Dr. Andrea Middleton - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Andrea Middleton

Is Red Light Therapy Bad For You?

Also Known As: Low-Level Laser Therapy, Photobiomodulation



Short answer

Red light therapy (RLT) is generally considered safe and has potential benefits including improved skin health, enhanced wound healing, and pain relief. It's non-invasive with a low risk profile, lacking harmful UV rays. While RLT shows promise, efficacy varies and not all claims are heavily researched. It's advised to approach RLT as a supplement to traditional treatments, guided by current scientific evidence and with awareness of potential minor side effects like eyestrain or skin redness.



Long answer

Overview of Red Light Therapy and Its Purported Benefits

Often regarded as a promising non-invasive treatment, red light therapy, or RLT, uses low wavelength red light to allegedly treat skin issues, such as wrinkles, scars, and persistent wounds, among other conditions. But, is this therapy truly a beacon of wellness, or is there a reason to approach it with caution?

In essence, red light therapy is believed to work by acting on the mitochondria within cells – often termed the "powerhouses" of the cells – potentially increasing their energy production. This theoretical boost could then help cells repair themselves and become rejuvenated and more efficient. Some studies suggest RLT may stimulate collagen production, which is crucial for skin elasticity and the healing process.

  • Targets Skin Concerns: RLT is often enlisted to combat signs of aging, reduce wrinkles, and improve complexion.
  • Promotes Wound Healing: Some research indicates that RLT may speed up the healing process for wounds and decrease inflammation.
  • Alleviates Pain: Users report RLT helps alleviate chronic pain conditions – from musculoskeletal to neuropathic pain.
  • Enhances Muscle Recovery: Athletes use red light therapy to promote muscle recovery after intense workouts.
  • Treats Hair Loss: There's growing interest in using RLT for stimulating hair growth in people with androgenetic alopecia.
  • Improves Mental Health: Emerging studies show potential benefits for mental health conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While the list of claimed benefits is extensive, it is important to view them under the lens of current scientific backing. Not all claims have robust research support, and the efficacy of RLT may vary greatly among individuals.

Respected institutions like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown interest in this therapy, as evidenced by their funding numerous studies looking into the mechanisms and potential applications of RLT. A study published in the journal Aesthetic Plastic Surgery cited that RLT could significantly improve skin complexion and increase collagen density.

Another aspect worth considering is the low-risk profile of RLT; when used correctly, it lacks the harmful UV rays that are a concern with natural sunlight or tanning beds. This makes RLT a sought-after alternative for those wary of UV-based treatments.

Ultimately, while red light therapy shows much promise in various health domains, it's important to remain informed about the scientific progress and not to substitute conventional treatments for unproven ones without consulting a healthcare professional. Wisely incorporating RLT as part of a well-rounded health and wellness routine could potentially provide benefits, but it should be approached responsibly, with a clear understanding of the therapy's current evidence and limitations.

Potential Side Effects and Contraindications of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy (RLT) has gained popularity due to its potential benefits such as improved skin health, faster wound healing, and pain reduction. However, like any treatment, it's crucial to be aware of potential side effects and contraindications. Here's a dive into what you should know before considering RLT.

Common Side Effects
Most users of RLT experience few to no side effects, thanks to its non-invasive nature. Still, some individuals may encounter mild reactions, which typically subside on their own:

  • Eyestrain: Exposure to bright light can cause discomfort or temporary strain to the eyes, especially when not using proper eye protection.
  • Skin Redness: Some users report mild redness of the skin immediately after treatment, which usually fades shortly thereafter.
  • Headaches: A small percentage of people may experience headaches following RLT, possibly due to sensitivity to the light.
  • Infrared Warmth: RLT devices that use infrared light might make the skin feel warm during treatment, which is generally well-tolerated but could be uncomfortable for some.

Rare Side Effects
Rarely, more significant side effects have been reported, although these instances are infrequent:

  • Exacerbation of Pain: While RLT is often used for pain relief, some individuals may experience an increase in pain after treatments, likely due to an inflammatory response.
  • Photosensitivity Reactions: If you have a condition that makes you sensitive to light, such as lupus, RLT could potentially trigger a flare-up.

There are certain conditions where RLT might be inadvisable, or where caution should be exercised:

  • People with a history of skin cancer should consult their doctor before using RLT.
  • Pregnancy: There's limited research on the effects of RLT during pregnancy, so expecting mothers should seek medical advice prior to use.
  • Medications that increase light sensitivity, such as certain antibiotics or retinoids, could interact with RLT and lead to adverse reactions.
  • Individuals with a compromised immune system or autoimmune conditions should discuss RLT with their healthcare provider, as it could potentially influence immune system activity.
  • Those with retina disorders or other serious eye conditions should take special care and likely avoid RLT to prevent exacerbation of their conditions.

In conclusion, while the side effects of RLT are typically minor and transient, being aware of potential contraindications is important. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting new treatments, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are taking medications that might interact with RLT.

