When you you hear the term skin-care routine, chances are, products like like cleanser, retinol, sunscreen, and maybe a serum or two come to mind. But as the worlds of beauty and technology continue to intersect, the possibilities for our at-home routines are also expanding. Increasingly, skin treatments previously only available in a professional's office are making their way into our medicine cabinets via a slew of high-tech tools and devices.
One buzzy example is LED light therapy, which has been said to help with a laundry list of skin issues, including everything from acne and inflammation to fine lines and even wound healing. And though it might be trending, LED light therapy does, in fact, live up to the hype — whether you try it at home or seek out a professional.
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But how does LED light therapy really work? What sort of skin benefits can it actually provide? And are LED light masks safe for at-home use? We asked board-certified dermatologists to break down exactly what you need to know about LED light therapy.
Meet the experts:
- Daniel Belkin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
- Ellen Marmur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
- Michele Farber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Philadelphia, PA.
- Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
- Joanna Vargas, an aesthetician, founder of her eponymous skin-care line, and salon owner based both in Los Angeles and New York City. Her Magic Glow Wand facial massage tool won a Best of Beauty Award in 2020.
- Bruce Brod, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Shereene Idriss, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
What exactly is LED light therapy and what does it do?
LED light therapy is a non-invasive treatment that utilizes different wavelengths of infrared light to help treat various skin issues such as acne, fine lines, and wound healing. It was actually first developed for clinical use by NASA back in the nineties to help heal astronauts' skin wounds of astronauts — though research on the topic continues to grow, and support, its many benefits.
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"Without a doubt, visible light can have powerful effects on the skin, especially in high-energy forms, such as in lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL) devices," says Daniel Belkin MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. LED (which stands for light-emitting diode) is a "lower energy form," in which the light is absorbed by the molecules in the skin, which in turn "alters the biologic activity of nearby cells."
In slightly simpler terms, LED light therapy "uses infrared light to achieve different effects on the skin," explains Michele Farber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Philadelphia, PA. During a treatment, "wavelengths in the visible light spectrum penetrate the skin to varying depths to exert biologic effect." The different wavelengths are key, because this is "what helps make this method effective, as they penetrate the skin at varying depths and stimulate different cellular targets to help repair skin," explains Ellen Marmur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
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What this means is that the LED light essentially alters the activity of skin cells in order to produce a variety of agreeable outcomes, depending on the color of the light in question — of which there are multiple, and none of which are cancerous (because they do not contain UV rays).
Which LED light colors benefit skin?
"Red and blue light are the most commonly used LED lights for skin therapy," says Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. "Yellow and green have not been as well studied but have also been used for skin treatments," she explains, and adds that the combination of blue and red light used at the same time is a "specialized treatment known as photodynamic therapy," or PDT.
Red LED light
This color has been shown to "stimulate collagen production, reduce inflammation, and increase blood circulation," Dr. Shah says, "so it is primarily used for [fine lines and wrinkles] and wound healing." In terms of the former, because it boosts collagen, "red light is thought to [address] fine lines and wrinkles," Dr. Farber explains.
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Because of its healing properties, it may also be used as an add-on after other in-office procedures, such as laser or microneedling, to reduce inflammation and recovery time, Shah says. According to aesthetician Joanna Vargas, this means she can perform "an intense peel on someone that can normally leave [their skin] red for hours, but then use infrared afterward and they walk out not red at all."
Red light therapy may also help ease inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea and psoriasis.
Blue LED light
"There is encouraging evidence that blue LED light can alter the microbiome of the skin to improve acne," says Dr. Belkin. Specifically, studies have shown that with continued use, blue LED light can help kill acne-causing bacteria and also reduce oil production in the skin's sebaceous glands.
The various light colors may work to differing degrees, says Bruce Brod, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Clinical studies [are] relatively consistent in showing a reduction in acne bumps when [blue light] is used regularly," he says. What we know for now, according to Dr. Brod, is that blue light has a "mild benefit for certain types of acne."
