If you’ve been struggling with hair loss for a while, then you might’ve already tried a few different methods to stop your hair from falling out… products like Rogaine (Minoxidil), Propecia (Finasteride), or other hair loss medications.
Maybe, they’ve worked – in which case, congrats!
But, if you’re looking for a natural alternative to these products (especially one with zero side effects!), you should consider red light therapy.
What Is Red Light Therapy For Hair Loss?
Red light therapy for hair loss is a non-invasive treatment that uses the power of red light to stimulate hair growth. It’s also known as low level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT).
In a 2014 study, men with androgenetic alopecia who used LLLT saw a 35% increase in hair growth . And, in another 2014 study, women with androgenetic alopecia saw a 37% increase in hair growth after using LLLT .
What’s more, participants in both studies experience zero side effects.
For comparison, only 29.2% of Japanese women who used 1% topical minoxidil saw improvements in hair growth. Fortunately, in this case, no patients reported side effects in this study .
While increasing minoxidil dosage may improve your results, there’s an increased risk of side effects. In one study, women who used a 5% minoxidil solution experienced the following :
- Facial Hypertrichosis: 33% experienced
- Hair Shedding: 12.5% experienced
- Pruritus: 8.9% experienced
- Dermatitis: 3.6% experienced
- Headache: 3.6% experienced
- Nausea and Breathlessness: 1.8% experienced
- Palpitation and Tachycardia: 1.8% experienced
- Papules and Pustules: 1.8% experienced
- Maculopapular Rash: 1.8% experienced
That’s a lot of possible side effects!
As you can see, that’s why red light therapy is often recommended for those who suffer from hair loss and want to regrow their lost hair.
What Causes Hair Loss?
Hair loss can be caused by various factors, including genetics, an underlying medical condition, stress, and nutritional deficiencies.
One of the most common causes of hair loss is androgenetic alopecia, which is recognizable by the characteristic “M” shaped hairline in men. The receding hairline, combined with thinning hair, can lead to partial (or even complete) baldness.
Fortunately, in women, androgenetic alopecia – also called androgenic alopecia – rarely progresses to total baldness. But, it does lead to thinning hair all over the head.
Genetics plays a huge role in androgenetic alopecia. Those who are most likely to experience hair loss are those who have a family history of baldness.
Androgenetic alopecia is caused by the overproduction of hormones called androgens – which is why you see some women experiencing hair loss during pregnancy or menopause.
Because androgens help regulate hair growth, abnormal androgen levels can result in your scalp shedding more hair than it can grow. This hair loss occurs because your body shortens the anagen phase (aka your hair’s growth phase) and lengthens the time it takes between shedding and regrowth.
In addition, your hair follicle shrinks, leading to shorter, thinner vellus hair instead of the normal terminal hair you’re used to . This change further exacerbates hair loss issues because the new miniaturized follicles cannot support hair growth like their predecessors were.
Other less common types of hair loss include telogen effluvium, anagen effluvium, alopecia areata, and traction alopecia.
What Treatments Are Currently Available For Hair Growth?
By now, you’re probably already aware of the many hair loss treatment options available. Depending on your personal preferences, some might even seem more desirable than others!
Regardless, it’s essential to recognize that all of them have their own list of pros and cons regarding hair regrowth.
Hair Loss Medication
The most common hair loss medications are topical minoxidil and oral finasteride.
First introduced in the 1970s, minoxidil was designed to treat high blood pressure. But, after noticing its hair growth “side effects”, the FDA approved over-the-counter minoxidil for hair restoration – which is what it’s mainly used for today.
Despite the countless studies, minoxidil is not a miracle drug. It doesn’t work for everyone and can have some nasty side effects like unbearable itching, scalp “burning”, and hypertrichosis .
Here’s what one user had to say about his minoxidil experience:
Finasteride, on the other hand, is a prescription drug. It does boast a higher success rate than minoxidil, with 94.6% of women seeing improved hair count .
However, like minoxidil, finasteride is not without its risks. Commonly reported side effects include confusion, dizziness, swelling, tingling, and even bloody discharge from your nipple !
While it’s clear that hair loss medications do work, you have to ask yourself: are these drugs worth the long list of side effects?
Hair Transplant Surgery
Another standard treatment for hair loss is hair transplantation. Depending on the method, surgeons will either:
- Strip a section of skin from the back of your head, and separate it into many hair grafts via Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT), or
- Remove hair follicles from the back of your scalp one by one via Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE)
They will then create holes in your scalp and plant the hair grafts, so your hair can naturally grow from there. Because hair transplant surgery is considered a permanent procedure, it’s a popular choice among many.
Unfortunately, it does have some downsides. Hair transplantation is expensive, ranging from $4,000 to $15,000 (and is often not covered by insurance).
Beyond the immense pain, people have also reported permanent scarring and unnatural-looking new hair.
Red Light Therapy
While still preliminary, studies on using red light therapy for hair restoration are incredibly promising.
A meta-analysis of 22 studies looked at 6 of the most common non-surgical treatment options:
- Dutasteride, 0.5mg
- Finasteride, 1mg
- LLLT (aka Red Light Therapy)
- Minoxidil, 2%
- Minoxidil, 5%
Out of these, researchers found red light therapy to be the most effective, both in terms of mean change in hair count and lack of adverse effects .
