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Red Light Therapy For Eczema: What The Science Says

Last Reviewed on May 1, 2024

Red light therapy may be the answer to your eczema woes. Here’s what the science has to say about using red light therapy for eczema.

If you have eczema, you know the misery that comes with that intense, never-ending itch you can’t help but scratch incessantly.

That, combined with the unsightly red spots, makes it so many don’t even want to go outside when they’re having a bad flare-up.

If you’re like my friend Lauren, you’ve tried everything you can think of to no avail, and you’re ridiculously frustrated.

Chances are, you’re here exploring red light therapy because nothing else works.

Never fear, though.

There is something else you can try that might actually see your skin condition improve.

What Is Red Light Therapy For Eczema? 

Red light therapy for eczema is a non-invasive treatment that uses red light to stimulate your skin.

The red light strengthens the mitochondria in your cells, stimulating adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production and allowing your cells to function more efficiently. This results in improved cellular regeneration, rejuvenation, and more. All of which helps reduce inflammation and soothe irritation while also healing damaged cells.

In particular, for eczema sufferers, the benefits of using red light therapy on the skin include reduced inflammation, itching, and redness.

Eczema patient using red light therapy for her skin

Red light therapy can also improve blood flow, meaning more oxygen and nutrients are being delivered to the affected skin cells.

This happens because of red light therapy’s ability to promote the proliferation of vascular endothelial cells – which are cells that line your arteries, veins and capillaries [1].

Finally, red light therapy can help enhance your body’s lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system removes waste from your body, so this can result in improved cellular health and reduced inflammation. 

In short, red light therapy can be a great tool to stimulate all the processes your skin needs to heal itself naturally – especially when combined with other eczema treatments.

What Causes Eczema? 

Eczema, sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis (the most common type of eczema), is most likely caused by a combination of factors, as the exact cause is still unknown.

While you can’t “catch it” from someone else, there is evidence that eczema likely develops because of the interaction of genes and environmental triggers.

Skin irritants like soaps or makeup can also trigger eczema, especially in those with weakened skin barriers, by irritating your skin.

Normally, your skin cells act as a natural barrier to protect against germs, irritants, and allergens while keeping moisture in.

But, when your skin barrier can’t function normally (which can be genetic), your skin cells aren’t able to do their job as effectively.

This dysfunction can lead to inflammation and the impossibly itchy, bumpy, and scaly patches of skin that commonly occur with eczema [2].

Diagram comparing differences between normal skin with eczema skin

Unfortunately, even stress can cause eczema to flare up.

When your body enters a stressed state, it produces cortisol, the stress hormone. Elevated levels of cortisol can cause our skin to become oily, more so than usual, which can itself lead to an eczema flare-up [3].

Current Treatments for Eczema

While there are many treatments available for eczema, there is no cure.

Depending on your past treatment history, you may want to try at least some of these before moving on to red light therapy.

Topical Creams & Ointments

Topical creams and ointments are the most common treatments for eczema.

Hydrocortisone, an over-the-counter (OTC) topical steroid, is a popular choice for those with mild eczema. It can help provide temporary relief from eczema symptoms.

That said, even as a low potency steroid, hydrocortisone  can cause side effects like dry skin, acne, itching, and burning [4].

Eczema patient applying a topical cream to skin

For those with mild-to-moderate eczema, your doctor may prescribe a stronger topical cream or ointment.

There are four types of prescription topicals: 1) JAK inhibitors, 2) calcineurin inhibitors, 3) PDE4 inhibitors, and 4) steroids [5].

Each type of topical prescription has its own pros and cons, so work with your doctor to find one that works best for you.

Interestingly, the FDA implemented a black box warning for topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs), nonsteroidal medications that help control eczema-induced itchiness and redness, linking long-term use to an increased risk of lymphoma. However, to date, there’s been no clear link shown to show this [6].

Oral Medications

For severe eczema cases, doctors may prescribe oral corticosteroids like prednisone to help soothe your irritated skin and get control of your eczema symptoms.

However, because oral steroids are powerful prescription drugs, they’re usually recommended for short-term use only. 

There are serious drawbacks to using these immunosuppressants long-term, including:

  • High blood sugar, which can trigger diabetes
  • Cataracts, where your vision turns “cloudy” or blurry
  • Osteoporosis, which can put you at increased risk for bone fractures
  • Higher risk of bacterial and fungal infections, since immunosuppressants work by suppressing your entire immune system [7]

If your skin has an infection from too much scratching (and let’s be honest, it’s really hard not to scratch), your doctor might prescribe an oral antibiotic to treat the infection, too. 

UV Light Therapy

UV light therapy (also known as UV phototherapy) involves shining specific wavelengths of ultraviolet (UV) light to reduce itchiness and inflammation.

UV light works by suppressing overactive skin immune system cells that cause inflammation. 

In particular, UVA and UVB phototherapy have excellent anti-inflammatory effects [8].

Diagram comparing UVA and UVB light and their impact on skin

While it’s quite effective at treating eczema, we all know that ultraviolet light carries its own risks, including:

  • Premature aging
  • Skin discoloration
  • Skin cancer, including melanoma

However, as long as you’re aware of the risks and are doing what you can to minimize them, UV light therapy (in particular, narrow-band UVB therapy) can be an extremely effective treatment for eczema.

Red Light Therapy: A New Treatment Option?

Like UV light therapy, red light therapy involves using the power of light to treat specific health conditions.

While preliminary, there is some evidence that red light therapy may help manage eczema symptoms, without all the harmful risks and side effects listed above.

Does Red Light Therapy Work For Eczema? 

