Red light therapy (RLT) is a type of photomedicine, a wellness approach that utilizes light of different wavelengths to treat various health conditions. Red light exists in the wavelengths according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Certain wavelengths of light trigger changes in cells that affect how they function for the better, according to the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery.
Red light therapy is considered a complementary therapy, meaning it’s meant to be used alongside conventional healthcare and MD-approved treatments. For example, if you have fine lines and wrinkles, you may use red light therapy with dermatologist-directed topicals, such as retinoids, or in-office treatments, such as injectables or lasers. If you have a sports injury, a physical therapist may treat you with red light therapy as well.
Here are a few of the possible health benefits red light therapy may bring to your overall healthcare routine.
1. May Address Skin and Hair Concerns, From Acne to Wrinkles
One of the most popular uses of red light therapy is for skin conditions. These are some of the conditions red light may treat.
Lines and wrinkles Red light therapy can be used in the treatment and prevention of lines and wrinkles, says Jared Jagdeo, MD, the founding director of the Center for Photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, New York. Some research shows that red light may stimulate collagen to smooth out lines and wrinkles. Note: You may see best results for moderate lines rather than those already deeply etched in. At that point, says Dr. Jagdeo, you’ll likely need additional treatments in combination with red light (such as skin resurfacing treatments).
Acne Breakouts don’t automatically go away with age — there are many people who deal with acne along with lines and wrinkles. And you may be able to address both in one treatment. In a small randomized controlled clinical study published in January 2022 in Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, red light therapy decreased lesions by 36 percent for people with mild or moderate acne. Red light may help decrease inflammation and may help kill bacteria, both known causes behind the formation of acne, says Jagdeo.
Redness It seems counterintuitive that red light would counter redness, but one of its primary functions is to decrease inflammation. Less inflammation in the skin can ease redness, says Jagdeo. Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough research to show that red light is effective in treating skin conditions such as psoriasis, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Hair growth Red light may be another treatment for hair loss, notes Jagdeo. “Red light helps decrease inflammation and promote more blood flow to the scalp and hair, allowing follicles to get more oxygen and nutrients,” he explains. One literature review published in July 2020 in Skin Appendage Disorders of 10 controlled studies on low-level laser therapy (LLLT), which employs light on the red and near-infrared spectrum, concluded that this treatment may have increased hair thickness and density compared with controls and were very safe, with minor side effects, such as scalp itching.
2. May Lessen Pain
Research is still emerging on red light’s ability to decrease pain in various chronic conditions. “If you use the right dose and protocol, you can use red light to reduce pain and inflammation,” says Praveen Arany, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo and the interim director of the Center of Excellence for Photobiomodulation at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
How so? “There’s a specific protein on the surface of the neuron that when it absorbs light, it reduces the ability of the cell to conduct or perceive pain,” Dr. Arany explains. Past research shows that LLLT may be useful to control pain for those who have neuropathy (nerve pain, which is commonly caused by diabetes, according to the Cleveland Clinic).
3. May Help With Sports Performance and Injury Recovery Red light may stimulate your mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of cells), triggering an enzyme that drives up ATP (the “energy currency” of the cell according to StatPearls), which — in the end — benefits muscle growth and repair, according to research published in April 2020 in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. Because of that, photobiomodulation treatment (PBM) with red or near-infrared lights before exercise may enhance muscle performance, heal muscle injury, and reduce post-workout pain and soreness, notes research published in AIMS Biophysics in 2017. Again, these conclusions aren't well-established. 4. May Help Brain Health One emerging possible benefit of red light therapy is in brain health. “There are striking studies that show photobiomodulation treatments [can potentially] improve neurocognition,” says Arany. RLT may not only reduce inflammation, but may also improve blood flow and oxygen to form new neurons and synapses in the brain, which may be helpful in people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or strokes, according to an article published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research in April 2018. Another promising perk? Ongoing studies on the use of red and near-infrared light to treat symptoms following a concussion may turn up benefits, according to Concussion Alliance.
5. May Improve Wound Healing From skin to oral wounds, red light may be used to improve healing. In these cases, red light would be applied to the wound area until it's completely healed. Furthermore, it may improve cell function, decrease inflammation and pain, spur tissue regeneration, and release growth factors, among other benefits, to speed healing.
6. May Lessen Side Effects of Cancer Treatment One possible side effect of chemotherapy or radiation therapy is oral mucositis, which is pain, sores, infection, and bleeding inside the mouth, according to the MedlinePlus. It’s well-established that PBM may prevent or treat this specific side effect, according to a systematic review published in August 2022 in Frontiers in Oncology. In addition, PBM has been used successfully on skin damage from radiation treatments and lymphedema after mastectomy — and the light therapy did not cause any additional side effects, notes a review published in June 2019 in Oral Oncology. PBM itself is being looked at as a potential future cancer treatment, because it may stimulate the body’s immune response or enhance other anti-cancer therapies to help kill cancer cells. More research is needed.
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
Reviewed: October 14, 2022