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Does Red Light Therapy *Really* Work? Here’s the Deal

Let’s face it: A lot of products that claim to get rid of acne and wrinkles are flat-out ineffective. And in my experience, the cooler something looks, the less it actually works. So if you’ve recently stumbled upon red light therapy and are intrigued but skeptical, I totally understand why you’d want to Google before trying it yourself, especially when most at-home led masks and hand-held light devices are expensive—like, gently-put-it-back-down-and-walk-away expensive. If you’re going to spend the money, it better be worth it, right?

So to find out the facts, I chatted with board-certified dermatologists Rosemarie Ingleton, MD, founder of Rose Ingleton MD, and Jared Jagdeo, MD, chief medical officer at Ever/Body and director of the Center for Photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, to find out exactly how red light therapy works (if it actually does), and the benefits of both in-office treatments and at-home beauty devices.

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What is red light therapy?

Red light is exactly what it sounds like: visible red light, which is thought to effect your skin when calibrated to the right wavelength. “Red light therapy, RLT, uses low-wavelength red light to help stimulate skin cells to both respond better to damage and to also rejuvenate themselves,” says Dr. Ingleton. Note: This isn’t the same type of light as UV rays from the sun, so there’s no skin-cancer risk here. Red light therapy just uses a specific, low wavelength to penetrate your skin and, theoretically, stimulate some changes.

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Does red LED light really work?

Shining red light on your face for skin benefits sounds like a gimmick that couldn’t possibly work, right? Actually, Dr. Jagdeo says red light therapy has several proven benefits, and it’s most commonly used to treat signs of skin aging, like wrinkles, hair regrowth, and acne—and that list might still be growing. “There are many other uses of red light for skin that are currently under investigation, including the use of red light for scars and skin diseases,” Dr. Jagdeo adds.

How does red light therapy at home compare to in office?

In short, in-office devices are typically stronger than at-home ones. But! Dr. Jagdeo argues that an at-home red light therapy device is an excellent option for maintaining the results you get from in-office treatments. Not only that, but Dr. Jagdeo says it’s possible to achieve similar outcomes with home-use devices simply because you’re able to use them more often than the in-office ones.

I should mention, Dr. Ingleton says that red light therapy is usually not offered as a stand-alone procedure but rather as an add-on. Both dermatologists utilize it as a complement to other advanced treatments, like medical facials, microneedling, and microdermabrasion, to help speed along the healing process post-procedure. Think of it as a nice little bonus to your beauty treatment.

What are the best red light therapy devices?

Listen, if you’re going to do your red light therapy at home, read reviews, and be very, very thorough. “Consumers need to be educated that not all home-use red light devices are built to the same standard,” Dr. Jagdeo says. Most of these devices lack the double-blind, large-scale, rigorous clinical trial testing you’d need to demonstrate safety and efficacy, so your results will vary from device and device—if you see results at all.

How long does it take for red light therapy to work?

Are you going to see any incredible results from one use? I wish, but no—and that’s including in-office, professional treatments. Dr. Jagdeo says the effects of red light on the skin can be temporary and could require several professional treatments for any kind of noticeable difference. Because consistency is key here, Dr. Jagdeo recommends that patients supplement their in-office treatments with home-use red light therapy for the best outcome.

What are the dangers of red light therapy?

“Our clinical trials investigating the safety of red light therapy demonstrated that skin of color patients are more sensitive to red light, and prolonged exposure of skin of any color to red light may result in skin redness, tanning, or blistering,” Dr. Jagdeo warns. That said, most of the potential side effects are rare, mild, temporary, and resolve without any long-term effects.

If you’re using an at-home device, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and you should be good. Dr. Ingleton explains that red light therapy uses low levels of heat, and generally, will not burn, so it’s considered safe if performed properly. And the last thing: Don’t forget to protect your eyes, people—don’t shine the light directly into your eyes, k?

The takeaway

If you’re getting an in-office treatment and want to throw in a little red light therapy to speed up the healing, why not! If you want to supplement it with a home device, just make sure the one you buy has the proof to back it up. And promise you’ll read the instructions before you use it all over your face, cool? Cool. You now have the green light to go give red light therapy a try.

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