If you’re at all tuned into the beauty and skincare space, you’ve surely seen those futuristic looking light emitting gadgets on social media, at the spa, or even at drugstores in the last few years. Those glowing face masks that make you look like a creepy robot from the future are hard to ignore. Then there are the celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Kate Hudson, who swear by LED light therapy for their glowing skin. Famous beauties posting their lit up robotic selfies on social media further flame the popularity of these beauty devices, making them the number one beauty gadget we all want to try.
Ranging from hand held wands to full face masks, LED devices have been showing up all over the place, from professional in-office treatments to at home versions you can use at your leisure. When it comes to what they actually are or do, though, a lot of us are left bewildered. How exactly does a device that emits brightly colored lights help you give a better complexion? Novelty and the cool factor aside, do they really improve the skin and more importantly, are they safe?
LED (light- emitting diode) therapy works by emitting varying wavelengths of light, including red and blue. LED light devices send varying light waves into the skin, causing biological intracellular reactions. Depending on the wavelength of light that is emitted and the depth it reaches, the skin reacts differently to it. It is a painless non-invasive type of light treatment that virtually anyone can use and benefit from. And best of all, there is no downtime.
Light comes in a spectrum, ranging from ultraviolet (UV) rays and infrared (not visible) to visible light in different wavelengths. Visible light is what we know as the colours of the rainbow. Different wavelengths of visible light therefore correspond to different colours of LED, and they each reach the skin to various depths.
Developed originally by NASA in the 1980s for plant growth experiments in outer space, it was later discovered that LED was actually more useful in wound healing. Though the healing effects of LED have been known for decades, it is only recently that its use has shifted to skincare treatments.
LED light therapy can have a myriad of skincare benefits that will give you a clearer, more radiant and vibrant complexion. It can help stimulate collagen production, increase circulation, reduce inflammation, kill acne causing bacteria, brighten and tighten skin, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, for example. All of these benefits improve overall skin health, but they all contribute to fight signs of aging and acne - two of the biggest skin concerns.
Devices come in various forms, but most common are masks or hand held wands. Some come as stand up panels or even as full body beds. Red and blue lights are the two most often used in LED light treatments for the skin. Generally, red light is beneficial in treating fine lines and wrinkles, while blue light targets acne by killing the acne causing bacteria. Here are more to know about each:
When red light is applied to the outer layer of the skin, or the epidermis, it stimulates the production of collagen via skin cells called fibroblasts. Red light is believed to target fibroblasts, which play an important role in the production of collagen. Collagen has become a buzz word in the skincare world, and rightfully so - it’s a protein that makes up a large part of the connective tissue and one that helps in wound healing, as well as in maintaining skin firmness and tightness. It’s crucial and maintaining healthy, youthful looking skin. Red light also helps reverse some of the signs of aging including ageing caused by sun exposure.
In 2019, a study published in the Journal of American Dermatology found that red LED light therapy increased the production of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid in the skin. These are all important components of healthy skin - they help improve fine lines, wrinkles, laxity, pore size and texture. Simply put, red light works by building and strengthening the cell structure of the skin.
Red light also helps decrease inflammation in the skin, calming redness and swelling. This is why it is useful in treating acne and rosacea. It makes sense, too, that red light’s anti-inflammatory powers can help speed up the healing time and reduce the pain of cold sores. It can also minimize scar tissue, as red light promotes circulation and bring more oxygen into the target skin area. Improved circulation also means a healthier overall glow.
Some studies show that red light can be an effective treatment in restoring hair in people with androgenic alopecia, also known as male and female pattern hair loss. It may not work for everyone though, and it is best used in less sever cases and at earlier stages of hair loss. Once the hair follicle is scared, it most likely won’t be effective.
Blue light targets acne in two ways. First, it targets the sebaceous glands, or oil glands, which are located beneath hair follicles. Sebaceous glands are important for keeping the skin and hair lubricated. They produce an oily substance called sebum, your body’s natural moisturizer, if you will. But when these glands are overactive, it can be cause for unwanted skin issues like acne. Blue light targets these glands and make them less active, so they produce less oil that can pug the hair follicles, leading to acne.
Second, blue light works on acne by killing acne causing bacteria known as Cutibacterium acnes. It does so by stimulating the production of oxygen radicals which act on the acne bacteria, without damaging the skin itself. It penetrates deep to kill the bacteria beneath the skin, which can help treat severe acne pimples including cystic acne.
Often both red and blue light are used in combination to fight acne from all angles: while the blue light works on reducing the activities of oil glands and acne bacteria, the red light targets and calms inflammation and redness accompanying the acne.
What to expect during treatment
With both at home and in office treatments, experts recommend you apply the LED device to clean skin free of makeup. You need to also wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from the light.
During a treatment in a professional setting, the LED machines’ panels or face masks are placed a few inches from the skin, and your job is to lay there and relax for 15 to 20 minutes while the LED light does its job. The light will feel warm on your skin, but never painful. Most people find the heat along with the light therapeutic and relaxing. It typically costs $100 to 300 per session.
Similarly with at home devices, you would place the mask on your clean face, set it to the preferred setting, sit back and relax for the recommended time period. With a hand held device, you’d work your way around your face on your preferred setting, again following the manufacturer’s recommended duration. Many wands come with the added benefit of a facial massage feature. The at home devices create the perfect opportunities for daily self care rituals that improve your skin.
Take note, that most at home versions tend to be much less intense than the in-office versions, but they are still very beneficial, especially if used regularly. At home devices can vary dramatically in price from around $80 - $1000 or more.
LED light therapy is generally considered to be safe for all skin types and colors. LEDs don’t contain any UV rays, so it will not burn your skin or cause damage. There may be some mild side effects like eye strain. If you follow guidelines and use proper eyewear to protect your eyes, it is all in all a safe modality to improve your skin. You should talk to your doctor first if you are taking oral acne medications, though, since some medications can make your skin or eyes extra sensitive.
LED light devices have become so popular in recent years not only because they are visually so alluring, but also because they do work to improve all skin types, even sensitive, with no pain or recovery time. Consider it not as a replacement for good skincare or professional treatments, but as a fantastic addition to your skincare arsenal. The effects of LED therapy are cumulative, so if used consistently and regularly as part of your routine, it can have gentle healing and anti-aging effects on your skin - not to mention the benefits that come from taking a light filled pause in your day to tune into your skin and well being.