Red light therapy uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to treat medical and cosmetic conditions.
A red light therapy device sends low-intensity red and near-infrared light deep into the body’s cells to promote healing. Red light therapy is noninvasive, painless, and does not use heat.
This article will cover how red light therapy works, what it’s used for, what the evidence says about its potential benefits, the possible side effects and risks, and how much red light therapy treatment costs.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work?
Red light therapy uses low-power red light to activate the cell’s energy generators (mitochondria). Most of the energy made by the mitochondria is housed in a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which helps your body store and use energy.
Aging, illness, or lifestyle factors can make the mitochondria produce less ATP. Red light therapy triggers a reaction that helps reverse the decline.
People who support red light therapy claim that the treatment will help repair tissue as well as relieve pain and inflammation.
Who Invented Red Light Therapy?
Hungarian physician and professor Endre Mester first used low-level laser therapy in 1967 while studying how cancer cells react to radiation exposure.
For his mouse studies, he would shave the mice before doing surgery. While it wasn’t the goal of his research, he noticed that the mice who had gotten laser therapy at the site of the surgery had their hair grow back faster and their wounds heal quicker than the other mice who hadn’t had laser exposure.
In the early 1970s, he started using the therapy to treat patients with skin ulcers that would not heal.
Why Red Light?
Red light therapy uses light in the red or near-infrared region because this wavelength range is the best at getting through tissue. It is also more easily absorbed by the parts of cells that capture light energy.
More Research Is Needed
Research evidence supporting red light therapy is limited by small sample sizes, animal subjects or in vitro studies (using a test tube or petri dish in a lab instead of humans), and inconsistent standards. However, more studies are being done to explore the possible benefits of red light therapy.
Types of Red Light Therapy
Red light has been used for a variety of reasons, including in the treatment of skin, dental, and inflammatory conditions.
Red light therapy goes by several names, including:
- Photobiomodulation (PBM) or photobiomodulation therapy
- Low-level laser light therapy (LLLT)
- Low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
- Cold laser therapy
- Photonic stimulation
- Soft laser therapy
How Is Red Light Therapy Used?
Red light therapy can also be part of photodynamic therapy in which it activates an agent to help the skin absorb more light.
Skin Conditions and General Skin Health
Red light therapy is a popular option for treating redness, scars, acne, and wrinkles.
The potential for skin health benefits is said to be because of how the light affects collagen production and blood circulation in skin tissue.
- Antiaging. Red light therapy is used to enhance the appearance of skin that has been damaged or aged by sunlight. It may stimulate the rapid production of cells that make collagen proteins, which lift and tighten lax skin, reducing wrinkles.
- Acne. Cold laser therapy could be an effective treatment for acne vulgaris, but there is not enough evidence to say for sure that it helps. The light might decrease inflammation, irritation, and sebum production in the skin.
- Hair growth. Low-level laser light therapy may help treat pattern hair loss, but more research is needed.
- Wound healing. Red light therapy has the potential to help heal chronic wounds. The technique might encourage new skin growth and help new blood vessel networks form.
Dental professionals may use red light therapy to help with different oral health conditions.
The treatment can reduce pain, inflammation, and ulcers. It may also help keep unhealthy oral microbes in check.
The following treatments make use of red light therapy for oral health:
- Temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD). TMD causes discomfort and clicking in the jaw, as well as limited jaw movement. Red light therapy may relieve pain, increase range of motion, and improve muscle activity in people with this condition.
- Periodontitis. Red light therapy can help treat periodontitis, a chronic buildup of dental plaque bacteria. Along with photodynamic therapy, the procedure may help reduce the bacteria associated with this type of buildup.
- Burning mouth syndrome, One study found that low-light laser therapy helped decrease symptoms in postmenopausal women with burning sensations in the mouth.
- Stomatitis. Minor recurrent aphthous stomatitis (MiRAS) causes painful lesions on the lips, soft palate, and the lining of the cheeks. In a 2020 study of children aged 5 to 12 years old, red light therapy reduced pain and the size of MiRAS ulcers within two weeks.
Red or near-infrared light encourages cells to make antioxidants faster and lower inflammatory markers. Soft laser therapy can increase circulation to help relieve inflammatory conditions without drugs or surgery, including:
- Osteoarthritis. Several studies have found that red light therapy can reduce pain and disability in people with knee osteoarthritis. The benefits extended up to 12 weeks after the end of treatment.
- Tendinitis. Pre-exercise red light therapy might improve sports performance and speed recovery from muscle strain. The treatment may have the potential to combat the oxidative stress caused by exercise.
- Psoriasis. Cold laser therapy is a common treatment for mild to moderate psoriasis, an autoimmune inflammatory skin condition. However, different light sources are needed for each type of psoriasis. It’s important to use the right light source for the treatment to be effective and to avoid skin burning or other side effects.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. In one study, low-level laser therapy helped reduce carpal tunnel syndrome pain in the hands and enhanced electrical activity in the median nerve.
Red light therapy is said to support the body’s natural healing process. Other conditions that red light therapy might help include:
- Herpes cold sores prevention. Red light therapy may help prevent and treat recurrent cold sores (a common infection caused by the herpes simplex virus). However, more studies are needed to confirm the benefit.
- Alzheimer’s disease. Formaldehyde concentrations in the brain are associated with oxidative stress and memory loss. Research has suggested that red light therapy can break down formaldehyde and potentially improve cognitive function in adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
- Anxiety. In a 2019 study, brain stimulation with red light helped improve anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder. The participants were also able to sleep better after treatment.
