The Skinny on Red Light Therapy for Skin
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It covers you from head to toe and back again, and at roughly 20 pounds, it accounts for about 16% of your total body weight. In other words, it’s big. It has many functions, too. On top of being a sensory organ, it’s your body’s first line of defense against all manner of threats, it regulates your body temperature, and it helps produce vitamin D. Oh, and it keeps everything in, too (thank goodness). So not only is it big, it’s also a big deal.
What makes our skin so remarkable is also what makes it so vulnerable to various conditions and irritations, not to mention aging. It’s a lot of work being the gatekeeper 24/7! And given its sheer size, a lot can go awry. This article will touch on some of the more common skin afflictions and how red light therapy can help improve them. And it’s not magic—rigorous scientific research is continually being conducted around the world on the many benefits of red light therapy for skin, with rather astounding results. Ready to see how it can help yours?
The A-B-Cs of S-K-I-N
The skin is made up of three layers, the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis (or subcutaneous tissue). The epidermis is the protective barrier that prevents irritants and allergens from entering the body, while also keeping water in. It’s made up mostly of keratinocytes (cells that produce keratin). New keratinocytes are produced at the bottom of the epidermis and slowly make their way to the top. Once they reach the outermost layer, they harden and eventually die. These hardened cells are what you see when you look at your skin: packed together tightly, they form a protective seal. The epidermis also contains melanin, which gives us our skin tone.
The dermis is the thickest layer of the skin, and contains hair follicles, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, sweat glands, sebaceous glands. Not only does it provide cushioning for the body, it also houses the nerve endings that send signals of touch and heat to the brain.
The hypodermis is not technically part of the skin but is usually lumped in with it as they’re rather inextricable. It consists of loose connective tissue, adipose (fat) tissue, and elastin. It’s functions are to attach the skin to the bone, to provide the skin with nerves and blood vessels, and to provide padding and insulation for the body. Fifty percent of all the fat in your body is located in the subcutaneous layer.
Given that it’s such a large and complex organ, the list of issues and conditions related to the skin is quite extensive. While some issues have an obvious cause (think wrinkles and smoking or aging), others may be much more difficult to attribute to a specific factor or combination of factors, making them quite difficult to predict and treat. This is why red light therapy is so effective: your body tends to know what to do to heal itself, it simply needs a more optimal environment in which to do so. And this, in a nutshell, is exactly what red light therapy provides.
The Basics of Red Light Therapy
Also called photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy, RLT is a natural, non-invasive technique in which light waves in the red and non-infrared (NIR) range penetrate the skin into the cells to stimulate the body’s own healing response and encourage a more optimal functioning of cells, tissues and organs. The body responds in several ways, many of which are overlapping and interconnected. Here are some of the known mechanisms through which red light therapy affects the body in general and the skin in particular.
Red light therapy boosts cellular energy
You may remember that the mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell (anyone else getting high school bio flashbacks?). These tiny organelles are responsible for producing all the energy that your body needs to perform every single one of its functions. That’s a tall order, and as with any system, it can start to lag (there are many reasons for this, from age to illness to improper diet, etc.). Red and NIR light penetrates all the way to the mitochondria, where it induces a biochemical reaction, allowing oxygen to be used more efficiently to produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the molecule known as the body’s energy currency.
When using red light therapy on the skin, this increased energy can lead to a host of improvements. In fact, because all red light therapy treatment goes through the skin, many users often report improvements to their skin even when treating completely unrelated issues. And—fun fact—that’s exactly how red light therapy was discovered to have health benefits in the first place! You can read more about that in this blog post.
Here are some of the mechanisms behind the extraordinary healing and rejuvenating powers of red light therapy.
Red light therapy improves blood flow
RLT can improve circulation in two ways. First, it’s been shown to stimulate angiogenesis, which is the formation of new blood vessels. It also triggers the release of nitric oxide (NO), which is a natural vasodilator. An increase in both size and number of blood vessels allows for a greater amount of oxygen to reach the mitochondria where it can be used to synthesize ATP. Not only that, it allows for more nutrients to reach the cells and enables the body to remove more pathogens, toxins and other harmful substances. This can have a beneficial effect on a number of skin issues.
Red light therapy boosts lymphatic function
Numerous studies have examined the effects of red light therapy on lymphedema, particularly in the context of cancer and cancer treatment. One 2015 meta-analysis, for instance, found red light therapy to be an effective treatment for breast cancer-related lymphedema, reducing both swelling and pain. While the exact mechanisms of action are unknown, given that lymphedema is caused by insufficiency or failure of the lymphatic system, it appears that red light therapy may improve lymphatic function.