Red light therapy is a fairly new type of phototherapy that’s being used to treat many skin conditions and other issues.

Because red light therapy promotes healing, stimulates mitochondrial function, and has shown effectiveness in treating other chronic skin conditions like rosacea and psoriasis, eczema patients can expect at least some relief with red light therapy.

While this light-based therapy is relatively new for treating skin problems and there aren’t any large-scale studies yet, small studies and observational work show considerable promise.

Reduced Itchiness, Redness, and Inflammation

Studies have shown that red light therapy can be effective in reducing skin itchiness and improving the condition of skin rashes.

In one study, 79% eczema patients reported a reduction in itchiness, and 71% of participants experienced improvements in rashes, with zero observed side effects [9].

A 2021 animal study found that red light therapy (650 nm) reduced skin inflammation, skin thickness, skin itchiness, and mast cell counts [10].

Mast cells play an important role in your immune response, with elevated mast cell levels resulting in allergy-like symptoms. In other words, having too many mast cells is not ideal.

From these studies, we can see that red light therapy can be an effective tool to help manage itchy skin, skin redness, and other eczema symptoms.

As scientists and doctors conduct further investigations into the benefits of red light therapy, it’s likely that they will examine the effects of a long-term, consistent red light therapy schedule to see how well it addresses the many problems, seen and unseen, of eczema.

Red Light Therapy as a Combination Treatment

While this was an animal study, researchers observed that red light therapy (850 nm), when combined with water bath therapy, was effective in reducing skin lesions and inflammation.

Researchers discovered that this combination treatment could suppress the histamine and immune responses that may be the underlying cause of eczema symptoms. This treatment may also reduce the ability of inflammatory cells to infiltrate surrounding blood vessels, preventing them from causing problems in neighboring areas of your skin.

As a result, the study concluded that this combination treatment “might be used as an efficacious, safe, and steroid-free alternative therapeutic strategy for the treatment of [atopic dermatitis]” [11].

In another study, researchers, using a modified SCORAD index, noticed the best outcomes when combining red LED light therapy (630 nm) with curcumin. This combination group outperformed the curcumin group and the LED group [12].

Dermatologists use the SCORAD index to measure the extent and severity of eczema (SCORing Atopic Dermatitis).

Why Red Light Therapy Works For Eczema

At its core, eczema is a disease of inflammation.

That’s why anti-inflammatory medications like corticosteroids are commonly used to manage eczema symptoms.

Fortunately, because our skin seems to respond well to red and near-infrared red light, red light therapy can effectively enhance the many processes involved in reducing inflammation, stimulating healing, and restoring normal cellular function [13]. 

That, in turn, helps eczema patients more effectively manage their symptoms because red light therapy not only addresses the inflammation but also some of the underlying causes by improving the health and function of your skin cells.

Is Red Light Therapy Safe?

Yes, short-term studies have shown that red light therapy is a safe method for treating eczema [9]. It lacks the harmful effects of UVA and UVB light and doesn’t carry the long-term risks of corticosteroids and other medications.

Eczema patient using red light therapy for his skin

Because it can also improve skin health and skin tone, red light therapy may benefit you in ways beyond treating your eczema.

Depending on the damage your skin has sustained from this skin condition, red light therapy may prove itself a safe alternative to more established treatments and provide additional benefits like improving collagen production.

We do, however, need more studies on this (in particular, more large-scale studies). What we know right now, though, looks quite promising.

What About Blue Light Therapy for Eczema?

Now, you might’ve heard about blue light therapy for eczema.

Blue light therapy, which uses blue light to induce biochemical changes within our cells, can also be an effective treatment for chronic inflammatory skin diseases.

Woman using blue light therapy for eczema

In one study, patients treated with blue LED light therapy saw significant improvements in their Eczema Severity Index, a tool used to measure the extent and severity of a patient’s eczema [14].

Like with red light therapy, there isn’t enough research yet to recommend blue light therapy as a sole treatment method for eczema.

You’ll likely want to combine these novel light-based therapies with more conventional treatments for the best results.

Final Thoughts

Let’s be real: eczema (atopic dermatitis) can be awful to deal with, and many of the more conventional treatments out there might not work (or at least have awful side effects), making the condition that much more frustrating – especially if you aren’t seeing the results you want.

It may not be a cure-all by any means, but red light therapy is certainly worth a try if you’re an eczema sufferer who has found conventional treatments ineffective or even painful.

If you’re sick and tired of dealing with your eczema, consider trying a red light therapy device as an alternative (or additional) eczema treatment.

After all, this LED therapy has zero harmful effects.

Finally, some safe relief!

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23959736/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5911439/
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/eczema-stress
  4. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/treatment/over-the-counter/
  5. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/treatment/topicals/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18302444/
  7. https://www.mayoclinic.org/steroids/art-20045692
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424892/
  9. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/islsm/5/2/5_93-OR-08/_article
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8422383/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26479265/
  12. http://www.kjcls.org/journal/view.html?doi=10.15324/kjcls.2017.49.2.150
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4126803/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6329412/
Anne, Founder of Therapeutic Beams

Anne Linde

Since using it to clear up her acne in college, Anne has been an avid user and fan of all things light therapy. She now primarily uses red light therapy for its anti-aging benefits. Anne's mission is to make the science behind red light therapy easy to understand and accessible, so anyone can use it to take control of their health and wellbeing.

John Ni, BSc.

John, a graduate of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, serves as a respected scientific reviewer at TherapeuticBeams.com. His expertise extends across various domains, including chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and dermatology. He contributes to publications like Royal Society of Chemistry, Drug Topics, and Practical Dermatology.

John Ni, Content Editor & Scientific Review

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