“But of course, there are many other things that people are using red light for, and the evidence for those applications is not as strong,” adds Dr. Baron. Namely, its use strictly for anti-aging purposes. “There have been some preliminary studies that show that this type of light has some effects on cells known as fibroblasts.8 These are the cells that produce collagen, so we know that red light has some beneficial effects in terms of promoting the growth of and maintaining healthy collagen in your skin,” says Dr. Baron.
Proponents say you will see some skin-enhancing effects with red light therapy, but as with most skin rejuvenation treatments, most visible results will be temporary. “This is not going to stop the clock,” says Dr. Baron. But that’s why regular use is recommended, either in an office, spa, or at home. “The results you get from red light therapy work cumulatively, additively, and synergistically,” says Dr. Jagdeo. In other words, if you’re looking to achieve smoother skin and see a reduction in fine lines, you’ll need to keep up your sessions so that each one builds onto and supports the other; then over time—usually in a matter of weeks or months—you should start to see noticeable changes, according to the experts we talked to.
I hear it’s safe, but what side effects of red light therapy should I expect?
Yes, all of our experts agree: Red light therapy is generally safe. The great thing about red light therapy is that it’s noninvasive and, when used properly, does not damage the skin. (Improper use can damage skin, though—see “How often can you use red light therapy?” below for more.) Side effects are minimal and downtime, which is sometimes necessary with common skin laser treatments, is nonexistent. “In an office treatment, you might feel a little bit of stinging when using a photosensitizer with the light, but for most people, you might feel your skin get warm, and maybe you’ll look red right after the treatment, but that should go away in a day or two,” says Dr. Baron.
Also unlike some lasers, people of all skin tones and types can undergo this kind of treatment, say our experts. “I conducted research that was funded by the NIH that looked at red light therapy and its safety amongst different skin types. We found that with short treatment times—30 minutes or less—there was no concern with redness or hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Jagdeo. Once you start trending up towards much longer treatment times, though, then the risk for those issues increases.”9
That said, if you know you’re easily prone to hyperpigmentation, you might want to talk to your dermatologist for help with choosing a home device, says Dr. Lamb. “If a patient came to me who was prone to pigmentation, I probably would recommend that they avoid getting a device that rests directly on their face and instead stick to ones that are held away from your skin.”
The bottom line is that when done correctly: “Red light therapy is something that’s safe and very manageable for the average adult,” says Dr. Baron. When used medically for treatment of actinic keratosis, the cost of photodynamic therapy may be covered by insurance, but don’t expect your insurance to cover it for acne, rosacea, or skin rejuvenation. Out-of-pocket prices vary depending on treatment area and office locations, though they typically fall between $35 to $400 a session.
So red light therapy at home is safe and effective, too?
Yes, in-home devices are as safe to use as in-office ones, according to our experts. Remember though, the devices used in a medical office will be bigger and emit more energy than those you can use at home, says Dr. Baron, so at-home ones will be milder, which means you may not see the kind of results you might get from an office visit. That said, “these less powerful home devices can be safely used more frequently, without any redness,” says Dr. Baron.
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