By Dina ElBoghdady
Illustration by SanQian
APRIL 20, 2021
The coronavirus pandemic gave rise to mainstream DIY beauty trends born out of desperation, such as home manicures and hair coloring. But skin-care enthusiasts are snapping up a newer type of at-home beauty tool: light-emitting facial devices that promise to fight acne, fine lines and other skin problems.
These LED light-therapy gadgets, which hit the mainstream beauty market within the past decade, were popularized by celebrities and influencers on social media. The devices include handheld light wands, stand-alone light screens, glasses for the eyes, mouthpieces for the lips and lots of Instagram-worthy face masks, such as the $200 DMH Aesthetics LED Light Shield (clear and lined with light) or the $2,000 Déesse Pro (opaque “Phantom of the Opera”-type armor). Recently, however, the trend seemed to be leveling off; sales of these devices declined in 2018 and flattened in 2019, according to the NPD Group, a market-research firm.
Then came 2020, and sales jumped 55 percent. The treatment tools generated $11.2 million in sales last year, with prices averaging $200.
Skin-care experts credit the pandemic in general — and the “Zoom effect” in particular — for accelerating the light-therapy craze. Many of us grew self-conscious as we engaged in prolonged video chats that forced us to look at ourselves more closely than ever before, all while in sharp focus under not-so-flattering light, said Mathew Avram, a Boston dermatologist and the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center.
“People are scrutinizing everything from the collarbone up and thinking: ‘Oh my, look at this, look at that.’ Brown spots. Deep lines around the mouth. Hollowed-out cheeks,” Avram said. “They don’t like what they’re seeing, and that’s led some of them to explore at-home aesthetic devices.” And with shutdowns and social distancing, the skin-obsessed had plenty of time to find new tools.
LED light therapy is rooted in real science, said D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, a leading laser surgeon and clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center. But not all devices in stores are effective, Alster said, and none is as powerful as medical-grade LED lights or lasers. At best, she said, at-home light products provide “minimal” benefits when used consistently over time, something buyers often fail to do. “People tend to get lazy about using them, because they don’t see immediate results,” Alster said. “They use them a few times and then put them away.”
Scientists tapped into the therapeutic value of light in the late 1960s, when Hungarian surgeon Endre Mester discovered that low-power lights had the potential to heal skin wounds — and perhaps even stimulate hair growth. But it was groundbreaking research from NASA, which was searching for technology to grow food for astronauts on space shuttle missions, that culminated in the development of a new generation of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the late 1990s. Spinoff technologies were applied to medical uses on Earth, leading to a device that helps heal chemotherapy-related mouth sores and one that activates tumor-treating drugs.
As LED devices became cheaper and easier to mass-produce, they made their way into consumer goods, including facial light-therapy products. Although many small scientific studies suggest that the commercial blue-light units in doctors’ offices can treat acne and the red-light units can help with wound healing and joint pain, “there’s very little, if any, data on the units you can buy at CVS or Sephora,” said Daniel Sauder, a Toronto dermatologist and former chairman of the dermatology department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
And when it comes to at-home facial-rejuvenation devices that claim to combat fine lines, sagging skin and hyperpigmentation, the lab findings have been more impressive than the clinical outcomes seen in patients, said Thomas Rohrer, a Boston-area dermatologist and president of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. “The studies might look at collagen production in a petri dish or microscopically,” Rohrer said. “But for a patient, that increase in collagen might not translate into a visible difference on their skin.”
On this much, most scientists agree: LED light is absorbed by different components of skin cells, changing the way they function, though scientists are yet to fully understand how the process works, said Jared Jagdeo, a dermatologist and director of the Center for Photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Light can stimulate cells (to produce collagen, the protein that provides skin with its elasticity and firmness, for instance) or inhibit them (perhaps to prevent scarring), depending on which lights are used and how powerful they are.
The most effective devices hit a sweet spot in terms of engineering, Jagdeo said. The lights can’t be too weak or too strong, and they must be delivered in the correct dose at the appropriate rate. “If the power and dose are not correct for what you want to accomplish, it’s not going to work,” Jagdeo said.
The LEDs themselves are microchips that convert electrical energy into lights of various wavelengths, basically producing an artificial version of the wavelengths that combine to form sunlight. Each of the visible wavelengths is associated with a color band of the rainbow, and some colors penetrate deeper into the skin than others, said Dennis Gross, a New York dermatologist and creator of the $435 DRx SpectraLite FaceWare Pro mask. “Blue light is known to kill bacteria on the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin, which is why it’s often used to treat acne,” Gross said. “The red light, a longer wavelength, goes deeper into the skin and reduces inflammation.”
These visible lights should not be confused with the invisible UVA and UVB rays, skin-damaging wavelengths that can lead to cancer, said Ellen Marmur, a New York dermatologist and creator of the $795 MMSphere, a halo-shaped panel with five colors and nine settings. And they are not lasers (although some of the at-home LED devices have mistakenly been referred to as such). Lasers emit one wavelength of light that destroys a specific target, such as the green ink of a tattoo or the melanin of a birthmark, Marmur said. The most aggressive lasers are designed to resurface the skin and can cost roughly $2,000 per treatment; many patients require more than one session and some downtime in between.
By contrast, LED devices are less invasive and pain free, distributing low-energy light evenly on the skin, Marmur said. And they’re relatively safe, though people should wear opaque goggles to shield their eyes when using devices very close to their face. (In 2019, Neutrogena recalled its mass-market light mask, citing potentially serious eye injuries for people who had underlying eye conditions or were on certain medications.)
Although the best of the at-home devices are not as effective as in-office treatments, Marmur said, some people might find them effective enough. “If you’re living with chronic pain, Tylenol may not relieve all your pain, but it can make you feel a bit better, and that’s great,” she said. “The same thing with these skin-care devices.”
Celebrity esthetician Joanna Czech says some clients turn to LED devices rather than antibiotics to treat their acne or introduce more chemicals into their personal beauty regimen. Still, nobody should count on miracles from any one product, Czech said, because skin health ultimately depends on a person’s lifestyle and diet. “If you’re drinking and smoking on a daily basis and not giving your body the rest it needs, no light device is going to help you,” Czech said. “You’d just be wasting your money.”
Deciding which device to purchase is difficult. Amazon lists more than 500 tools for facial light therapy, and even skin-care professionals have trouble evaluating product claims. At the very least, dermatologists said, shoppers should choose a device that’s cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning the agency has deemed it to be sufficiently safe for at-home use on all skin types. But be aware: that doesn’t necessarily mean the device is effective, just that it’s unlikely to cause injury. Check out the manufacturer’s credentials before buying, follow the directions and do not use for longer than recommended.
It may also help to ask dermatologists and estheticians for input. Czech said she has been recommending the $1,800 Celluma Pro, which has a flexible panel designed to conform to any part of the body, based on her experience with the brand and feedback from clients. When spas were closed during the pandemic, Czech said, she sometimes sold two Celluma Pro devices a day, compared with perhaps two a month when her Dallas and New York studios were open.
The most recent NPD figures still show strong sales for at-home light-therapy products. Meanwhile, dermatologists are seeing an influx of patients clamoring for help with the “collarbone up” region, Avram says, rather than with leg veins or other off-camera cosmetic nuisances. It’s too early to tell where the at-home light-therapy trend is headed, but it’s possible that the Zoom effect will linger even after the pandemic ends.
Editing by Elizabeth Chang. Copy editing by Rachael Bolek. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Illustration by SanQian. Design by Alla Dreyvitser.