A limitation of this meta-analysis is that there are not enough randomized controlled trials or head-to-head trials. We can, however, take these research findings as another piece of evidence pointing towards red light therapy as an effective hair loss remedy.
Red Light Therapy For Androgenetic Alopecia
When it comes to red light therapy for androgenetic alopecia, there are plenty of studies backing up its effectiveness.
In a 2009 randomized, double-blind, sham device-controlled trial, male patients who received red light therapy reported increased hair density (+17.3±11.9 hairs/cm2). Those who received the sham device, on the other hand, experienced a decrease in hair density (−8.9±11.7 hair/cm2) .
In another study, female patients saw a 51% increase in hair counts after 17 weeks of red light therapy compared to the control group .
Other clinical trials arrive at similar conclusions, with red light therapy increasing hair count and strength, regardless of gender.
In addition, research seems to indicate that red light at wavelengths of 655nm and 808nm are the most effective .
Red Light Therapy For Alopecia Areata
Alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, affects around 7 million Americans. Sometimes known as spot-baldness, it results in patchy, coin-shaped hair loss.
While there are only a few clinical trials, they seem to indicate that red light therapy can effectively treat alopecia areata.
In a 2003 study, patients with patchy hair loss were partially treated with red light therapy. Some areas of the scalp were left untreated to act as controls.
After five months, 46.7% of the treated areas saw hair regrowth. Researchers also reported that results occurred 1.6 months faster than in the control groups .
Despite these promising results, there still needs to be more studies done to confirm red light therapy’s effectiveness in treating alopecia areata.
Red Light Therapy For Chemotherapy-Induced Alopecia
Chemotherapy-induced hair loss probably has the fewest studies regarding using red light therapy as a treatment option.
While we could not find any clinical trials, we did see some interesting (and promising!) animal studies.
Using chemotherapy medications like cyclophosphamide, etoposide, or a combination of the two, researchers induced full-body hair loss in rats. After this, the rats who received red light therapy saw complete hair regrowth five days sooner than the rats who didn’t receive red light therapy .
Obviously, rats aren’t humans – so we can’t concretely say chemotherapy patients will experience comparable results.
However, this animal study does show how red light therapy can be an effective alternative to hair loss medications.
We hope that researchers continue to explore this area and will update this article as new studies come out.
The Science Behind Why Red Light Therapy Works
In short, red light therapy uses non-thermal, low-intensity light to induce biochemical changes in our cells.
When we’re exposed to specific wavelengths of red or near infrared light, cellular photoreceptors in our skin absorb and react to the light, leading to downstream effects on gene expression and cell signaling cascades.
More specifically, red light therapy can improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and increase ATP production. These changes then lead to the health benefits more commonly associated with red light therapy.
Now, this might sound a little far-fetched, but it’s actually a common occurrence in our day-to-day lives:
- Plants undergo photosynthesis, a biochemical process that involves turning light energy into chemical energy
- Photoreceptors in our eyes (e.g., rods and cones) absorb light, triggering a biochemical reaction that translates light into signals our brains can understand
So, how exactly does red light therapy reverse hair loss?
Studies have demonstrated that red light therapy can :
- Induce telogen (rest) hair follicles to return to the anagen (growth) phase
- Extend the length of the anagen (growth) phase
- Increase the development of active anagen hair follicles
- Prevent premature entry into the catagen (transition) phase
In other words, red light therapy increases the time your hair spends growing and decreases the time your hair spends stagnate or shedding.
While the exact mechanism behind using red light therapy for hair loss is still unknown, researchers believe the visible improvements may stem from increased blood flow, cytokine and growth factor induction, and direct keratinocyte stem cell or dermal papilla cell stimulation [16, 18].
Is Red Light Therapy For Hair Growth Safe?
Yes, red light therapy for hair growth is safe.
In all the studies we reviewed, very few (if any) reported observing side effects.
However, researchers did note that red light therapy didn’t work for everyone. This outcome is expected because no treatment option, even hair loss drugs, is 100% effective.
Before starting red light therapy for hair loss, you may want to ask yourself:
- How much time am I willing to dedicate? Red light therapy sessions can be time-consuming. Using red light therapy for hair loss will require frequent and consistent treatments (and probably for the rest of your life). However, this can be somewhat mitigated if you get an at-home laser cap like the HairMax PowerFlex.
- What is my budget? Clinical treatments can be shockingly expensive… like “thousands of dollars a year” expensive. The cost only builds from there if you continue treatment. If this is a concern, consider getting an at-home device. While these devices aren’t as strong, you’ll be saving a lot more money.
- Do I use any photosensitizing medications? You should not use red light therapy if you’re taking drugs that increase your sensitivity to light.
Is There a Risk of Growing Hair in Unwanted Places?
No, there’s no risk of growing hair in unwanted places.
Because red light therapy can only stimulate existing hair follicles, you don’t have to worry about seeing hair growing elsewhere as you might see with minoxidil.
However, this also means that red light therapy won’t work for you if you’re already bald.
Hair loss is a problem that affects millions of people. While conventional treatments like medication or surgery do work, they may not be suitable for everyone.
But, as we’ve seen, red light therapy can be a great alternative option. It’s non-invasive, painless, and has zero side effects.
There’s also a growing body of evidence supporting its effectiveness, so be sure to check back as we’ll update this article when new studies are published.