What Is Red Light Therapy and How Does It Work?

What Is Red Light Therapy and How Does It Work?

Red light therapy (RLT) is a therapeutic technique that employs low-level wavelengths of red light to address a variety of skin conditions and promote overall well-being. Although the treatment holds promise, it is essential to note that further comprehensive research is required to substantiate its claimed benefits fully.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. How it works
  3. Benefits
  4. Risks
  5. Where to go

RLT, also known as photo biomodulation, first came into the scientific spotlight through a serendipitous discovery by Endre Mester in 1967. Mester stumbled upon the fact that laser light facilitated hair growth and wound healing in laboratory rats. Since then, RLT has amassed an array of nomenclature, with almost 60 alternative names, including “low level light therapy (LLLT),” “soft laser therapy,” “cold laser therapy,” “biostimulation,” “photonic stimulation,” and “low power laser therapy (LPLT).”

The potential applications of RLT expanded in the 1990s when researchers employed red light-emitting diode (LED) technology to cultivate potatoes in space. Beyond aiding plant growth, these intense red LEDs exhibited the ability to expedite wound healing on the hands of scientists, thereby initiating interest in its potential medical applications during space missions. This was particularly relevant due to the muscle atrophy, slow wound healing, and bone density challenges induced by weightlessness in space.

What Is Red Light Therapy & How Does It Work?

The mechanism behind RLT entails subjecting the skin to recurrent exposure to low levels of red and near-infrared light for specific durations. Red light, at these low wavelengths, does not produce heat and can penetrate the skin to depths of 1 to 2 millimeters, as demonstrated by research conducted in 2013. This exposure to red light appears to induce positive biochemical effects within cells, primarily by bolstering the mitochondria’s performance. Mitochondria are the cell’s energy factories, and RLT seems to enhance processes such as the transportation of electrons, oxygen consumption, and the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a vital cellular energy molecule. Strengthening mitochondrial function might lead to more efficient cell activity, rejuvenation, and repair.

In comparison to traditional lasers, LEDs are gaining popularity as the preferred light source for RLT due to their non ablative and nonthermal nature. Moreover, as suggested by research in 2013, LEDs may contribute to increasing blood circulation, mitigating inflammation, promoting collagen production, and stimulating fibroblast production. However, it’s worth emphasizing that more substantial research is imperative to provide robust support for these assertions.

Red Light Therapy

Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Numerous studies have explored the potential benefits of RLT, as summarized in a 2018 research review. These studies indicate encouraging outcomes for several applications, although it is vital to highlight that the controversial nature of RLT’s efficacy persists due to the need for additional clinical research. Some of the potential benefits include:

• Facilitating wound healing and tissue repair

• Alleviating specific side effects of cancer treatment, such as oral mucositis, radiation dermatitis, and lymphedema

• Promoting hair growth in individuals with androgenic alopecia

• Providing short-term relief for carpal tunnel syndrome

• Slowing the progression of myopia (nearsightedness)

• Reducing psoriasis lesions and the appearance of burn scars

• Alleviating neuropathic pain

• Enhancing neural function and protection to potentially improve cognitive function and memory in Alzheimer’s disease

• Improving skin complexion and bolstering collagen production to reduce the visibility of wrinkles

• Relieving pain and inflammation in individuals with Achilles tendon pain

It’s important to note that RLT can also be utilized in conjunction with photosensitizing medications for specific cancer treatments, an approach known as photodynamic therapy, where light serves as an activating agent for the medication.

In terms of insurance coverage, it’s pertinent to acknowledge that many insurance companies do not encompass RLT within their policies. Individuals with health insurance should consult their providers to ascertain whether RLT is covered as a treatment for their specific condition. For those without coverage or whose plans do not include RLT, engaging in discussions with healthcare providers might uncover payment plans or reduced rates for self-payment.


While RLT is generally considered safe and painless, uncertainties persist regarding its suitability for cancer treatment. Research reviews from 2019 suggest that RLT could potentially exacerbate cancer cell aggression and lead to tumor recurrences. Conversely, studies such as one from 2018 propose that RLT might aid in managing adverse side effects of cancer treatment. Additionally, reports of burns, lesions, and blistering resulting from RLT device usage have been documented. Instances of burns have occurred after a 30-minute session, from falling asleep during treatment, or due to device malfunction.

Furthermore, RLT carries a risk of potential eye damage. Although LEDs are considered safer for the eyes compared to traditional lasers, appropriate eye protection is strongly recommended during RLT sessions to minimize any risk.

Where to go

For individuals seeking RLT, various options are available, including certain tanning salons, gyms, local day spas, and FDA-approved devices accessible online. However, a critical prelude to embarking on RLT involves consulting a medical professional to determine its suitability and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Categories: Skincare
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Dr Hafsa Ilyas

Onco-Radiologist & Medical Research Writer

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