Layperson's Introduction to Red Light Therapy

Layperson's Introduction to Red Light Therapy

Why is red light therapy (RLT) becoming so popular in the wellness industry? Is it safe for you, and does it hurt? What are the real benefits and potential risks? And more to the point, why might you want to consider RLT?

Red light therapy is a non-invasive therapeutic treatment. It employs low-level wavelengths of red to near-infrared (NIR) light. Humans use RLT to improve skin integrity, treat hair loss, muscle healing, pain relief, and more.

Soon, you will have a good understanding of RTL. You will know what it is, who it benefits most, and how long it takes to see results. There's also a handy red light therapy FAQ at the end of this page.

Did you know: Scientists used red light therapy in the early 1990s to accelerate plant growth in space. The intense light-emitting diodes (LEDs) advanced cell development and photosynthesis.

Breaking Down the Jargon

You may have seen red-light therapy referred to by other names. The main ones are low-power laser therapy (LPLT), photobiomodulation (PBM therapy or PBMT), and low level laser therapy (LLLT). They all mean the same thing, more or less. To keep the reading simple, we'll use red-light therapy and RLT throughout this article.

Now let's look at the popular uses for RLT, starting with beauty.

Beauty Benefits of RLT

More people are turning to the red-light bulb instead of bottles and jars for their beauty regime. It's true; many spas and dermatology offices now offer this therapy as an alternative beauty treatment.

How RLT Works for Skin Care

The infrared light penetrates the outer layer of your skin called the epidermis. As your epidermis absorbs the light, it stimulates collagen proteins. These proteins are responsible for the structural integrity or quality of your skin.

What to Expect

The stimulated collagen proteins give your skin a fuller, smoother look. And that, in turn, lessens the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Other benefits are improved circulation and reduced inflammation, thus giving your skin a healthier glow.

The 7 most widespread beauty applications of RLT are:

  1. Reduce wrinkles and improve complexion by changing collagen density [1] [2]
  2. Reverse premature aging (photoaging) caused by sun damage [3]
  3. Helps to reduce the appearance of burn scars [4]
  4. Promotes hair growth in people suffering androgenic alopecia [5]
  5. Reduces lesions caused by psoriasis 
  6. Effective treatment for acne
  7. Reduces skin pore size, waning the physical signs of aging

Now let's look at RLT as a drug-free treatment for pain.

The Pain Relief Benefits of RLT

Pain can be debilitating at the physical and mental levels. Infrared light therapy is catching on fast as an alternative, non-invasive holistic treatment for pain relief.

Some sufferers swear by RLT for treating conditions like:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Speed up wound healing, improving athletic performance [6]
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Reduce side effects of oral mucositis and other cancer treatments [7] 
  • Ease muscle soreness
  • Joint relief for degenerative osteoarthritis [8]
  • Tendinitis (inflamed tendons) [9]
  • Achilles tendons

You can see why so many pro athletes are starting to harness the power of RLT.

How It Works for Pain Relief 

As red light wave-lengths contact your skin, they affect cell function—in a good way. First, the photoreceptors in your cells absorb the light, which changes how they produce energy and antioxidants.

Antioxidants are chemical substances that help protect your cells from damage caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. The improved cell performance promotes better, faster healing while reducing pain.

Did you know: Science has known about red light therapy for decades. But medical experts only started to realise its full range of human health benefits in more recent times.

Three Lesser-Known RLT Benefits

Other, lesser-known benefits of red light therapy can enhance your health still further. And science continues to research these exciting, revolutionary new RLT treatments.

#1 Improves Sleep Quality

RLT helps to reset your natural circadian rhythms and counters the influences of blue light. The result is a deeper, more restful, uninterrupted sleep.

#2 Boosts Blood Circulation

Red light therapy improves blood flow and boosts circulation. Good circulation helps to strengthen and maintain the functions of your immune system's white blood cells. Moreover, efficient circulation aids the removal of waste products from your body, created by the various organs.

