What Is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy (RLT) is a treatment that may help skin, muscle tissue, and other parts of your body heal. It exposes you to low levels of red or near-infrared light. Infrared light is a type of energy your eyes can’t see, but your body can feel as heat. Red light is similar to infrared, but you can see it.

Red light therapy is also called low-level laser therapy (LLLT), low-power laser therapy (LPLT), and photobiomodulation (PBM).

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

With red light therapy, you expose your skin to a lamp, device, or laser with a red light. A part of your cells called mitochondria, sometimes called the “power generators” of your cells, soak it up and make more energy. Some experts think this helps cells repair themselves and become healthier. This spurs healing in skin and muscle tissue.

Red light therapy uses very low levels of heat and doesn’t hurt or burn the skin. It’s not the same type of light used in tanning booths, and it doesn’t expose your skin to damaging UV rays.

What Does It Treat?

Researchers have known about red light therapy for a while. But there aren’t a lot of studies on it, and they don’t know if it’s better than other types of treatment used to help you heal. Red light therapy may help with:

  • Dementia. In one small study, people with dementia who got regular near-infrared light therapy on their heads and through their noses for 12 weeks had better memories, slept better, and were angry less often.
  • Dental pain. In another small study, people with temporomandibular dysfunction syndrome (TMD) had less pain, clicking, and jaw tenderness after red light therapy.
  • Hair loss. One study found that men and women with androgenetic alopecia (a genetic disorder that causes hair loss) who used an at-home RLT device for 24 weeks grew thicker hair. People in the study who used a fake RLT device didn’t get the same results.
  • Osteoarthritis. One study found red and infrared light therapy cut osteoarthritis-related pain by more than 50%.
  • Tendinitis. A very small study of 7 people suggests RLT lessens inflammation and pain in people with Achilles tendinitis.
  • Wrinkles and other signs of skin aging and skin damage. Research shows RLT may smooth your skin and help with wrinkles. RLT also helps with acne scars, burns, and signs of UV sun damage.

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What Are the Risks?

Red light therapy is generally considered safe, even though researchers aren’t exactly sure how and why it works. And there are no set rules on how much light to use. Too much light may damage skin tissue, but too little might not work as well.

Where Do You Get Red Light Therapy?

It’s usually done in a doctor’s office. But some salons and dental offices do it, too. You can also buy your own red light therapy device. Salon and at-home treatments are more likely to cause side effects or injury. Talk to your doctor if you’re thinking about red light therapy.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on October 13, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Photomedicine and Laser Surgery: “A Controlled Trial to Determine the Efficacy of Red and Near-Infrared Light Treatment in Patient Satisfaction, Reduction of Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Skin Roughness, and Intradermal Collagen Density Increase.”

Pain Research and Treatment: “Efficacy of the LED Red Light Therapy in the Treatment of Temporomandibular Disorders: Double Blind Randomized Controlled Trial.”

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: “Improvement of Pain and Disability in Elderly Patients with Degenerative Osteoarthritis of the Knee Treated with Narrow‐Band Light Therapy.”

Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery: “Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring.”

British Journal of Sports Medicine: “A randomised, placebo controlled trial of low level laser therapy for activated Achilles tendinitis with microdialysis measurement of peritendinous prostaglandin E2 concentrations.”

Doris Day, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology, New York University Langone Medical Center.

American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery: “LED Therapy Studies.”

Annals of Biomedical Engineering: “The Nuts and Bolts of Low-level Laser (Light) Therapy.”

Dermatologic Surgery: “Low-Level Light Therapy for Androgenetic Alopecia: A 24-Week, Randomized, Double-Blind, Sham Device–Controlled Multicenter Trial.”

Phytobiology: “Mechanisms of Low Level Light Therapy.”

NASA Science: “Infrared Waves.”

Florida State University: “Mitochondria.”

National Human Genome Research Institute: “Mitochondria.”

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