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LED light therapy: fact vs. fiction

The real skin benefits of red and blue light therapy.

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar
by Stephanie Papanikolas
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 5 min read
Black and white image of woman looking left
Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar
by Stephanie Papanikolas
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 5 min read
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Flashing colorful lights on your skin looks like something out of science fiction. But there is research that suggests there’s more to LED light therapy than pure aesthetics — LED lights have a wide variety of uses in science and medicine. So it’s no surprise that this technology has made its way into skincare. That said? The skin benefits of LED light are promising, but more research is still needed. Plus, recent controversy surrounding certain at-home LED light therapy masks show that we still have a lot to learn about this trend.

Light therapy before it was cool

LED lights aren’t your regular old lightbulbs. LED stands for “light-emitting diode.” They give off a narrow spectrum of light — usually a single color (as opposed to a whole rainbow prism). The LED light technology used in skincare was originally developed by NASA in experiments to grow plants in outer space. Later, it showed promise for wound care, and now it’s used to treat acne and anti-aging.¹ Commercial LED lights were developed in the 1960s as longer-lasting alternatives to fluorescent bulbs.² Early LED technology was only able to make red light,³ but today, LED lights are available in a full spectrum of color.

When it comes to health benefits, red and blue LED lights are the most researched. Different kinds of light therapy have been studied for a wide range of applications, from complications in cancer⁴ to seasonal depression.⁵ LED light therapy is being studied for its benefits on numerous skin conditions, including acne⁶ and scarring.⁷

The glow up

Recently, LED light therapy masks, pens, and panels have caught on in skincare. Blue and red LED lights have been shown to have effects that may help improve acne and signs of aging.

Blue LED light

  • Blue LED light creates a reaction in the skin that targets acne-causing bacteria (Cutibacterium acnes, or c. acnes for short)

  • C. acnes causes breakouts by generating molecules called porphyrins

  • When porphyrins are hit with blue light, a free radical is generated that kills c. acnes

Red LED light

  • Red LED light has the deepest penetration of any visible light

  • It’s anti-inflammatory, so it can help improve inflamed acne

  • It might also help reduce sun damage that leads to signs of aging¹⁰ (like dark spots and fine lines)

Combination LED light therapy uses both blue and red light. Early studies¹¹ ¹² have shown improvement in comedone count, inflammatory lesions, and a reduction in melanin levels. In other words, it might improve both acne and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (sometimes incorrectly referred to as acne scars).

Can you do LED light therapy at home?

Dermatology in-office light therapies can penetrate deeper into the skin, making them more effective than at-home devices. But at-home LED light therapy devices are catching on — not only are they convenient, but they are normally a lot less expensive than in-office light therapies. That being said, do know that the FDA reviews devices for safety, not efficacy, so quality may not be consistent. There’s also a lack of independent research that confirms the skin benefits of LED lights, as well as a lot of misinformation about their effects, so your LED device might not meet your expectations.

While LED light therapy is usually considered safe, there are a few exceptions. After their light therapy mask was recalled in Australia for potential eye damage,¹³ Neutrogena decided to recall this product in the United States as well.¹⁴

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We did the research so you don’t have to, but if you’d like to do some additional reading on LED light therapy, feel free to check out our sources:

  1. “A NASA technology originally developed for plant growth experiments on space shuttle missions has successfully reduced the painful side effects resulting from chemotherapy and radiation treatment in bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients.” From NASA Light Technology Successfully Reduces Cancer Patients Painful Side Effects from Radiation and Chemotherapy. Brooke Boen and Brian Dunbar. NASA. (2011, March 14).

  2. “Because they [LEDs] are free from fundamental degradation mechanisms, they are expected to have long life.” From Solid-State Displays. Howard C. Borden and Gerald P. Pighini. Hewlett-Packard Journal. (1969, February 1).

  3. M.H. Crawford, et al. Solid-State Lighting: Toward Smart and Ultraefficient Materials, Devices, Lamps, and Systems. Photonics, Volume 3: Photonics Technology and Instrumentation (2015, February 2).

  4. Max Myakishev-Rempel, et al. A Preliminary Study of the Safety of Red Light Phototherapy of Tissues Harboring Cancer. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. (2010, September 30).

  5. Gerald Pail, et al. Bright-light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. Neuropsychobiology. (2011, July 29).

  6. Seung Yoon Lee, et. al. Blue and red light combination LED phototherapy for acne vulgaris in patients with skin phototype IV. Lasers in surgery and medicine. (2007, February 1).

  7. Alisen Huang, et al. Light-Emitting Diode-Based Photodynamic Therapy for Photoaging, Scars, and Dyspigmentation: A Systematic Review. Dermatologic Surgery. (2020, February 21).

  8. Vanessa Ngan. Blue light acne treatment. DermNet NZ. (2007, n.d.).

  9. Alison Bullen, et al. Lasers, lights, and acne. DermNet NZ (2019, n.d.).

  10. Glynis Albon. Phototherapy with Light Emitting Diodes. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (2018, February 1).

  11. Seung Yoon Lee, et al. Blue and red light combination LED phototherapy for acne vulgaris in patients with skin phototype IV. Ibid.

  12. H. H. Kwon, et al. The clinical and histological effect of home-use, combination blue-red LED phototherapy for mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris in Korean patients: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. The British Journal of Dermatology. (2013, May 1).

  13. Therapeutic Goods Administration. Neutrogena Visibly Clear Light Therapy Acne Mask and Activator Recall for Potential Eye Damage. The Australian Government. (2019, July 17).

  14. From Light Therapy Mask Recall Statement. Neutrogena/Johnson & Johnson. (2019, July 18).

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas

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