What is red light therapy? Benefits, uses and more – NBC News

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If you’ve stumbled into red light therapy videos on social media, you have probably heard that it clears acne, de-ages skin, reduces inflammation, and heals joints. You have probably also heard that it does nothing and is just another trend. The truth is that red light therapy has many potential benefits, but according to our experts, it hasn’t been studied enough to back all of its supposed benefits—at least, not yet.
SKIP AHEAD What to look for in at-home red light therapy tools | Expert-recommended red light therapy tools | Does red light therapy work?
Even so, hundreds of light therapy devices are available online, all claiming to have myriad skin benefits. We spoke with experts to better understand what red light therapy is, how it works and what to look for when considering an at-home red light therapy device.
Red light therapy applies specific wavelengths of light (usually around 630 nanometers) onto your skin. This wavelength can penetrate 2 to 3 millimeters below the skin, and cause positive reactions in the cells just under your skin, says Dr. Apple Bodemer, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Specifically, the light is absorbed by a type of cell organelle called mitochondria, stimulating it, causing a “cascade of events at the cellular level,” says Dr. Nkem Ugonabo, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City.
Stimulated mitochondria can produce more energy and be more active, increasing collagen production, say Bodemer and Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, founder and lead physician of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery and Med Spa. “Collagen is our body’s ‘building block,’ and increased amounts of it can make the skin look firmer and more youthful,” says DeRosa.
DeRosa says red light therapy can also increase blood circulation to tissues, providing anti-inflammatory benefits.
At least, that’s the idea. There isn’t a lot of scientific data available, and many of the red light therapy studies done so far have been funded by companies that make red light products. But there seems to be enough evidence that red light therapy may be helpful for some people, says Bodemer.
When shopping for a red light therapy tool, it’s important to keep the following in mind:
Our experts recommend speaking with your doctor before using a red light therapy device. Follow your doctor’s and manufacturer’s advice carefully, and know that individual results vary. 
Bodemer mentioned LightStim as a brand offering FDA-cleared light therapy wands. This wand has various red light wavelengths that treat fine lines and wrinkles. The brand also has wands of different light wavelengths for pain relief and acne treatment. All of their wands are wired and must be plugged in to use.
LightStim recommends using the wand for no more than three minutes per treatment area, five to seven times weekly. In studies conducted by the brand, participants saw skin improvements after eight weeks of use. 
FDA-cleared: Yes, see here | Light spectrum: Red | Recommended treatment time: 3 minutes per area | Power: Wired, plug in
NBC Select editorial projects manager Rebecca Rodriguez received this wand from the brand, and has used it for the past few months to treat skin on her face. “I have a permanent line on my forehead from furrowing my brow often,” says Rodriguez. “But after using this tool consistently for a few weeks, that line has faded.”
With this wand, you can use various tools—three percussive massage attachments, a cleansing ring, a microcurrent ring and an LED light ring (with red and blue LEDs). Rodriguez’s nightly routine usually involves following guidance videos on Therabody app. Some of the attachments, like the microcurrent ring, take some getting used to—Rodriguez recommends starting off at the lowest setting.
Therabody recommends using the wand for no more than eight minutes at a time. In a 12-week clinical study conducted by the brand, 80 to 90 percent of participants saw results including a decrease in wrinkles and dark spots and an increase in smooth and firm skin.
FDA-cleared: Yes, for LEDs here and microcurrent here | Light spectrum: Red, blue | Recommended treatment time: 8 minutes | Power: Wireless, rechargeable 
Our experts also mentioned LED Technologies as a brand with FDA-cleared products at a lower price. This Lux Collection Glo wand is smaller than most, meaning it’s more suited to targeting very specific areas of the skin rather than your whole face. The wand can emit red and blue light, which is suitable for targeting fine lines or bacteria.
LED Technologies recommends using the wand for up to three minutes per treatment area, at most once a day. In a study by the brand, 97% of participants reported improvements to fine lines after 10 weeks of use. 
