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Red Light Therapy For Acne: Stop Breakouts & Reduce Scarring

Last Updated on February 1, 2023

Looking for the best natural acne remedy? Here’s why you should try red light therapy.

Did you know that acne (acne vulgaris) is estimated to affect around 9.4% of the entire world?

That’s over seven hundred MILLION people!

What makes this statistic crazier is that the percentage has probably only grown since it was first reported in the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study [1].

However, acne’s prevalence doesn’t make it an easy problem to have, regardless of age or gender. For many, it’s not only a source of embarrassment but also pain, especially for those who suffer from cystic acne.

Speaking from personal experience, I know how devastating acne can be on your self-esteem.

I’d struggled with acne for most of my teenage years and even in my early adult years. It got so bad that I wouldn’t leave the house until I made sure to cover everything up with makeup. It didn’t help that all my friends seemed to have clean, flawless skin.

While I’d tried both over-the-counter and prescription acne medications, I, like many others, saw little to no results. It wasn’t until a friend of mine introduced me to a safer, natural, and less expensive acne treatment that I finally got my breakouts under control.

If you haven’t guessed by now, that treatment was red light therapy (RLT). Since then, RLT has been an essential part of my skincare routine.

Before I explain how exactly RLT can help fight acne, let’s first discuss why acne forms. If you already know this, feel free to skip on ahead to the next section here.

What Causes Acne?

Acne is caused by dead skin cells and sebum (oil) that clog your hair follicles, leading to excess bacteria growth and inflammation.

In most people, a trigger like hormonal changes (think puberty or pregnancy!) causes their sebaceous glands to overproduce sebum.

Generally, sebum is considered a good thing because it protects your skin and hair, keeping them moisturized and healthy. Sebum also serves as a food source for Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes). This bacteria is thought to be responsible for preventing harmful bacteria from entering your pores [2].

“This P. acnes strain may protect the skin, much like yogurt’s live bacteria help defend the gut from harmful bugs.” – Huiying Li, PhD

However, excess sebum production leads to increased growth of C. acnes, which triggers an immune response. Your body sends white blood cells to neutralize this perceived threat, leading to inflammation and pimples.

As a result, C. acnes is commonly referred to as acne-causing bacteria, even though that’s only half the story.

Does Red Light Therapy Help With Acne?

Yes, red light therapy can help with acne. Unlike blue light, red light does not kill C. acnes bacteria. But, it does penetrate deeper into the skin, targeting your sebaceous glands and reducing inflammation [3]. It can help reduce acne breakouts by soothing skin redness, normalizing sebum production, and reducing sebaceous gland size.

In one study, researchers looked at RLT’s effects on both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. They saw, on average, a 50%+ improvement. They concluded that “red light phototherapy alone can be a new therapeutic option for acne vulgaris” [4].

Best of all?

There were no observed side effects.

No dry, flaky, or peeling skin. No nausea, dizziness, or lightheadedness.

Plus, you can use RLT to treat your current acne and prevent future acne breakouts. That’s what makes RLT such an excellent acne treatment.

Inflammatory acne occurs when blemishes or lesions become red, swollen, and warm to the touch. This type of acne is more severe than non-inflammatory acne and includes papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts. Non-inflammatory acne is more common and includes whiteheads (aka closed comedones) and blackheads (aka open comedones).

What About Acne Scars?

Acne scarring occurs as a result of improper healing. When acne becomes too clogged with excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria, it swells and ruptures, damaging your skin.

If this happens near your skin’s surface, it’ll usually heal quickly and leave little to no evidence behind.

But, if the acne penetrates deeper into your skin and ruptures, all the nasty stuff inside can spill out and damage more of your healthy skin cells.

Your skin enters “emergency-response mode” and builds new collagen fibers to repair the damage, but it can often produce too little or too much. This leads to scarring.

Too little collagen leads to depressed acne scars (aka atrophic scars). Too much collagen leads to raised acne scars (aka hypertrophic scars).

Because RLT has been shown to promote healing and normalize collagen production, it can help you prevent those pesky scars from ever forming.

What About Hyperpigmentation Acne?

Hyperpigmentation acne occurs when your skin produces excess melanin, forming a dark spot where a pimple once was. This is most common in people who experience inflammatory acne.

Melanin gives your skin its color. Overproduction of this skin pigment can lead to darker skin.

It’s important to note that hyperpigmentation is just a change in skin color and is technically not a scar at all. When a pimple is opened, through popping or other means, your skin enters repair mode and tries to close the wound.

Like with acne scars, your body may not fix the damage correctly. It can overproduce melanin and lead to dark spots. In most cases, if you don’t pop your pimples, the hyperpigmentation will usually disappear on its own in a few months.

Fortunately, RLT can help reduce inflammation and enhance cellular repair, so your skin can more effectively recover from breakouts. For best results, try to refrain from popping any pimples.

