influence brain health. Red light helmets using targeted low-level lasers are a better bet.
You’ve probably seen professional athletes on Instagram raving about red light therapy to enhance their performance and speed up recovery.
When used before exercise, red light laser therapy may reduce muscle fatigue and increase the time until exhaustion during workouts (10). This makes sense as muscle cells are rich in energy-producing mitochondria (for obvious reasons). Skeletal muscles also demand a lot of blood, nutrients, and oxygen.
Furthermore, research suggests a combination or red light laser and LED therapy decreases delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It may be more effective for muscle recovery (and significantly more enjoyable) than cryotherapy (11).
RLT may offer a safe, natural way to reverse hair loss in both men and women by improving circulation to hair follicles.
This study of women with alopecia found RLT every other day for 25 minutes increased hair growth by 37% compared to a placebo. Another study found it significantly increased hair follicle density without noticeable side effects.
Natural light in the orange-red spectrum in the morning and evening helps to synchronize your circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep faster and wake up refreshed.
RLT before bedtime may help you wind down and support melatonin production. A study on female athletes in 2012 found exactly that. But it’s not a quick fix; addressing sleep requires a broader approach.
I’m interested in whether RLT may keep seasonal affective disorder (SAD) at bay. Depression, insomnia, and other circadian rhythm dysregulation symptoms are hallmarks of SAD, so there’s reason to think red light therapy can help. I am waiting for the studies. And I’ll update this article when they come up.
Low-energy red light therapy may help to balance the immune response when the immune system mistakenly attacks your tissues. Research shows it may reduce the immune response and improve symptoms of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (12, 13).
It’s a promising alternative to chronic medication, although I’m not suggesting you do away with your prescription. It’s just food for thought.
One of the many pros of red light therapy is the ease of use. Whether you have large RLT panels or a smaller handheld device, the process is non-invasive, painless, and requires minimal effort.
It may also support weight loss, as I discuss in this article on red light therapy for weight loss.
Like any therapy, red light therapy has its benefits and drawbacks. However, the list of cons is shorter than the pros.
So, what are the drawbacks to consider when using red light therapy?
The cost of a quality red light therapy device is probably the biggest downside. It requires an upfront investment.
If you can’t afford a device, you can find red light therapy at various health spas, gyms, chiropractic and physical therapy rooms, and other health clinics. It’s a good option if you want to try it out before committing. However, you’ll still pay per session and travel for frequent appointments.
Unfortunately, the natural health market is unregulated and full of total crap, which makes it easy for unscrupulous people to sell ineffective at-home devices with no therapeutic benefit.
Learning more about red light therapy is the first step to avoiding junk devices.
Do your research, read reviews, and seek guidance from reputable sources. Look for a third-party-tested device from a company that offers a warranty and good customer support. Independent testing ensures that the device uses clinically proven red light waves.
Red light therapy is a hot topic among clinical researchers. However, most clinical studies in RLT use lasers with direct skin contact and not LED lights used in devices for home use.
Aggressive marketing campaigns often exaggerate the claims of red light therapy, painting it as a miracle cure. We need more high-quality research to determine the best dose, wavelength, and duration of red light therapy for different health conditions. This will help to establish safety guidelines and standardized treatment protocols.
At the end of the day, it’s still an “alternative” therapy that many doctors and medical insurers aren’t convinced is better than existing treatments. It needs more investigation before it becomes a mainstream treatment.
At-home red light devices typically use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to emit red or near-infrared light.
However, most studies on RLT use lasers, specifically low-level laser therapy, which deliver focused light energy. Lasers penetrate deeper into tissues and are FDA-approved for treating joint pain and wounds. On the other hand, LEDs emit light at a wider angle, resulting in weaker intensity that does not penetrate as deeply into tissues. LED devices also generate heat, so you must sit a few inches away during treatment.
To be clear, LED and laser devices have both shown effectiveness in clinical studies (14). LED devices are also more affordable and can treat a larger surface area. Unfortunately, lasers are typically only used by trained professionals like physical therapists or dermatologists. We still need research to determine the most effective protocols for red light LED devices.