FDA-cleared: Yes, see here | Light spectrum: Red, blue | Recommended treatment time: 3 minutes per area | Power: Wireless, rechargeable
Bodemer also pointed to Omnilux as a brand with FDA-cleared mask products. Its Contour Face mask is priced lower than most competitors, and has red light LEDs to target wrinkles and redness, according to the brand.
Omnilux recommends using the mask for no more than 10 minutes a day, four to six times a week. According to the brand, users can start seeing results after four weeks of treatment.
FDA-cleared: Yes, see here | Light spectrum: Red | Recommended treatment time: 10 minutes | Power: Rechargeable controller, wired between controller and mask
DeRosa recommends this light mask as an FDA-cleared at-home option. It has red and blue light LEDs that can be used to target fine lines or tackle bacteria respectively. It comes with travel adapters for the US, UK, EU and Australia.
MZ Skin recommends using the mask for no more than 10 minutes a day, no more than four times a week. The brand’s clinical trials showed reduced wrinkles in four weeks and reduced fine lines and acne lesions after 12 weeks.
FDA-cleared: Yes, see here | Light spectrum: Red, blue | Recommended treatment time: 10 minutes | Power: Rechargeable controller, wired between controller and mask
Light therapy has been used in medical and scientific fields for decades. It is often used to combat seasonal affectiveness disorder, treat scars and more.
Red light therapy has the potential to assist in treating acne, reducing inflammation, decreasing healing time after certain procedures, and stimulating hair growth, says Ugonabo.
Red light therapy for general facial rejuvenation is less studied, however, says Bodemer.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center in Cleveland, Ohio, most experts do not yet know if red light therapy is effective for all of its claimed uses. Studies show potential, but more studies are needed to prove its efficacy.
Red light therapy remains exciting because of the proven positive effects of other forms of light therapy. Infrared light, for example, has been used to treat joint pain for years, says Bodemer.
Red light therapy has been used for over a decade in dermatology offices. It is safe as long as you use an FDA-cleared device at its recommended dosage, according to our experts.
While most FDA-cleared LED masks have cutouts for the eyes, some do not. For these tools, DeRosa suggested either wearing goggles or “at the very least, keeping your eyes closed during use.”
The short answer is: it depends. According to our experts, you might see results immediately or never notice a dramatic change. There are so many variables at play, your skin, the device(s) you are using, the frequency of treatment, everything can affect your potential results. Have realistic expectations, and know that red light therapy may or may not lead to positive results, says Bodemer.
Red and blue light operate at different wavelengths and interact with skin differently. Red light has been used to treat inflammation, skin roughness, and fine lines, while blue light has been used to treat acne, as it attacks bacteria.
To understand terms like FDA-cleared and FDA-approved, you need to understand how the FDA categorizes medical devices.
The FDA classifies medical devices into three tiers according to the risk and level of regulatory control needed to assure the safety and effectiveness of the product. The tiers are as follows:
Typically, any manufacturer of medical devices must register their company and products with the FDA. Companies making Class III or II devices must notify the FDA of their intent to market a product and submit their product for review.
Class III devices are submitted to the Premarket Approval (PMA) program and, if successfully reviewed, become “FDA-approved.”
Class II devices are submitted under the FDA’s 510(k) clearance program . Devices in this program are evaluated based on “ substantial equivalence ” and if successfully reviewed, become “FDA-cleared.”
Red light therapy products are typically Class II devices. As such, they are submitted through the 510(k) program to become FDA-cleared.
At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
Harry Rabinowitz is a reporter at NBC Select who covers technology, fitness and home goods including guides to earbuds, air purifiers, and fitness trackers. To better understand the nuances of red light therapy, he spoke with dermatologists as well as NBC Select staff who have tried at-home treatments.
Catch up on NBC Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to stay up to date.
Harry Rabinowitz is a reporter for Select on NBC News.
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