Evaluating the Evidence: Effective or Placebo?

Red light therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy or photobiomodulation, has garnered attention in recent years for its potential benefits in various health areas. But with the buzz also comes the critical question: is the effectiveness of red light therapy substantiated, or could its perceived benefits be attributed to a placebo effect? Let's delve into the current evidence to shed some light on this topic.

Firstly, it's essential to understand the placebo effect. This phenomenon occurs when individuals experience a sense of improvement after receiving a treatment that has no therapeutic effect, simply because they believe it will work. Placebo effects can be powerful, influencing physical sensations and even causing changes in brain chemistry.

Studies on red light therapy have included:

  • Wound healing: Research demonstrates that red light therapy can enhance cellular repair and increase circulation, thereby aiding in faster wound healing. A systematic review published in the journal 'Lasers in Medical Science' found that red light therapy effectively promoted wound healing and tissue repair.
  • Pain relief: Clinical trials indicate that red light therapy may help reduce chronic inflammation, which is a contributor to pain. A study in 'Pain Research and Management' noted a significant reduction in pain among participants with knee osteoarthritis who underwent red light therapy compared to the placebo group.
  • Skin conditions: For concerns like acne, aging, and psoriasis, red light therapy has shown promise in improving skin appearance. The journal 'Dermatologic Surgery' has published findings supporting the therapy's efficacy in photo-rejuvenation, which enhances skin texture and reduces fine lines.
  • Mental well-being: Some proponents claim red light therapy has mood-enhancing effects. However, while there's anecdotal evidence suggesting improvements in mood and sleep patterns, more rigorous, controlled studies are needed to confirm these effects conclusively.

However, not all research is conclusive, and while some studies show promising results, others demand a more skeptical view due to small sample sizes, lack of control groups, or short follow-up periods. It is also worth noting that improvements in conditions with subjective symptom reporting are more susceptible to placebo influences.

For example, when evaluating pain management, a condition often relying on patient self-reporting, a study in 'The Journal of Pain' suggested that some individuals may report pain relief after red light therapy due partly to psychological factors such as the expectation of benefit.

It's also crucial to differentiate between responses to red light therapy in clinical settings versus at-home devices, as the parameters and dosages can vary widely. While clinical-grade devices are typically subject to more rigorous testing and standardization, consumer devices may not always meet these same standards, which could affect their efficacy and the potential for placebo effects.

Overall, while current research suggests that red light therapy does have some beneficial effects beyond placebo, the strength and consistency of these effects can vary depending on the condition treated, the quality of the study, and individual responses. Continuing research in controlled, well-designed studies will help to further clarify the effectiveness of red light therapy and understand the role of placebo in reported outcomes.

Duration and Frequency: Finding the Safe Balance

When embracing red light therapy (RLT) as a part of your wellness routine, understanding the safe balance regarding duration and frequency is crucial for reaping the benefits while avoiding potential risks. A structured approach, influenced by professional recommendations and scientific studies, can help you find your sweet spot.

Firstly, it's essential to grasp that RLT isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. While therapeutic effects have been witnessed, the optimal duration and frequency can vary based on the individual's goals, the condition being targeted, and the specific device being used. Typically, professional red light therapy sessions at clinics may last between 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the treatment area's size and the device's power output. At-home devices, which tend to be less powerful, might require longer sessions ranging from 15 to 30 minutes.

A general guideline for those starting with RLT is to begin with shorter session durations and gradually increase as your body adapts to the therapy. Evidence suggests that positive outcomes can often be seen with regular, consistent exposure over time rather than prolonged, infrequent sessions.

  • Recommended Frequency: 3-5 times per week for general well-being and skin health
  • Intensive Treatment: Daily sessions for acute issues or injuries, then tapering off as improvements are noticed
  • Maintenance Therapy: Once the desired results are achieved, scaling back to 1-2 sessions weekly can help maintain those benefits

While RLT is generally considered safe, overexposure can lead to skin irritation or damage. Hence, adhering to the recommended session times and not exceeding them without professional advice is important.

To support personalization and safety, many practitioners advise keeping a log of your RLT sessions, noting any changes or improvements. This record-keeping can be instrumental in determining the most effective frequency and duration for you personally.

A study published in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine suggests that more isn't always better. Overexposure or too frequent treatments may not only diminish the positive effects but also potentially lead to tissue saturation, where no additional benefits are observed, and may even reverse the therapy's benefits.

In conclusion, it's vital to listen to your body's responses and seek guidance from a healthcare provider experienced with RLT to adjust your regimen accordingly. Keep in mind that moderation is key to harnessing the therapeutic potential of red light therapy safely and effectively.