What does this have to do with skin? The lymphatic system has many functions, one of which is to remove cellular waste from the bloodstream. If it’s not functioning properly, your body may have a hard time eliminating waste, toxins, and pathogens that can cause or worsen many skin issues.
Red light therapy reduces inflammation
A great number of skin problems are a result of inflammation, including acne, rosacea, and eczema, to name a few. Red light therapy is quite good at reducing inflammation, thanks to the effect it has on macrophages. These are cells responsible for detecting, engulfing, and destroying pathogens and dead cells. There are two distinct classifications, called M1 and M2. M1 macrophages provoke an inflammatory response, which is useful for protecting the body against viruses and bacteria that could be harmful. When you cut yourself, for example, your M1 macrophages kick into gear to protect against infection. This immune response can be seen in the red inflamed skin surrounding the cut. Over time, M2 macrophages take over. In contrast to M1, these are responsible for promoting healing and tissue repair by stimulating the production of collagen.
Many chronic skin issues are a result of your body’s inflammatory response gone a bit haywire. Rather than move on to the healing process, your skin is continually in fight mode, leaving you with redness, itchiness, scaly patches, or a number of other woes. Red light therapy has been shown to convert the macrophage phenotype expression from M1 to M2, thus stemming the inflammatory response and promoting healing.
Red light therapy boosts collagen production
Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein and the main building block for your skin. It provides strength and structure and essentially holds everything together. Collagen production starts to wane naturally for everyone starting at around age 25. This, along with a simultaneous reduction in elastin, the protein that provides elasticity, is why our skin starts to sag and wrinkle with age (other factors such as smoking or UV exposure can speed up this process). Numerous studies have shown red light therapy to increase collagen production. This is not only useful for healing wounds, it can also give your skin a plumper, more youthful looking appearance overall.
There are other mechanisms through which red light therapy works to benefit the skin but the science isn’t totally clear on all of its functions, as it’s a relatively new treatment and has only recently begun its meteoric rise in the health, wellness and beauty world. That hasn’t stopped researchers from making some pretty astonishing observations on the results of red light therapy treatment, however. Here are some of the findings that science has gathered on red light therapy for skin.
Red Light Therapy for Anti-Aging and Skin Rejuvenation
For millenia, people—particularly women—have been seeking out ways to slow the aging process, and the rise of social media has only compounded this pressure. Billions of dollars are spent annually on creams, serums, and procedures that promise to turn back the hands of time. Unfortunately, many of these products and treatments simply don’t work. Your skin is a semi-permeable barrier, so most ingredients found in topical products can’t penetrate past your skin’s outermost layer. Procedures such as dermal fillers, botox, and dermabrasion are more effective, but many have significant drawbacks: they’re often invasive, sometimes painful, and they’re almost all prohibitively expensive.
Red light therapy, on the other hand, is affordable, completely safe, painless, and—most importantly—effective.
In one 2006 study, a group of women were administered 9 RLT treatments over 5 weeks. Twelve weeks post-treatment, researchers performed a profilometric analysis (the process of measuring the roughness of a surface) of participants’ skin and found a significant reduction in wrinkles. They also found, using electron microscopic analysis, evidence of thicker collagen fibers. The women also reported improvements in softness, smoothness, and firmness.
A similar study was conducted in 2014. This time with a larger sample size and a randomized control group for comparing results. In the treatment group, 113 participants received 30 treatments over 15 weeks, while the 23 subjects in the control group received no treatment. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of the treatment using photography, self-reporting, and ultrasound. In the treatment group, photographs showed significant visible changes in wrinkles and skin roughness in, and subjects reported improvements in skin feeling and complexion. There was also a significant increase in collagen density. The control group saw no significant changes except for some reports of worsening skin feeling and complexion.
A 2009 study conducted by Dr. Daniel Barolet, one of the world’s preeminent laser therapy specialists, sought to examine not only the effects of red light therapy on collagen in the skin, but also the potential mechanisms behind them. He and his team first evaluated the biological and histological effects of 11 RLT or sham treatments on a tissue-engineered Human Reconstructed Skin (HRS) model. They then assessed the effects of 12 RLT treatments on individuals with aged skin in a double-blind, split-face study. Results showed a significant increase in procollagen levels (procollagen is a precursor to collagen) and a significant decrease in MMP-1 levels (MMP-1 is a substance that breaks down collagen) in treated HRS compared to non-treated HRS. As for the split-face portion of the study, 90% of participants showed improvement in wrinkle depth and surface roughness, and 87% experienced a reduction on the Fitzpatrick wrinkling severity score.