Red light therapy is non-invasive, painless, and easy to adjust based on your needs. However, it’s important to understand the potential risks.
Some people experience mild skin irritation or dryness. But it’s usually short-lived and disappears when you reduce your treatment time or move the red light farther away from the skin. However, if the irritation persists and becomes painful or swollen, stop treatment immediately.
People with photosensitivity should be cautious. If you have a health condition or are taking prescription medication, consult your doctor before starting red light therapy.
Always listen to your body, build up your tolerance to red light, and follow your doctor’s advice.
Red light therapy only works if you use it consistently. If you don’t have convenient access to a device, this could be a roadblock.
Red light therapy is one of the safest treatments when used according to safety guidelines.
RLT may not be suitable if you’re pregnant, have active cancer lesions or skin infections, or have a light sensitivity condition. Plus, if you’re on any medications that increase your sensitivity to light, chat with your healthcare professional before giving red light therapy a go.
We have a whole article to answer this one. Check out the list of the best red light therapy devices out there.
Red light therapy is perfectly safe for your eyes and won’t cause damage. But, if you’re someone with light sensitivity, you may want to wear goggles or close your eyes during treatment.
There are plenty of studies supporting its efficacy for skincare, pain management, tissue repair, anti-aging, exercise performance, sleep, and cognitive health.
However, there’s more to learn about how exactly it works. We need more high-quality placebo-controlled clinical studies to confirm the benefits of red light therapy for different uses, especially using red light LEDs.
Fortunately, the ongoing interest in photobiomodulation means the research isn’t slowing down.
For sure! It’s one of the reasons RLT is so popular. The wide range of devices available for home use means you don’t need to go to a doctor’s office or salon to enjoy the benefits. Plus, using it at home helps you stay consistent for the best results.
A typical session of red light therapy usually lasts between 3 to 20 minutes. The exact duration depends on your device and your health goals. On average, most people use red light therapy for 10 to 20 minutes per day or every other day.
Some experts suggest starting with shorter sessions and gradually increasing over time, paying attention to how you feel. The goal is to find your sweet spot without stressing your body.
In addition, the results are cumulative. It’s not a one-time thing. Some people require daily sessions, while others only need 3-5 sessions per week. Your healthcare professional or the device manufacturer can help you find the protocol for your needs.
Most people find red light therapy a pleasant, relaxing experience. During a session, you might feel a slight tingling sensation, or you might not feel any difference at all. The light may feel a little warm if pressed against your skin.
This varies from person to person based on the device, the frequency and duration of sessions, and your health goals. Some people notice benefits after just a few sessions, while others might see changes in a few weeks to a few months.
Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to RLT. Your cells need time to respond and repair. So, keep your expectations in check and stay consistent even if you don’t notice changes immediately.
If your improvements have plateaued, take a few days off from treatment to let your body recalibrate before starting again.
Typically, insurance doesn’t cover red light therapy as it’s considered a “complementary and alternative” therapy. But it’s worth checking with your insurance provider to see if they cover it in specific situations. It might depend on whether your doctor recommends the therapy or not.
Absolutely! Red light therapy is safe to use alongside different medical or aesthetic treatments.
The effects of red light therapy may support other treatments by stimulating cellular metabolism and reducing inflammation. It may even be an activating agent for photosensitizing medications, improving therapeutic outcomes.
Always speak to your doctor before adding RLT to your treatment protocol.
And that ends our exploration of the pros and cons of red light therapy. There’s ongoing research on RLT, so this article will most likely expand (so bookmark it and check back later).
Overall, RLT is a painless, non-invasive therapy with plenty of scientific evidence backing it up. The most promising benefits include better collagen production, less pain and inflammation, younger-looking skin, hair growth, faster recovery, and better mental health. It’s not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle but rather an add-on to support your wellness routine.
The main drawbacks of red light therapy are the cost, accessibility, time commitment, lack of standardized protocols, and potential side effects for some individuals. We still need more long-term studies to understand the most effective RLT protocols, devices, and safety guidelines.
Lastly, consult a trained healthcare professional to see if red light therapy is right for you.