Updated: Dec 8, 2020
What is red light therapy?
Red light therapy (RLT) is a controversial therapeutic technique that uses red low-level wavelengths of light to treat skin issues, such as wrinkles, scars, and persistent wounds, among other conditions.
In the early 1990s, RLT was used by scientists to help grow plants in space. The scientists found that the intense light from red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) helped promote growth and photosynthesis of plant cells.
Red light was then studied for its potential application in medicine, more specifically to find out if RLT could increase energy inside human cells. The researchers hoped that RLT could be an effective way to treat the muscle atrophy, slow wound healing, and bone density issues caused by weightlessness during space travel.
You may have heard of red light therapy (RLT) by its other names, which include:
low level light therapy (LLLT)
soft laser therapy
cold laser therapy
low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
When RLT is used with photosensitizing medications, it’s referred to as photodynamic therapy. In this type of therapy, the light only serves as an activating agent for the medication.
There are many different types of red light therapy. Red light beds found at salons are said to help reduce cosmetic skin issues, like stretch marks and wrinkles. Red light therapy used in an medical office setting may be used to treat more serious conditions, like psoriasis, slow-healing wounds, and even the side effects of chemotherapy.
While there’s a fair amount of evidence to show that RLT may be a promising treatment for certain conditions, there’s still a lot to learn about how it works, too.
How does red light therapy work?
Red light is thought to work by producing a biochemical effect in cells that strengthens the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell — it’s where the cell’s energy is created. The energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things is called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
By increasing the function of the mitochondria using RLT, a cell can make more ATP. With more energy, cells can function more efficiently, rejuvenate themselves, and repair damage.
RLT is different from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapies because it doesn’t cause damage to the skin surface. Laser and pulsed light therapies work by causing controlled damage to the outer layer of the skin, which then induces tissue repair. RLT bypasses this harsh step by directly stimulating regeneration of the skin. The light emitted by RLT penetrates roughly 5 millimeters below the skin’s surface.
How is red light therapy used? Ever since the initial experiments in space, there have been hundreds of clinical studies and thousands of laboratory studies conducted to determine if RLT has medical benefits.
Many studies have had promising results, but the benefits of red light therapy are still a source of controversy. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), for example, has determined that there isn’t enough evidence to show that these devices are better than currently existing treatments for treating wounds, ulcers, and pain.
Additional clinical research is needed to prove that RLT is effective. At the moment, however, there’s some evidence to suggest that RLT may have the following benefits: promotes wound healing and tissue repair
improves hair growth in people with androgenic alopecia
help for the short-term treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome
stimulates healing of slow-healing wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers
reduces psoriasis lesions
aids with short-term relief of pain and morning stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis
reduces some of the side effects of cancer treatments, including oral mucositisTrusted Source
improves skin complexion and builds collagenTrusted Source to diminish wrinkles
helps to mend sun damageTrusted Source
prevents recurring cold sores from herpes simplex virus infections
improves the health of joints in people with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee
helps diminish scars
relieves pain and inflammationTrusted Source in people with pain in the Achilles tendons
Currently, RLT isn’t endorsed or covered by insurance companies for these conditions due to lack of sufficient evidence. Although, a few insurance companies now cover the use of RLT to prevent oral mucositis during cancer treatment.