Red light therapy (RLT) is a therapeutic technique that uses red low-level wavelengths of light to treat skin issues, such as wrinkles, scars, and persistent wounds, among other conditions.
In the early 1990s, RLT was used by scientists to help grow plants in space. The scientists found that the intense light from red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) helped promote growth and photosynthesis of plant cells.
Red light was then studied for its potential application in medicine, more specifically to find out if RLT could increase energy inside human cells. The researchers hoped that RLT could be an effective way to treat the muscle atrophy, slow wound healing, and bone density issues caused by weightlessness during space travel.
You may have heard of red light therapy (RLT) by its other names, which include:
- photobiomodulation (PBM)
- low level light therapy (LLLT)
- soft laser therapy
- cold laser therapy
- photonic stimulation
- low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
When RLT is used with photosensitizing medications, it’s referred to as photodynamic therapy. In this type of therapy, the light only serves as an activating agent for the medication.
There are many different types of red light therapy. Red light beds found at salons are said to help reduce cosmetic skin issues, like stretch marks and wrinkles. Red light therapy used in an medical office setting may be used to treat more serious conditions, like psoriasis, slow-healing wounds, and even the side effects of chemotherapy.
While RLT may be a promising treatment for certain conditions, there’s still a lot to learn about how it works, too.
How does red light therapy work?
Red light is thought to work by producing a biochemical effect in cells that strengthens the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell — it’s where the cell’s energy is created. The energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things is called ATP(adenosine triphosphate).
By increasing the function of the mitochondria using RLT, a cell can make more ATP. With more energy, cells can function more efficiently, rejuvenate themselves, and repair damage.
RLT is different from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapies because it doesn’t cause damage to the skin surface. Laser and pulsed light therapies work by causing controlled damage to the outer layer of the skin, which then induces tissue repair. RLT bypasses this harsh step by directly stimulating regeneration of the skin. The light emitted by RLT penetrates roughly 5 millimeters below the skin’s surface.
How is red light therapy used?
Ever since the initial experiments in space, there have been hundreds of clinical studies and thousands of laboratory studies conducted to determine what medical benefits RTL has.
At the moment, there’s some evidence to suggest that RLT may have the following benefits:
- promotes wound healing and tissue repair
- improves hair growth in people with androgenic alopecia
- help for the short-term treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome
- stimulates healing of slow-healing wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers
- reduces psoriasis lesions
- aids with short-term relief of pain and morning stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis
- reduces some of the side effects of cancer treatments, including oral mucositis
- improves skin complexion and builds collagen to diminish wrinkles
- helps to mend sun damage
- prevents recurring cold sores from herpes simplex virus infections
- improves the health of joints in people with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee
- helps diminish scars
- relieves pain and inflammation in people with pain in the Achilles tendons
But does red light therapy really work?
The internet is often abuzz with news that red light therapy does the following:
- treats depression, seasonal affective disorder, and postpartum depression
- activates the lymphatic system to help “detoxify” the body
- boosts the immune system
- reduces cellulite
- aids in weight loss
- treats back or neck pain
- fights periodontitis and dental infections
- cures acne
Are there similar treatment options?
Red light wavelengths aren’t the only wavelengths to be studied for medical purposes. Blue light, green light, and a mixture of different wavelengths have also been the subject of similar experiments in humans.
There are other kinds of light-based therapies available. You can ask your doctor about:
- laser treatments
- natural sunlight
- blue or green light therapy
- sauna light therapy
- ultraviolet light B (UVB)
- psoralen and ultraviolet light A (PUVA)