Comparing Red Light Therapy to Other Skin Treatments

When considering skin treatments, an array of options is available, each with its own set of benefits and limitations. Red Light Therapy (RLT), also known as Low-Level Laser Therapy (LLLT), stands out for its non-invasive nature and broad range of therapeutic benefits. It is used to improve skin health, promote wound healing, and even alleviate chronic pain. Here's how RLT compares to other popular skin treatments:

1. Red Light Therapy vs. Chemical Peels:

  • Technique: Chemical peels use acid solutions to remove damaged outer layers of the skin, aiming to improve the appearance of wrinkles, scars, and pigmentation issues. RLT, on the other hand, uses wavelengths of red light to penetrate skin layers and stimulate cellular repair and regeneration.
  • Safety: Chemical peels can come with risks of scarring, infections, and changes in skin color, especially for individuals with sensitive skin. Conversely, RLT is recognized for its safety profile, with minimal to no side effects when used correctly.
  • Recovery Time: Chemical peels often require a certain period of downtime for the skin to heal and regenerate, which might not be suitable for those with busy lifestyles. RLT typically does not require downtime, and users can return to their daily activities immediately after treatment.

2. Red Light Therapy vs. Microdermabrasion:

  • Technique: Microdermabrasion is a mechanical exfoliation procedure that removes the outermost layer of dead skin cells. RLT, in contrast, works beneath the skin's surface to enhance cellular function and skin renewal without physical exfoliation.
  • Effectiveness: Microdermabrasion is effective for immediate textural improvement and a brighter complexion. RLT may take longer to show results, as it works primarily on a cellular level to promote long-term skin health.
  • Comfort: Microdermabrasion can be uncomfortable for some, with a sensation often likened to sandpaper running across the skin. RLT treatments are usually painless, making them a more comfortable option for sensitive individuals.

3. Red Light Therapy vs. Laser Resurfacing:

  • Technique: Laser resurfacing uses concentrated beams of light to remove layers of skin very precisely. RLT uses lower-intensity red light to gently stimulate skin rejuvenation without removing skin layers.
  • Side Effects: Laser resurfacing can lead to side effects like redness, swelling, itching, and a need for a protective ointment during recovery. RLT appears to have fewer after-treatment side effects, typically only causing mild warmth during the procedure.
  • Downtime: The recovery period for laser resurfacing can last several weeks, during which sun exposure must be rigorously avoided. RLT does not typically necessitate such precautions, allowing a quick return to daily activities.

4. Red Light Therapy vs. Topical Creams and Serums:

  • Mode of Action: Topical treatments work at the skin's surface level and depend on the skin's ability to absorb active ingredients. RLT bypasses absorption issues by directly stimulating cells and improving skin health from within.
  • Consistency of Use: Creams and serums usually require consistent, daily application, and benefits may diminish if usage is interrupted. The effects of RLT can be longer-lasting, with some studies suggesting continued benefits post-treatment.
  • Combination Use: While some topical treatments can be sensitizing or incompatible with other skin therapies, RLT can often be used in conjunction with other treatments to enhance overall results.

Individuals seeking a gentle yet effective approach to skin health may favor Red Light Therapy for its non-invasive nature and broad scope of benefits. It stands as a unique option amongst more traditional treatments like chemical peels, microdermabrasion, laser resurfacing, and topical applications. Each treatment comes with its own advantages and potential drawbacks, and the choice ultimately depends on personal needs, preferences, and skin conditions. As always, consulting a dermatologist or skincare professional is recommended before starting new skin treatments.

Frequently asked questions

If you're on prescription medication for skin issues, it's crucial to consult with your healthcare provider before starting red light therapy. Some medications, especially those causing photosensitivity, can interact with light-based treatments and may lead to adverse reactions. Your healthcare provider can guide whether RLT is appropriate and advise on the timing of treatments to avoid any potential interactions.

Red light therapy should not be seen as a replacement for a regular skincare regimen but rather as a complement to it. While RLT can enhance skin health from within by stimulating cellular repair, it is important to continue using cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen to protect the skin's surface and maintain overall skin health. It's best to use RLT in conjunction with a comprehensive skincare plan tailored to your individual needs.

The time it takes to observe results from red light therapy can vary based on the condition being treated, the frequency and duration of treatments, and the individual's unique skin properties. Some may notice improvements in skin texture and pain relief within a few weeks, while others may take longer to see tangible benefits. Keeping a consistent treatment schedule and tracking progress can be helpful in setting realistic expectations.

Red light therapy is generally considered safe for various skin types because it doesn't rely on harsh chemicals or physical exfoliation that can cause different reactions in different skin types. However, individual results can vary, and those with specific skin conditions should consult with a dermatologist to determine if RLT is suitable for them. An individual assessment is particularly important for those with photosensitive skin conditions.

Ask a question about Red Light Therapy and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • eyestrain
  • skin redness
  • headaches
  • infrared warmth
  • exacerbation of pain
  • photosensitivity reactions


  • targets skin concerns
  • promotes wound healing
  • alleviates pain
  • enhances muscle recovery
  • treats hair loss
  • improves mental health

Healthier alternatives

  • chemical peels
  • microdermabrasion
  • laser resurfacing
  • topical creams and serums

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 02-15-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 02-15-2024

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