What About Cystic Acne?

Like “normal” acne, cystic acne occurs when sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells get trapped in your pores. However, what makes it different is that cystic acne stems from cysts that form deep in your skin.

Cysts are the most inflamed type of acne. They are often filled with pus and have the highest likelihood of leaving permanent scarring as it heals after rupturing.

As mentioned earlier, acne that penetrates deep into the skin has the highest risk of damaging skin tissue and leaving permanent scarring. This is why cystic acne is the most severe form of acne and why it tends to be the largest.

Unfortunately, RLT doesn’t seem to help with cystic acne.

However, the science behind why RLT works for “normal” acne might indicate that RLT could be a potential proactive treatment option for cystic acne.

According to dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, “[red light therapy] will not get rid of a deep acne cyst – spot treatment of a cyst requires injection of dilute steroid by your dermatologist – but it might slow its development if started early enough.”

So, if you’re currently dealing with cystic acne, a prescription medication like oral Accutane (isotretinoin) might be your best bet. You should also avoid using RLT if you are taking such drugs.

What Do Dermatologists Say About Red Light Therapy?

Although red light therapy may seem like a new fad, it’s actually been around for decades. The earliest research began in the 1950s and 1960s. Dermatologists have used it for years to treat skin conditions like wrinkles, psoriasis, rosacea, eczema, and acne.

According to dermatologist Glynnis Ablon, “[dermatologists] may write prescription medications, but adding LED phototherapy delivers faster results, [and] happier, and more compliant patients.”

Dermatologist Bruce Brod adds, “[LED light therapy] may be a good option for people who are pregnant or potentially pregnant, or for an acne patient who doesn’t feel comfortable using prescription medications.”

While RLT has yet to become a mainstream acne treatment, its effectiveness has caught the eye of many leading dermatologists. It’s often recommended to be used in conjunction with prescription medications or, in the case of severe side effects, in place of traditional acne medications.

“[LED Therapy] is noninvasive, painless, and provides proven results.”
– Glynnis Ablon, MD, FAAD

Dermatologists have also recognized RLT for its other benefits like anti-aging and collagen production.

Can Blue Light Therapy Make Acne Worse?

No, blue light therapy alone cannot make acne worse. It’s actually been shown to help reduce acne.

Blue light therapy works by emitting blue light that targets C. acnes, an acne-causing bacteria. The light kills the bacteria, preventing them from reproducing and spreading.

More specifically, an organic compound called porphyrins (which are naturally produced by C. acnes) absorb the blue light, become excited, and release free radicals. This ends up destroying the bacteria.

A woman using blue light therapy to treat acne

A blue light treatment, alone, was better at treating acne than a topical 1% clindamycin solution. Patients in the treatment group saw a 34% reduction in inflammatory acne. In comparison, patients who received the medication saw only a 14% reduction [5].

Can You Combine Both Red Light And Blue Light?

Yes, you can combine both red light and blue light in your acne treatment.

While red light therapy alone can help reduce acne, you’ll get the best (and fastest!) results if you combine it with blue light therapy.

Dendy Engelman, a dermatologic surgeon, says, “red light is believed to target oil glands to reduce cytokines, which cause inflammation and play a role in chronic acne. In the case of blue light, specific wavelengths stimulate [the] production of oxygen radicals that kill [c. acnes] bacteria, all without damaging [the] skin.”

In a 2013 clinical study, patients using both red and blue light saw a 77% and a 54% reduction in inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne lesions, respectively. And, unlike with other acne medications, patients experienced zero side effects [6].

In another study, researchers noted that combination red and blue LED light treatment was marginally better for severe acne than for mild acne [7].

And, guess what?

Patients who used combination red and blue LED light therapy saw better results than just using blue light or a 5% benzoyl peroxide cream [8].

Using red and blue light together produces better results than using either light separately. Red light is anti-inflammatory, while blue light is anti-bacterial.

In clinical trial after clinical trial, researchers have found LED light therapy to be an effective way to treat acne, especially in those who don’t respond well to acne medications.

In some cases, it was even more effective than some of those dermatologist-prescribed medications!

So, if you’re looking for a safe, effective acne treatment, you should consider combination red and blue light therapy. It’s a great alternative to prescription medications and chemical peels that can help clear your skin without side effects.

What About Near-Infrared Light?

Near-infrared light (NIR) can penetrate deeper into the skin than both red light and blue light. It’s often thought that NIR light therapy may be beneficial for treating deeper acne. However, there’s still not enough evidence to conclude if NIR alone can be an effective acne treatment.

One study found that 890nm NIR light decreased acne lesions, but the decrease was not significant. In other words, they couldn’t attribute this improvement to just NIR light – it may have occurred due to random chance.

Another study looked at a combination blue and NIR light treatment. Patients saw up to an 83% improvement! However, the researchers did note that combining NIR and blue light didn’t seem to be as effective as combining red and blue light [9].

