This Thing Rules

Looking to start red light therapy? Here's what you need

With a flood of cheap devices on Amazon, here's how to get the most of this experimental, but beloved, new skincare treatment.

Red light therapy (RLT) is a controversial new method of using LEDs to treat various ailments such as hair loss, carpal tunnel, joint pain, inflammation, or skin issues like wrinkles, psoriasis, stretch marks, scars, or wounds.

Also known as photobiomodulation (PBM), low-level light therapy (LLLT), soft laser therapy, cold laser therapy, biostimulation, photonic stimulation, or low-power laser therapy (LPLT), red light therapy occurs when an LED device is applied to the body, with the output penetrating about 5 millimeters below the skin. It’s believed to work by increasing the output of targeted cells’ mitochondria, allowing them to produce more ATP (adenosine triphosphate) or energy.

Studies show... — There have been hundreds of clinical studies and thousands of laboratory studies done on the efficacy of red light therapy, with promising results thus far. In addition to treating conditions, evidence suggests that red light therapy also improves skin complexion by building collagen and encouraging elastin production. To maximize this effect, many doctors offer red light therapy in their offices, while gyms and fitness centers like Planet Fitness have been offering full-body red light treatments for several years now. Jumping on the trend, other companies have begun to produce high-quality red-light-emitting LED devices for home use.

I'm constantly hunting for ways to prevent premature skin aging (What can I say? I'm vain!) and I've spent the last year becoming increasingly dedicated to daily RLT treatments. After buying some uncomfortable masks off of Amazon with low-quality results, I finally sprung for the good stuff. Below are the best devices I've come across so far.

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A magic wand — The LightStim wand has become my old reliable. Its face is about the size of an apple and is meant to be applied directly to small areas of the skin. Because it has such a high output of light in such a small area, it's meant to be used in three-minute increments on any area of the body. This makes it ideal for any kind of treatment — just turn it on, press it against the skin, and move it to the next section when you hear its built-in timer beep. It's small enough to fit in nearly anyone's luggage and its solid construction means you can trust that it won't fall apart after going through baggage check. Its only drawback is that those three-minute increments add up fairly quickly, making daily treatments to large areas a bit of a slog.

iRestore, you restore — In hair loss communities, iRestore has a dedicated following. Its latest and greatest device is the iRestore Professional, a plastic helmet with a battery attachment that uses LEDs to deliver short bursts of red light to the scalp. These bursts help to prevent the helmet and scalp from overheating during the suggested daily 25-minute sessions. The device was comfortable for me straight out of the box but comes with detachable pads to customize the fit for your particular skull. The unit itself is solidly built, but the device's cheap plastic causes the price tag to sting a bit more than it otherwise would.

While red light therapy alone is unlikely to stop or prevent hair loss in those with a pattern of baldness, it can be used in combination with techniques like micro-needling, consumer products like shampoos and conditioners from Nioxin, and drugs like finasteride, dutasteride, and minoxidil to enhance their effects. After several months using my iRestore helmet, my hair, which has been thinning a bit over the last few years, has never been shinier or thicker.

Mask up — The CurrentBody devices are made from extremely high-quality materials which bend to fit your face, neck, and décolletage. The included international power adapters, flat construction, tight build quality, and dedicated battery packs make this a perfect solution for those looking to bring their red light solutions on-the-go, whether that's to the office or across the globe.

The masks use velcro to secure themselves in place for each 10-minute treatment. The facial mask also includes rubber adapters to help protect your eyes from its many LED emitters.

“Lasers” — The Nira Skincare Laser is not a red light therapy device, but it will certainly be of interest to any audience considering purchasing one. The Nira Skincare Laser is FDA-proven to reduce fine lines and wrinkles around the eye area — though I've been known to use mine (off-label and at my own peril) all over my face and neck. The handheld wand uses a non-fractional laser fluence to heat the skin right above the point of heat-shock protein (HSP) formation. Without damaging the skin, this, like red light therapy, causes an uptick in the production of collagen and elastin — leading to firmer, smoother, plumper, younger-looking skin.

The device itself is solidly built, though it does suffer from the same cheap plastic feel as the iRestore helmet, charges via USB-C (love it), and travels like a dream. The laser has five intensities and it's recommended that users start at the lowest intensity and work up as they get used to the treatment. While the treatment itself doesn't hurt it can cause mild discomfort during early use.

While there have been no studies on the effectiveness of at-home laser treatment in combination with red light therapy, I combine the two. C'est la vie!

Make good choices — If you’re looking to experience red light therapy, it’s important to choose an FDA-cleared device. The vast majority of insurance companies do not cover red light therapy, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. Contrary to claims across the internet, there is no evidence that red light therapy can treat depression, back or neck pain, or cancer and there is limited-to-zero evidence that such therapy can cause weight loss. Red light therapy has few, if any, known side effects, but, as with all bright lights, it is best to use these devices while wearing proper eye protection.

Red light therapy has become a part of my daily practice, substantively changing my skincare routine for the better. Though I haven't documented the changes, I can anecdotally say that in the time I've started to use these devices, my skin has been noticeably smoother, firmer, and plumper. My glowing complexion pairs nicely with my shiny, thick head of hair. Other than the significant hit to my wallet, I've had zero side effects. Is it the fastest or cheapest way to get results? Of course not — botox and fillers exist and generally clock in around the same price — but it is an easy way to score subtle results with no downtime involved.

My experience will not be universal, so please consult your doctor before beginning any new at-home treatments — even when using FDA-cleared devices.