Red Light Therapy for Psoriasis: What Is It and Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on January 29, 2018Written by Ashley Marcin on January 11, 2016

Overview

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that involves a rapid turnover of skin cells. People with psoriasis often find rough areas of painful irritation and silvery scales called plaques on various parts of their bodies.

There’s no cure for this autoimmune disease, but treatments are available that can help ease psoriasis symptoms. These include home remedies to calm the skin, topical and oral medications, and light therapy.

Keep reading to learn more about red light therapy (RLT) for psoriasis, including how it works and if it might be right for you.

What is red light therapy?

RLT is a form of light therapy that uses light emitting diodes (LED) to treat conditions from acne to persistent wounds. Some people with psoriasis undergo light therapy with ultraviolet (UV) rays, but RLT doesn’t contain any UV rays.

In a hospital setting, when RLT is combined with certain medication, it may be referred to as photodynamic therapy.

You don’t necessarily need to see a doctor to test out RLT. There are various consumer products on the market aimed at cosmetic applications. Many tanning salons, like B-Tan Tanning in parts of Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, offer red light beds. These salons say that red light beds help reduce:

  • cellulite
  • acne
  • scars
  • stretch marks
  • fine lines
  • wrinkles

For more targeted RLT, you’ll need to see a dermatologist first.

How long has red light therapy been around?

Scientists at National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Quantum Devices, Inc. (QDI) first discovered red light as a way to grow plants in space back in the early 1990s. Red LEDs produce light that’s 10 times brighter than the sun’s rays. They also learned that this intense light helps energy metabolism in plant cells and promotes growth and photosynthesis.

From 1995 to 1998, the Marshall Space Flight Center challenged QDI to study red light for its potential application in medicine. In other words, they wanted to see if the red light that energized plant cells would work the same way on human cells.

The primary focus of this research was to determine if RLT might affect certain conditions that impact astronauts. Specifically, the scientists wanted to see if RLT could help with muscle atrophy and bone density issues that arise from long periods of weightlessness. Wounds also heal slowly in space, so that was another key focus area of their studies.

What is red light therapy used for today?

Through grants and clinical trials in the years since the initial research, RLT has proven effective for some medical conditions, including:

RLT can even be used to help activate certain drugs that fight cancer. Some cancer drugs are sensitive to light. When the treated cells are exposed to certain types of light, such as red light, they die off. This therapy has been particularly helpful for treating esophageal cancer, lung cancer, and skin diseases like actinic keratosis.

Red light therapy and psoriasis

A 2011 study in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology examined the effects of RLT versus blue light therapy for individuals with psoriasis. Participants had high-dose treatments three times per week for four consecutive weeks while applying a 10 percent salicylic acid solution to plaques.

What were the results? Both the red and blue light therapies were effective in treating psoriasis. The difference between the two wasn’t significant for scaling and hardening of the skin. However, the blue light therapy did come ahead when treating erythema, or reddened skin.

It’s important to remember that these treatments were done with high doses in a medical setting. The results may vary greatly if the therapy is performed at home or a salon or wellness center.

Risks and considerations

RLT isn’t associated with any major risks. Still, you may want to speak with your doctor if you’re taking medications that increase your skin’s photosensitivity.

There are several other types of light therapies that may help with psoriasis. Consider also asking your doctor about the following therapies:

  • ultraviolet light B (UVB)
  • natural sunlight
  • psoralen and ultraviolet light A (PUVA)
  • laser treatments

Speaking with your doctor

There’s no cure for psoriasis. However, you may find relief from your symptoms if you use the right mix of treatments. RLT is just another tool to add to your kit for finding relief. Of course, before trying anything new, it’s best to check with your doctor.

Though you can purchase red light devices for home use or arrange for therapy sessions outside of a medical setting, your doctor may have certain guidelines that will make your treatment more effective.

You may want to ask which type of light therapy would most help your unique symptoms. Your doctor may also have suggestions for how to combine oral or topical medications with light therapy, as well as what lifestyle changes will help you avoid psoriasis triggers.

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