Red Light Therapy for Preventing and Repairing Sun Damage
One of the best ways to stave off aging is to stay out of the sun. We know, we know: easier said than done. In fact, so prevalent is damage caused by UV exposure that it has its own name: photoaging. While we know most of you practise sun safety, especially if you’re concerned about aging skin, it’s impossible to avoid all UV exposure. Luckily, red light therapy can help with that!
There is growing evidence that the warmer tones of early morning sunlight may be beneficial for preparing the skin for midafternoon sun exposure. While this process, called photoprevention, is certainly not something you would want to rely on today, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; after all, sunscreen is a rather new concept, as is spending most of our time indoors. According to recent research, red light therapy may have a similar photopreventive effect by mimicking early morning light.
In one 2008 study, participants were administered red light therapy to one thigh before exposing both thighs to UV light. The treated thigh showed significantly reduced redness compared to the non-treated thigh. There was also reduced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Researchers concluded that red light therapy offered an SPF-15-like protection (we’d be remiss not to warn you that this should absolutely not be a substitute for your regular sun safety measures; it may simply offer added protection).
Red light therapy, it seems, can also help repair sun damage. Some experts posit that this is also an evolutionary relic from a time when humans spent most of their days outdoors. As we’ve seen, RLT can help increase collagen and improve skin roughness and wrinkles. Other studies have shown red light therapy to be effective in treating melasma (dark skin discoloration sometimes caused by sun exposure), and to inhibit melanin synthesis which causes hyperpigmentation.
Red Light Therapy for Rosacea
Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory condition for which the cause is unknown. This makes it incredibly difficult to treat. It is, however, a good candidate for red light therapy given the treatment’s well-documented anti-inflammatory effects. RLT’s ability to convert proinflammatory M1 macrophages to pro-healing M2 macrophages could help diminish the duration of flare-ups.
RLT also induces a phenomenon called hormesis, which is the process through which a low level of stress is applied to an organism to produce beneficial effects. By causing the slightest irritation, red light therapy may help kick-start your body’s anti-inflammatory processes.
Red Light Therapy for Acne
Acne occurs as a result of bacteria that feed on sebum. These bacteria secrete a substance that breaks down sebum, allowing them to then consume it. This substance irritates the surrounding tissue, triggering an inflammatory response, leading to swelling, redness, and pus.
Growing evidence indicates that red light therapy may help curb the inflammatory response, speed up the healing process, and prevent scarring.
In a 2007 randomized trial, participants were given red light therapy treatment on one side of their face for 15 minutes, twice a day for 8 weeks. Results showed a significant decrease in acne lesions on the treatment side, as well as a significant reduction in pain.
Two studies (2006 and 2013) evaluated the effects of the combination of blue and red light on acne. The first study found a 46% reduction in acne lesions after 4 weeks, and an 81% reduction after 8 weeks (4 weeks after treatment ended). In the second study, participants in the treatment group experienced a reduction in inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne of 72% and 54%, respectively, compared to the control group, which saw no change. The treatment group also showed a reduction in both sebum output and inflammation, as well as a decrease in sebaceous gland size.
In a 2017 clinical trial, researchers found red light therapy to be more effective in reducing acne lesions than intense pulsed light therapy, when combined with aminolevulinic acid cream.
Red Light Therapy for Wounds and Scars
The health benefits of photobiomodulation were actually discovered accidentally when researchers, who were using it for other purposes, noted that it helped heal skin lesions faster. Since then, red light therapy’s ability to heal wounds and scars has been studied rather extensively, in both human and animal trials.
One group of researchers conducted a literature review of 68 studies examining the effects of red light therapy on wounds, spanning more than two decades. According to the results of these studies, red light therapy appears to reduce inflammatory cells, stimulate collagen synthesis, increase the proliferation of fibroblasts (cells responsible for collagen synthesis), induce angiogenesis, and aid in the formation of granular tissue (consisting primarily of new connective tissue and blood vessels).