Regardless, in either study, it’s impossible to attribute the positive results to NIR light alone.

Despite these inconclusive findings, the FDA has approved NIR light to treat acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology [10].

However, that’s not to say NIR is entirely worthless. While its effects on treating acne are still inconclusive, it has been shown to reduce acne scarring [11].

While I wouldn’t recommend using NIR alone for acne, it may provide some added benefits if you use it with both red and blue light.

What’s The Best Red Light Therapy Device For Acne?

While there are a wide variety of red light therapy devices out there, a LED face mask is going to be your best bet if your primary concern is facial acne.

When it comes to choosing a LED face mask, you want to look at three things:

  • How many LEDs are in the mask?
  • What are the wavelengths of lights?
  • Does the mask provide a “real” combination treatment?

Some LED face masks only have 28 LED lights, while others like Bestqool have 108. As a general rule of thumb, the more LED lights there are, the faster you’ll see results.

Additionally, it’s essential to know that all light isn’t created equal. Any light between 620 to 750nm, for example, is considered red. However, research studies indicate that 660nm wavelength red light is best for treating acne [6, 8].

Lastly, as shown in countless clinical studies, combination red and blue light therapy treatment works best for getting rid of acne. Many LED face masks promote themselves as being a “7-in-1 treatment.” In this case, more is not better. There’s still not enough evidence to suggest if other colors beyond red and blue effectively treat acne. So, why pay for something that has yet to be proven to work?

Additionally, many of these masks only allow you to pick one color at a time, so it’s not really a combination treatment. You’ll want to find a LED face mask (such as the one below) that allows you to have both red and blue light at the same time.

Bestqool red light therapy mask for acne

This not only saves you time but also makes being consistent so much easier. Because it can take up to four weeks to see results, you want to make it as easy as possible for yourself to reach that point. Inconsistent usage will delay your results and hurt you in the long-run.

What About Other Light-Based Treatments For Your Skin?

You can effectively use other light-based treatments like intense pulsed light (IPL), pulsed-dye laser (PDL), and photodynamic therapy (PDT) to treat acne.

Comparison of Popular Light-Based Treatments For Acne

Treatment OptionsPriceEffective For AcneNo Side EffectsAt-Home OptionsSingle Treatment
LED Light Therapy💲💲✔️✔️✔️
Pulsed-Dye Laser💲💲💲✔️✔️
Intense Pulsed Light💲💲💲💲✔️
Photodynamic Therapy💲💲💲💲💲✔️

However, unlike with LED light therapy, all these treatments require you to visit a doctor’s office. This can cost quite a sum (especially if your insurance doesn’t cover the procedure).

A single IPL treatment, for example, can cost you anywhere from $700 to $1,200 [12]. And, because IPL is considered a cosmetic procedure, most health insurance plans won’t cover it. You’ll also have to consider the potential costs of anesthesia, follow-up visits, and other surprises that aren’t included in the treatment’s initial sticker price.

Even worse, both IPL and PDT require multiple sessions to see lasting results. So, as you can see, the costs can quickly pile up.

Additionally, both IPL and PDL work by damaging your skin cells to induce healing. While effective, these procedures aren’t without risks.

In a 762-day study of PDL, 1.7% of patients reported scabbing, blistering, hypopigmentation, and hyperpigmentation. While most of these were temporary, some patients said their blistering lasted more than two months [13]!

In another PDL study, patients reported long-term side effects like hyperpigmentation (27%), atrophic scarring (3%), hypopigmentation (1%), and hypertrophic scarring (1%) [14].

So, while these other light-based treatments are effective and mostly safe, you should do your research and weigh the pros and cons. There are some pretty bad horror stories out there.

Review from Reddit claiming that IPL led to facial skin damage
Screenshot via Reddit

I know I’d be distraught if I used a laser treatment for my acne, only to get scarring as a side effect of the procedure!

Final Thoughts

Acne sucks, especially if your prescription medications either don’t work or bring along a host of side effects. The whole experience can be a point of physical and psychological discomfort.

Fortunately, red light therapy can be an excellent alternative to OTC and prescription acne treatments. It’s been shown to reduce acne, improve skin tone, and boost skin health.

So, if you suffer from mild to moderate acne, you may want to give red light therapy a try.

References

  1. https://www.healthdata.org/sites/default/files/files/policy_report/2013/GBD_GeneratingEvidence/IHME_GBD_GeneratingEvidence_FullReport.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc6305227/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc4439741/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17903156/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15696987/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23278295/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16766484/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10809858/
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19391058/
  10. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/derm-treat/lasers-lights
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20662038/
  12. https://www.healthline.com/health/ipl-treatment#cost
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3390232/
  14. https://www.jprasurg.com/article/s0007-1226(05)00167-0/fulltext
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.

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