If you’re a member of the skincare and wellness-obsessed club like me, you have go-to treatments that help you either achieve a glowing complexion or zen out. And while we should make time for all the self-care, let’s be honest: It doesn’t always happen. If only there was an all-encompassing remedy that checks off all the boxes…
Behold: red light therapy (AKA RLT). The latest “it” method to hit dermatologists’ offices, spas, gyms, and even homes alike promises everything from skin-enhancing perks to anxiety-alleviating effects. The skeptic in you might be saying, “Is it legit?”, so I turned to experts to get the full scoop on red light therapy. And, of course, I had to see (and experience it) for myself. Ahead, a breakdown of RLT and what happened when I gave it a whirl.
What is red light therapy?
Considering you’re a fellow wellness junkie, my guess is you’ve seen influencers and celebs donning light-emitting diodes (AKA LED) masks (some reminiscent of horror movies, IMO) flooding your TikTok and IG. Well, they’re treating their face to the magic of RLT. “Red light therapy is a novel light-driven treatment that applies low-level lasers or light-emitting diodes to deliver red, far-red, or near-infrared light targeting to modulate cellular metabolism and the functioning of a variety of tissues, including the central nervous system and the brain,” explained Dr. Julie Landry, a board-certified clinical psychologist. In other words, the non-invasive practice sends red wavelengths of light through the skin that our cells absorb and convert to energy, leading to a host of benefits (more to come on that).
But the regenerative goodness doesn’t stop at your face and masks at home. You can get your glow on in the form of full-body light panels and beds popping up at health-minded hotspots. So how do red light therapy DIY devices compare to treatments you’d find at, say, a health and fitness center? “At-home options cost less and can be used whenever it’s convenient,” said Eden Danaher, Manager of Upgrade Labs Human Upgrade TM Centers in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, the world’s first biohacking (read: the practice of altering your biology for optimal performance) health and fitness facilities taking workouts and recovery to a whole new level. On the other hand, “Professional treatments are more powerful than the at-home varieties, so users can see results sooner and need fewer treatments.”
What are the benefits?
According to a study from The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, RLT has been shown to augment tissue repair, promote regeneration and skin rejuvenation, and boost the production of hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin. The result? Getting a leg up on fine lines, pore size, texture, and wrinkles.
Stimulate healing and reduce inflammation
Sounds too good to be true that light can reduce inflammation in the body? A study by Dr. Hamblin of Harvard Medical School may suggest otherwise. When cells absorb red and near-infrared light, ATP (an energy-carrying molecule found in cells), oxygen, and protein production increases, creating anti-inflammatory agents and speeding up healing. To sum it up, RLT can reduce inflammation in the brain, abdominal fat, wounds, lungs, and spinal cord.
Listen up, fitness fanatics: this one is especially for you. Based on a study determining the effectiveness of RLT on muscle recovery, subjects who received RLT immediately after exercise experienced significantly reduced muscle soreness, muscle strength loss, and range-of-motion impairments. What’s more, another study found that RLT used on college athletes with a wide range of injuries substantially (and safely) reduced their recovery time (nearly twice as quickly as those who did not receive the treatment).
While Dr. Landry explained that further studies are needed to confirm efficacy, clinical guidelines, and dosing standards, she cited that red light therapy has recently shown promise as a treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury. A study in Behavioral and Brain Functions also found that RLT may help improve depression as soon as two weeks after a single treatment. Talk with your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist if you’re interested in adding red light therapy into your mental health routine. Know that more studies need to be done on RLT’s effect on mental health, but if you’re interested in trying it for the other benefits, boosted mood may just be a fringe benefit.
Are there any side effects or drawbacks to it?
As with any beauty or wellness program, it’s best to do your homework and check in with your doctor to make sure RLT is safe and effective for you. But generally speaking, there are little to no known risks tied to it. “Red light therapy is relatively safe to use, as it does not contain any UV rays,” said Vanessa Coppola, FNP-BC, a board-certified nurse practitioner, aesthetic specialist, and Owner of Bare Aesthetic Medical Spa. “Although many studies have indicated the potential for benefits of red light therapy, the current literature is lacking in conclusive evidence for its benefits. Bottom line, it appears relatively safe to use, it may help, but there is no current hard evidence that it actually does.”
Danaher added that people on Accutane and other medications that can make the skin photosensitive (sensitive or reactive to sunlight) should avoid RLT. Additionally, RLT should not be used in the case of pregnancy, heart disease, melasma, or hyperpigmentation.
Is red light therapy really the holy grail of skin and wellness treatments? I went to Upgrade Labs in Beverly Hills to find out. I stepped into my private room and settled onto the futuristic-looking bed of red LEDs in nothing but my Hanky Panky underwear and goggles (I was told it’s best to have direct contact). Almost immediately, the warmth of the lights put me in a relaxed state, and I fell fast asleep until the 20-minute mark to turn over. As an added bonus, there was a mobile RLT panel that hovered over my face—you better believe I was going to bathe every inch of my body in the light to get the most out of it.
My final verdict: I would give RLT an 8/10, mostly for its soothing and muscle recovery effects. I had a killer leg sesh before basking in the glow of RLT, and normally I’d be waddling the next day, but to my surprise, I didn’t wake up feeling like I couldn’t walk. While I didn’t notice a change in my complexion, I did get a solid, restorative night of Zzzs without any interruptions. It was a welcomed change since I usually wake up in the middle of the night thanks to all the water I drank taking my nighttime supplements or by my to-do list taunting me. And for the crème de la crème of benefits, I felt after RLT: a sense of being more grounded. It’s safe to say that I’m normally riddled with worry and anxiety, but during and immediately after the 40 minutes of bliss, I was able to tune out the excess noise and reconnect with my body. I was calm, yet simultaneously recharged the rest of the day, with my mind and body at ease. The fountain of youth, closest thing to a cure-all, an all-natural wellness experience—call it what you will. I’m all for it.
Get red light therapy at home
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.