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LED light therapy hit the at-home device market in a major way a few years ago. All of a sudden there were light masks, pens, and little handheld planks that promised glowing, clearer, more youthful skin. If you were skeptical: It's OK to be. Beauty trends often come with misinformation and too-quick-to-market products that skimp on quality. So, here, I did a deep dive into the science behind it all.
Quickly! What is LED therapy?
LED means light-emitting diodes, and it's just another way of turning electricity to light. When used in dermatology, studies show the wavelengths can penetrate deep into the dermis, sparking biological changes.
And there's been significant research into LED's use in dermatology. For example, blue light is shown to be antimicrobial; most notably it can kill p. acnes, the bacteria responsible for acne. Red light is shown to help a variety of conditions, from inflammatory diseases like rosacea and psoriasis to the ability to speed up wound recovery.
And before we get any more technical, it's important to know how they were developed.
Where did they come from?
Space! No really: It's been used and studied by NASA scientists for decades. Most notably, red light was used to regulate astronauts' circadian rhythms while in the International Space Station, where they were bombarded by constant white light and "where 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours tend to throw off their internal clocks," according to reports from NASA. From there, the research done by NASA trickled down to university labs, where they started studying LED therapy for a variety of conditions, from cancer pain to, yes, skin.
And using light in dermatology isn't necessarily new: Selective photothermal damage, or laser treatments, is just another way of turning electricity into light. In lasers, however, the dermatologist will use the light to create heat in the skin, intentionally causing damage to trigger a recovery response. "We're blowing things up in the skin," says board-certified dermatologist and laser surgeon Ellen Marmur, M.D., founder of MMSkincare. "It's a controlled wound, say, around a dark spot, so the body will start to heal it up."
LEDs are a small leap away from that, but as Marmur notes, a leap into painless treatments. And now, even possible at home. "It took decades to perfect, and now that they are more well understood, it's affordable and small enough to have as a home device. So that's the background of 'why now?'"
LED therapy has the ability to create a biological change in the skin through targeted wavelengths. Our skin has receptors that can be manipulated when exposed to heat, chemicals, and vibrations—and when the wavelengths from LEDs penetrate the dermis, it stimulates the chemical and vibrational response ("without having to blow them up using heat, like with lasers," says Marmur).
So when, for example, a red light wavelength hits the skin, it encourages skin rejuvenation by boosting collagen production and feeding the skin cells' mitochondria. And plenty of studies have shown this to improve skin elasticity, reduce the appearance of fine lines, as well as inspire an overall youthful glow.
If this all sounds very technical, it is. But one of the most interesting components of LED technology is the mind-body connection. We know light and color therapy affects our mental state and mood. It's why those with seasonal affective disorder are given light boxes, as it's been shown to help treat some of the symptoms. Or, according to recent trials, when Alzheimer's patients were exposed to blue light, their mental state improved (more research is being done in that area). Or, go back to the astronauts: When they started using red LED lights, their sleep improved.
The same goes for the skin connection: We know the skin and our mental health are deeply connected. And maybe there's no research to back this up at the moment, but it's not that far of a leap to assume that if someone was more well rested or just generally feeling better, their skin might look more revitalized.
What should you know about at-home devices?
There is a wide range of tools out there—and some are not to be trusted. First and foremost, you must look for devices that are FDA-approved. There are a lot of options online, often from foreign sources that are not FDA-approved and come with lower price points, but these could potentially have damaging effects.
"So some of these devices that have not been tested or approved are emanating energy that is not good for you, and you can't feel it," says Marmur. "You shouldn't mess around with these, and you need to take it seriously. These can be scary. They can lead to neurological issues if you're not careful, like ocular migraines."
Alexandra Englermbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.