#3 Better Brain Function

As RLT stimulates your blood flow, it also protects neurons (nerve cells). That results in better brain function and mental alertness.

What the Science Tells Us

Red light therapy is no stranger to science. Indeed, there have been—and continue to be—many studies into its efficacy. RLT is backed by scientific and medically reviewed studies in three critical areas:

  1. General health [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]
  2. Sports performance and recovery [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]
  3. Beauty and aging [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

How Long RLT Takes to Work

The benefits of RLT can show in a few days or may take several weeks. There are various factors at play here. First, it depends on how receptive you are to treatment. Second, it's dose-dependent, so the more PBMT you have, the faster the results. And lastly, the outcome varies depending on the reasons you're undergoing therapy.

Fun fact: RLT first gained prominence way back in 1903. A Danish physicist and scientist, Niels Ryberg Finsen, received the Nobel Prize for inventing light therapy to treat skin tuberculosis.

Now let's explore the safety concerns that people have with this therapy.

Safe and Non-Invasive? 

RLT is a no-brainer for those who have used and benefited from it. But, best of all, it ticks three vital boxes as a viable alternative to traditional products and medications.

  • Gentle, non-invasive and low risk
  • Painless (no burning)
  • Super convenient; affordable

A 2014 study found this light-only skin application to be safe and non-ablative. The term non-ablative refers to heating the underlying skin tissue without damaging the surface. Moreover, RLT is gentler and not as deep or risky as laser therapy [10].

Safety Concerns Around RLT

There is some negative feedback surrounding the safety of red light therapy. However, most of this is the result of overexposure and using non-approved devices

As with most things therapeutic, there will always be a minority who are overly sensitive to treatment. For these reasons, you should start RLT under the guidance of a qualified professional or manufacturer's instructions.

Infrared Light Therapy Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most up-to-date answers to commonly asked questions about RLT. 

Where Can I Get Red Light Therapy?

Some doctor's surgeries offer RLT treatments, as do dental offices and reputable salons. It's also possible now to buy products for home use. If you do, be sure to choose reputable brands with excellent reviews and high ratings.

Is the Treatment Safe with Medications?

Consult with your doctor if you have a pre-existing condition or are on prescribed or over-the-counter medications. They may advise against it or suggest starting with a lower exposure to test for any adverse reactions.

How Long Will My Sessions Last?

Treatments vary, but most sessions last for 20 minutes and are 24–48 hours apart. 

Can I Wear Makeup During Treatment?

You can wear any type of makeup during a light therapy session.

How Hot Does It Get?

No hotter than the warm summer sunshine on your skin. If you do find the heat a little uncomfortable, use a fan until your session is over.

Does the Light Penetrate Clothing?

Most fabrics absorb the light, so you need to apply it to exposed skin for best results.

How Often Will I Need this Therapy?

Your light therapy depends on the conditions you're treating and the device used. A typical regime can be once or twice a day until you reach the desired results. You may then choose to continue once or twice a week for maintenance purposes (see next). 

Is Light Therapy a Life-long Commitment?

Not if you used it to treat chronic pain that is no longer an issue. But if it's to support general health and or beauty reasons, then yes. In these cases, it should become part of your lifestyle maintenance regime.  

Can I Get Too Much Red Light?

Less is more, and there is a definite sweet spot, so you should avoid overexposure. Also, too much light will negatively impact the treatment's efficacy. Adhere to expert and product guidelines, and resist the urge to overexpose yourself.

Do I need to Wear Protective Goggles?

The light is quite bright but not in a dangerous way, so goggles aren't necessary. Still, there's no harm in wearing eye protection if the light bothers you.

Closing Comments

Red light therapy is safe and works well on all kinds of skin, including sensitive types. Additionally, it can improve how you think, feel, function, and recover from injury. So whether you're looking to boost your mental acuity, relieve pain, or improve looks, red light therapy could be just what you need.


Resource Links

  3. premature aging/ 
  4. the appearance of burn scars/ 
  7. mucositis/ 
  8. osteoarthritis/ 
  11. pain/