Scar tissue, for its part, forms because the body must react quickly to heal a wound in order to prevent infection. This means that the new tissue is thrown together in a haphazard way, in contrast to the organized pattern of normal tissue. When new scar tissue is formed, new fibroblasts are formed in tandem, which repeat the slapdash pattern; hence the permanence of scars. There is some evidence to suggest that red light therapy may help modulate the formation of this abnormal tissue.
Red Light Therapy for Cellulite
Fat cells are generally organized into larger clusters called lobules. These are separated by fibrous bands called septae, which are made up of collagen and blood vessels. When the septae have irregular tension or begin to break down, lobules can squeeze through, creating the dimpled effect we all know and love. The reason cellulite affects mostly women is that men have more collagen density, and their septae are arranged in a more robust criss-cross pattern while women’s are more vertically arranged. They also have smaller fat lobules and thicker skin (which makes cellulite less visible).
Red light therapy can help reduce the appearance of cellulite in several ways. First, we know that it boosts collagen synthesis, which can in turn strengthen the septae to help keep fat lobules neatly contained. Second, its beneficial effect on the lymphatic system can also play an important role. One of the causes of cellulite is a build-up of lymphatic fluid with fat cells, causing them to swell and breach their barriers. Red light therapy can help improve the functioning of the lymphatic system, enabling excess lymph to more easily drain out of the fat cells.
One 2012 study found that red light therapy combined with treadmill training was more effective at reducing cellulite than treadmill training alone. And two other studies (2008, 2011) found that a combination of red light therapy and massage was more effective than massage alone at improving the appearance of cellulite.
Bonus Benefit: Red Light Therapy for Sleep
It’s no secret that sleep is an important part of a healthy body and mind. But did you know that poor sleep can have a deleterious effect on your skin? According to Sleep.org, a lack of adequate sleep can cause puffiness and dark undereye circles, and poor sleep on a regular basis can cause acne flare-ups, and even premature aging.
Studies (2012, 2018) have shown that red light therapy can help improve duration and quality of sleep, namely by boosting melatonin production. It’s also very effective at treating pain, which is a common impediment to a good night’s sleep.
How to Use Red Light Therapy to treat a Variety of Skin Issues
One of the more confusing aspects of red light therapy is how exactly you should use it to treat various issues. This is simply because there are no established guidelines to tell you how close you should sit to your device and how long you should use it for. Eventually, researchers will home in on the perfect dosage to get the most benefits from the treatment for every ailment, but for now we have to rely on a little knowledge and a little trial and error.
What we do know is that the closer you are to the light source, the deeper the light penetrates. So for skin and other surface issues such as hair growth and eye health, you’ll want to position yourself a little further from your device than for deep tissue health issues. The general rule of thumb for skin issues is 12-18 inches away. For deeper issues, a distance of 6 inches will be more effective.
There is no hard and fast rule for the duration of sessions, either. For some people, 5 minutes may suffice, while others may see greater improvements with longer sessions. For skin issues, however, there isn’t much of a need to surpass 10 minutes of treatment at a time.
As for frequency of sessions, red light therapy is absolutely safe to use every day, and in fact, many people like to incorporate it into their daily routine. For optimal results, you should maintain a minimum of 3 sessions per week.
Why Choose Red Light Therapy at Home?
As mentioned above, the key to success with red light therapy is consistency and proper dosage. Dosage is not an exact science, as we’ve seen, but more of a spectrum. As long as you stay within the parameters mentioned above, you can play around with length of exposure and distance from your device until you find a formula that works for your skin. It’s much easier to do this when you’re using your own device.
As for consistency of treatment, not only is it easier to find the time to get your 5 or 10 minutes in daily if you have a home device, it’s infinitely more affordable. For instance, you can purchase a Rouge Tabletop device for roughly the same price as a handful of sessions in a spa or clinic.
Not only that, your Rouge device can be used for a multitude of issues unrelated to skin, including:
- Oral health;
- Pain and inflammation;
- Arthritis-related joint pain and stiffness;
- Immune health;
- Cognitive function;
- Mental health and depression;
- Hair growth;
- Weight loss and body contouring;
- Muscle growth, athletic performance, and recovery;
- Hormone health and sex drive;
- Eye health.
Not only does your skin deserve the best in care for all it does for you, you deserve to feel good in it, too. Rouge devices are designed to give you the most powerful treatment to maximize your results while also being ultra gentle on even the most sensitive areas. Ready to take your skin care to the next level? Shop the Rouge Red Light Therapy collection today!