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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), now known clinically as major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns, is a condition that causes sadness or depression when the seasons change.
It most typically occurs during the fall and winter, when days become short and exposure to sunlight decreases. It’s most common in women and young adults.
Counseling, therapy, and medication may all be effective for this condition. Light boxes — also referred to as SAD lamps, or light therapy lamps — are another option that can reduce symptoms and provide relief. They work by replicating natural daylight.
We chose these lamps based on their effectiveness in treating SAD, as well as user reviews and price point.
- $ = under $100
- $$ = $100–$200
- $$$ = over $200
There are many lamps and light boxes marketed as SAD or light therapy lamps. Not all of these products are effective or appropriate for this use.
SAD lamps aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so it’s important to make sure you buy one that provides enough light and is designed to treat seasonal affective disorder.
Here are some features to look for:
- Don’t get a light box that’s designed to treat skin conditions. These devices aren’t meant to treat mood disorders, and they won’t be effective.
- Make sure the lamp filters out UV light and is labeled UV-free. UV light can damage your eyes and skin.
- The lamp should generate 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light. (A lux is a measurement of light intensity combined with area.) An output of 10,000 lux is approximately 20 times greater than the light output generated by most indoor lighting. Lamps with less lux may need to be used more often than brighter ones.
- Opt for a glare-free lamp or a lamp that can be positioned at a downward angle that reduces or eliminates eye glare.
- Look for a lamp with a light surface area of around 12 by 15 inches. The larger the surface area, the higher the lux. Larger lamps also provide you with the option of moving around more, so you can be farther away from the lamp without compromising its effectiveness.
- Smaller lamps aren’t as effective and may need to be used more often for longer sessions. That said, you may wish to purchase a second, smaller lamp if you travel a lot. Your doctor can provide individualized lamp-use guidelines for you.
Personal style and needs
- Think about what activity you would like to do while using the lamp and purchase one that will accommodate that purpose. For example, light boxes have been
shownto help with jet lag. So, if you travel frequently, you may want to choose a small, portable option.
- Lamp styles vary. You may be better off getting a lamp that’s attractive and matches your décor so that it can stay in position for use. For maximum benefit, you’ll want to use the lamp at least once daily, so having it out and easily accessible can be a plus.
We explain how SAD lamps work and what to look for when buying one. Plus, we list the five lamps we like best and why, below.
This lamp has a large surface area of 15.5 by 13.5 inches. It generates 10,000 lux and projects light in a downward motion — this helps keep it glare-free no matter how it’s positioned.
The lampstand is adjustable, so chances are it will be comfortable to use no matter your height or chair type. Users say the lampstand doesn’t wobble and that the lamp reaches full lumens quickly for maximum benefit.
In addition to features such as 10,000 lux and a large surface screen, this SAD lamp is designed to last. Many users rave about it 7 or more years after purchase.
The lamp includes long-lasting fluorescent bulbs and is ultraviolet (UV)-free. It also features five different height levels and is easily adjustable. Note that it weighs 11 pounds and is heavier than many other lamps.
If you love the look of modern decor, this lamp may right for you. It features 10,000 lux of LED, UV-free, full-spectrum white light. It also boasts three brightness levels, so you can uptick or downtick the amount of light you receive.
Many users prefer LED to fluorescent light because it lasts longer. This lamp has a small surface area and a fixed position, which doesn’t allow for adjustment. Even so, it may be great for small spaces or as a lamp for travel.
This 46-inch-tall lamp is a great option for those who want to position their SAD lamp near a treadmill or glider. It also fits neatly into corners for easy use while reading or watching TV.
This floor lamp provides 10,000 lux of full-spectrum, UV-free, LED light. It’s also glare-free and adjustable. Users love the sturdy design and long-lasting light bulbs, which typically last for about 5 years. Assembly is required.
While this portable option has a screen size that’s smaller than recommended, it still delivers a good value for its size and cost.
Designed for on-the-go use, this lamp provides 10,000 lux and one-touch controls.
- Don’t start using a SAD lamp without your doctor’s approval. This is especially important if you have a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, glaucoma, or lupus.
- Always get the green light from your doctor if you’re taking prescription medications of any kind, including antipsychotics and antidepressants. Keep in mind that some prescription medications and over-the-counter supplements can make your skin photosensitive, requiring an adjustment to your use of the lamp. These medications include lithium, some acne drugs, and St. John’s wort.
- Use the lamp daily until daylight hours increase.
- Experiment with time frame. Many people find benefits from as little as 20 minutes of use. Others require 60 minutes, which is typically considered the highest exposure you should get.
- Consider when and how often you use it. Many experts recommend using a SAD lamp first thing in the morning. Your doctor might also recommend that you use it during the day. Keep in mind that more isn’t always better. Overuse of a SAD lamp can produce insomnia or other side effects.
- Follow manufacturer recommendations for position. Your lamp should come with recommendations for how close you should position yourself to it. This is very important, as your distance from it will affect the lamp’s lux capacity.
- Position the lamp so that it’s providing you with downward light that doesn’t shine directly into your eyes.
- Talk with your doctor about how to best stop using the lamp. It may be most appropriate for you to wean yourself off slowly. Spending time outdoors, especially in the mornings, can help this process.
SAD lamps simulate sunlight, which helps trigger the brain to release serotonin, often called the feel-good hormone.
Light therapy has become an accepted practice for alleviating SAD and other conditions such as:
Here are some questions to consider when buying a SAD lamp:
- Can SAD lamps damage your skin or eyes? Ultraviolet (UV) light should be filtered out of SAD lamps, so they shouldn’t damage your eyes or skin. However, light boxes used to treat certain skin conditions do emit UV light, so you should be sure that your light box is designed to treat SAD.
- Do SAD lamps increase vitamin D levels? SAD lamps are designed to mimic the sun, so they can help increase your vitamin D levels.
- How bright are SAD lamps? The recommended brightness for SAD lamps is typically 10,000 lux.
- How long does it take for SAD lamps to start working? Typically, most people will start to respond to light therapy within 3 to 5 days.
Seasonal affective disorder can often be alleviated with proactive lifestyle changes. These include:
- going to bed early and waking up at or near dawn
- going outside for extended periods of time, especially first thing in the morning
- avoiding substances that can adversely affect your ability to sleep, such as alcohol
- eating whole, nutrient-rich foods
Seeing a mental health professional and taking antidepressant medications, as advised, can also be beneficial.
Major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, previously known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a condition caused by lowered exposure to sunlight or a change of seasons. Women and young adults are most affected by this condition.
Using a SAD lamp, also known as a light box, can help alleviate symptoms, boosting your mood.
SAD lamps can be effective when used as a solo treatment or combined with other forms of treatment. Either way, always use these lamps under a doctor’s supervision.