This Is What Happened When I Tried Light Therapy to Clear Up My Acne

LED light therapy started as NASA technology, but it's now being used as an at-home cosmetic treatment for acne and wrinkles.

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Sep 14 2018, 12:00pm

Vladimir Floyd / Getty

Somewhere between my obsession with acid toners and the realization that I had to give up Retin-A thanks to non-stop peeling, I found myself searching for a new cosmetic trend to try. My 29-year-old face—still battling occasional breakouts and the beginnings of wrinkles—needed a boost. Then, this past summer, I saw a YouTube video in which a beauty blogger claimed that LED light therapy changed her skin (and her life).

LED light therapy started as NASA technology. LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, release energy in the form of photons and can emit different wavelengths corresponding with specific colors. In the early 1990s, a NASA-sponsored research center helped develop the technology to allow for plant growth on shuttle missions. This technique, they found, could also help heal wounds on human skin. Because wounds heal less effectively in space, this proved useful for astronauts on long missions.

It progressed as a way to help with wound healing after other cosmetic procedures, says Murad Alam, professor and vice chair of the dermatology department at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “And then there was a feeling that even if you hadn’t had cosmetic surgery, it might help,” he says. Since then, LED light therapy has become a treatment for certain cancers and precancers when used in combination with a special drug, chronic pain and even hair loss. But the area that interested me was its use as an aesthetic treatment for acne and signs of aging. In cosmetics, LED light has several purported uses: Red light is for anti-aging and inflammation, blue light is for acne, and infrared light to tighten and firm the skin.

Here’s how it works: Whether at a dermatologist’s office, the spa, or using one of the many at-home devices now on the market, the light is placed either directly on or close to the skin for anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes a day. With the help of infrared light, red, and blue light (and there’s growing evidence that green and other colors may also have uses) penetrate into the tissue to stimulate basic energy processes in a cell’s mitochondria, Alam explains. This speeds up the rate of cell reproduction. Red light stimulates collagen, and blue light kills an acne-causing bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (it won’t help with other forms of acne). “The combination is skin that’s thicker, firm and looks more youthful,” he says.


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Thanks to that YouTube video, and armed with some basic knowledge of how it worked, I splurged on a $1,600 at-home Celluma LED light panel a few months ago (don't judge me!) in hopes of getting better skin. My device is a panel that can be placed anywhere on the body and has three modes (and light colors): acne, anti-aging, and pain. Four to five times a week, I place the curved, mask-like device over my face for 30 minutes. There’s a warm sensation, and you have to keep your eyes closed or wear protective eye goggles, but otherwise it’s basically like taking a nap.

What convinced me to drop this kind of money? I wanted something I could do at home, and it seems to be more than one of those gimmicky wellness trends. In clinical trial after clinical trial, researchers have found that blue light significantly improves acne. In a 2005 study, for example, patients who were treated with blue light twice a week for a month saw a reduction in inflammatory acne lesions at the one-, four- and eight-week marks after the treatment by 25 percent, 53 percent, and 60 percent respectively.

Research also supports that red LEDs improve the appearance of wrinkles. (In a newly published study, red light is also proving to be effective to treat rosacea in combination with a topical treatment.) But as for general skin rejuvenation, the results are modest. “There is a real effect and studies that show people can benefit, but it’s not the same as a facelift or minimally invasive treatments like filler,” Alam says.

In general—and in my personal experience—LED lights won’t give you overnight, miraculous results. Still, it’s a good treatment for people who can’t use Accutane and other harsh acne medications or don’t want to get more invasive anti-aging treatments. One benefit is that there are no serious side effects. “We’re not really worried it’s going to cause harm to people,” Alam says. “In all commercially available LED lamps, there’s no UV light [the skin cancer-causing light].”

Another consideration is that LED light therapy needs to be an ongoing, several-times-a-week treatment to achieve the best results. This is why I felt like that my pricey at-home device, which is used in medical offices and spas, was my best bet. Both at-home devices and in-office treatments work, Alam says, though in-office devices are typically more powerful.

Two months in, it’s still too early to say whether or not it’s a game-changer for me. My breakouts aren’t totally gone; I’ve dealt with pimples along my jawline and forehead since I started using LED light therapy. But, by using a combination of blue and red light treatments, my breakouts seem to heal much faster now than they have in the past. For me, this is enough reason to continue using it. And I’m happy to know that there’s actual research to back up my experience.

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