Does Red Light Therapy Actually Work?
While people commonly use red light therapy to treat other conditions, there is not enough research evidence to suggest there are benefits.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A 2019 review determined that there is not enough evidence to support using red light therapy as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder.
- Weight loss. No reliable studies support any weight loss benefits of red light therapy. However, limited research has shown that the treatment may help reduce waist circumference.
- Low back pain. In several controlled trials, red light therapy did not help with pain and disability in people with chronic, nonspecific lower back pain. The possible positive outcomes from the trials were based on low-quality evidence.
- To activate cancer treatments. According to a 2021 review, low-level laser light therapy may help aid cancer treatments. However, the long-term safety of its use on or near tumors has yet to be proven.
Pros and Cons of Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy might have some benefits, but it’s not right for everyone and may not work for everyone, depending on what condition they’re trying to treat.
If you want to try red light therapy, you also need to think about the possible risks of the treatment.
There are some potential benefits of trying red light therapy:
- Red light therapy is nontoxic, noninvasive, and considered safe for all skin types. You do not have to use any harsh topical substances or heat, both of which can irritate or burn the skin.
- Red light treatment does not use ultraviolet (UV) light, which has been linked to skin cancer.
- Red light therapy can be easier to access than other treatments, as it can be done at medical or dental offices, spas, tanning salons, or beauty clinics. At-home devices are also widely available.
Side Effects and Risks
Before you try red light therapy you should learn about the possible side effects and risks.
- There are no set guidelines for how long or strongly red light therapy should be applied. There is a chance you will have unexpected or inconsistent results or side effects.
- The long-term safety of red light therapy is not known.
- If you use red light therapy devices incorrectly or too often, you may damage your skin or eyes.
- Immediate results from red light therapy are possible, but it’s more likely going to take weeks or months before you see improvements.
- The results you get from red light therapy and your chances of side effects will be different depending on where you get it done (e.g., at a provider’s office, spa, or at home).
- People with sensitive skin, diabetes, and people who are pregnant should ask their providers before using red light therapy.
Human studies on red light therapy had small sample sizes, so more research is needed to confirm the safety and effectiveness of the treatment for most people.
Your healthcare provider or therapist can suggest other nonmedical treatments to manage your condition. Alternatives to red light therapy include:
- Anti-inflammatory diet. Certain foods may help lower or prevent chronic inflammation, which is thought to trigger many chronic illnesses.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy or “talk therapy.” It is a well-researched way to treat mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
- Cupping therapy. This ancient practice stimulates blood flow, which may help relieve inflammation and treat some mental health conditions.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture has shown the potential to help reduce chronic pain, improve skin appearance, and help people with their mental health.
Where to Get Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy can be done at provider’s offices and places that focus on wellness, like spas, beauty salons, tanning salons, and gyms.
Where you should go for red light therapy depends on what you’re using it to treat. For example, if you want to use it for signs of aging you might be able to have it done at a wellness center. However, red light therapy for something like severe acne may need to be done at a dermatologist’s office.
Can You Do Red Light Therapy At Home?
You can do red light therapy at home, but the devices you can get to use at home are not as powerful as the treatment you could get at a provider’s office or spa.
The quality of at-home red light devices varies, and some of them may not produce the benefits you expect.
Whether you’re looking to buy a red light therapy device for at-home use or are going somewhere to have red light therapy, make sure that the devices have been “cleared” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The process the FDA uses for products like LED lights gets “clearance” rather than “approval,” so look for the word “cleared” rather than “approved.”
Red Light Therapy Costs and Insurance
Red light therapy can cost $25 to $200 or more per session. The price depends on the location and type of service.
Keep in mind that red light treatments are needed about every three weeks and may need to continue for months, so it can be a big investment.
At-home red light therapy devices range from $149 to thousands of dollars.
Most insurance policies do not cover red light therapy. If a provider’s office (like dermatologists) offers the service, it may not be covered by your health insurance and you may have to pay out of pocket like you would at a spa or wellness center.
Your insurance provider can provide guidance on cost and the benefits that are available with your plan.
Red light therapy can be an affordable, nonmedical method for improving many conditions that may not respond to conventional treatments alone. It’s safe for most people, but more research is needed to show it is truly effective.
If you’re exploring treatment options, you might want to ask your provider about trying red light therapy. Compared to other options, it might be easier and more affordable—you might even be able to do it at home.
Before you try red light therapy, make sure you have reasonable expectations about the results and benefits you could get, as well as the possible risks and side effects.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much weight can you lose with red light therapy?
There is little evidence of potential for weight loss with red light therapy. Most research focuses on weight circumference reductions. Limited studies suggest that this treatment may cause fat cells to shrink, but these studies may be biased since they were funded by device manufacturers.
What does red light do to your brain?
Red light can deliver light particles to the brain that stimulate mitochondria there. This may encourage blood flow and help lower inflammation in the brain. It can also help the brain create new nerve cells.
Does red light therapy work on spider veins?
Evidence is scarce that red light therapy may help reduce spider veins when used as part of photodynamic therapy.
Can you use red light therapy everyday?
Currently, it is not known how often you can use red light therapy for specific conditions. Everyday use may be safe in some cases, though. Ask your healthcare provider about the best frequency for you.
Does red light stimulate collagen?
Red light exposure can help increase collagen production. In a 2014 study, participants had more collagen density after treatment. Research states that cells involved with collagen production can be stimulated with the wavelengths the red light provides.