Yellow LED light
As noted, yellow (or amber) LED light hasn't yet been as well-studied as the others, but Dr. Belkin says it "can help reduce redness and healing time." According to Cleveland Clinic, it can penetrate the skin at a deeper depth than its counterparts, and research has demonstrated its efficacy as a supplemental treatment to red LED light in helping to fade fine lines.
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Green LED light
"Green and red LED light therapy are ideal treatments for healing broken capillaries because they help reduce signs of skin aging and trigger new collagen growth beneath the skin surface," Dr. Marmur says. Because of this collagen-boosting effect, Dr. Marmur says green LED light can also be used effectively for helping to even out skin texture and tone.
What's the difference between in-office and at-home LED light therapy treatments?
"In-office treatments are stronger and better controlled to achieve more consistent results," Dr. Farber says. While the protocol for office treatments vary based on skin concerns, Dr. Shah says in general, LED light therapy lasts approximately 15 to 30 minutes per session and is performed one to three times per week for 12 to 16 weeks, "after which maintenance treatments are usually recommended." Seeing a professional also means a more tailored approach; targeting specific skin concerns, expert guidance along the way, etc.
"In my salon, we do several different treatments that involve LED light, but by far the most popular, is [the] Revitalight Bed," Vargas says. "The [red light therapy] bed covers the entire body with red light… [and] has multi-zone encapsulation technology so that clients can customize specific programs for targeted areas of the body."
Though in-office treatments are stronger, "at-home treatments can be quite easy and convenient, as long as proper precautions are taken," Dr. Farber says. Such proper precautions include, as always, following the directions of whatever at-home LED light therapy device you choose to invest in.
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According to Dr. Farber, this often means thoroughly cleansing the skin before use and also wearing eye protection while using the device. Similar to an analog face mask, light therapy devices are typically recommended for use after cleansing but before other skin-care steps. And just like in-office, at-home mask treatments are usually quick: One session, either professional or at-home, whether face mask or full-body, typically lasts less than 20 minutes.
What are the side effects of LED light therapy?
Dermatologists agree that these devices are generally safe for both in-office and at-home use. Better yet, "generally, [LED light therapy] is safe for all skin colors and types," Dr. Shah says. "Side effects are uncommon but may include redness, swelling, itch, and dryness."
If you're taking any medications or using any topicals that make your skin more sensitive to light, this "can potentially increase your risk of side effects," Dr. Shah explains, "so it's best to discuss LED therapy with your doctor if you are taking any such medications."
It is worth noting, though, that in 2019, one at-home LED face mask was pulled from shelves in what the company described as "an abundance of caution" regarding potential eye injury. "For a small subset of the population with certain underlying eye conditions, as well as for users taking medications which could enhance ocular photosensitivity, there is a theoretical risk of eye injury," read the company's statement at the time.
Overall, however, our dermatologists give the seal of approval for anyone who's interested in adding a device to their skin-care regimen. "They may be a good option for people who are pregnant or potentially pregnant, or for an acne patient who doesn't feel comfortable using prescription medications," says Dr. Brod.
How much do LED light treatments and devices cost?
The cost of in-office treatments vary: LED lights can be added to other treatments starting at $25, while LED-specific treatments typically start at $150. While it's true that the old adage "you get what you pay for" does often apply to high-tech beauty treatments, as mentioned, technological advances continue to shift the narrative… at least, a little bit.
If in-office treatment isn't feasible, there are plenty of at-home LED light therapy masks on the market starting at around $150. Cost-wise, it's true that these devices are typically a significant investment, but for good reason.
"A lot of people are selling regular lights [on Amazon] with colored bulbs and pretending it's LED," Shereene Idriss, MD, a New York City board-certified dermatologist, previously shared with Allure. While we're not telling you to drain your bank account on a face mask, for both safety and efficacy reasons, the splurge is often worth it.
Learn about more high-tech beauty treatments:
- Everything You Need to Know About Radio-Frequency Skin Treatments
- Here's Everything You Need to Know About Cosmetic Acupuncture
- The Best Skin-Care Tools and Devices to Try at Home
Next, watch how face masks have evolved within the last 100 years:
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