Red light therapy (RLT) is a therapeutic technique that uses low level wavelengths of red light to help treat skin conditions, such as wrinkles and psoriasis. Though the treatment seems promising, more research is needed.

Red light therapy (RLT) is a type of phototherapy that may help:

RLT is commonly referred to as photobiomodulation. It was accidentally discovered by Endre Mester in 1967 at the Semmelweis Medical University in Budapest, Hungary. He noticed that laser light helped promote hair growth and wound healing in rats.

Scientific literature suggests there are nearly 60 other names for RLT, such as:

  • low level light therapy (LLLT)
  • soft laser therapy
  • cold laser therapy
  • biostimulation
  • photonic stimulation
  • low power laser therapy (LPLT)

In the 1990s, light-emitting diode (LED) technology was used by scientists to help grow potatoes in space. The intense red LEDs helped promote photosynthesis. Supposedly, it also helped wounds on the scientists’ hands heal faster.

Red light was then studied for its potential medicinal application during space travel. Researchers hoped it would help treat the muscle atrophy, slow wound healing, and bone density issues caused by weightlessness in space.

Although RLT is gaining traction as a dermatological treatment for certain conditions, more clinical research is needed to fully support its claimed benefits.

RLT works by repetitively exposing your skin to low levels of red and near-infrared light for a certain period of time. At low wavelengths, red light doesn’t generate heat and penetrates the skin between 1 and 2 millimeters, according to 2013 research.

This red light exposure may produce a positive biochemical effect in your cells that strengthens the mitochondria, which is where the cell’s energy is created. RLT may do this by increasing the transportation of electrons, oxygen consumption, and your levels of ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

By increasing the energy of the mitochondria, cells may function more efficiently, as well as rejuvenate and repair themselves.

LEDs are gaining popularity over lasers as the chosen RLT light source because they’re nonablative and nonthermal. Plus, according to the 2013 research, they may help:

  • increase blood flow
  • reduce inflammation
  • increase levels of collagen
  • increase the production of fibroblast

However, more research is needed to support these claims.

According to a 2018 review of research, many studies suggest promising results for the use of RLT, but it’s still controversial. Additional clinical research is needed to confirm its effectiveness.

That said, studies from the past 20 years suggest that RLT may help:

RLT may also be used with photosensitizing medications to help treat certain types of cancers. This is referred to as photodynamic therapy. In this type of therapy, the light only serves as an activating agent for the medication.

Red light therapy and insurance

Many insurance companies don’t cover RLT.

If you have health insurance, reach out to your insurance provider to see whether RLT is covered to help treat the condition you might have.

If you don’t have health insurance or if your plan does not cover RLT, speak with someone from the doctor’s office to see whether they offer payment plans or reduced rates for self-payers.

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RLT is typically safe and painless. But there isn’t a clear consensus among experts as to whether RLT is good for cancer treatment.

Most studies, such as one from 2018, suggest that RLT may help manage negative cancer treatment side effects.

There have been reports of burns, lesions, and blistering from using RLT units. Some people developed burns:

  • after using the device for 30 minutes
  • after falling asleep with the unit in place
  • due to broken wires or device corrosion

There’s also a potential risk of eye damage. Although LEDs are safer on the eyes than traditional lasers, proper eye protection should be worn during RLT.

Some tanning salons, gyms, and local day spas now offer RLT that may help reduce signs of aging. You can also find FDA-approved devices online.

That said, before starting any treatment, it’s important to speak with a doctor first. You may need several treatments before noticing any difference in your body. And a doctor may be able to develop a treatment plan that works better for you.

What does red light therapy do?

Red light therapy uses low-level wavelengths of red light to help treat some skin conditions, such as psoriasis. Studies suggest promising results from red light therapy. It may:

  • promote wound healing and tissue repair
  • reduce pain and inflammation
  • reduce psoriasis and burn scars
  • improve skin complexion
  • reduce the side effects of some cancer treatments

This said, additional clinical research is still needed to confirm its full effectiveness.

Does red light therapy actually work?

Before starting RLT, it’s important to speak with a doctor about the best treatment plan for you.

RLT is gaining popularity for its supposed benefits, such as reducing inflammation and signs of aging. Yet there isn’t a general consensus among the scientific research.

For example, some studies, such as one from 2018, suggest that RLT may help reduce painful cancer treatment side effects, while others in a 2019 research review added that RLT may in fact increase cancer cell aggression and tumor recurrences.

A lot of the clinical trials have also been conducted with rodents, rather than humans.

Who should not use red light therapy?

People with cancer or a history of cancer may decide to avoid red light therapy. A 2019 study suggests that red light therapy may potentially make cancer cells more aggressive. However, more research is still needed and there are also possible benefits.

What are the cons of red light therapy?

Red light therapy can result in burns or blisters from using the device for longer than 30 minutes or due to damage to the device or its parts. Red light therapy is also not typically covered by insurance, and so you may have to pay for it out of pocket.

Researchers have not yet come to a consensus on the safety and efficacy of red light therapy for cancer treatment.

RLT is gaining popular attention in the media and has shown promising results in treating some skin conditions. Although there are many red light devices online, it’s best to speak with a doctor about any symptoms you may have before trying any treatment on your own.

There isn’t much consensus about RLT’s benefits within the scientific community, and a doctor could help determine the best treatment plan for you.