We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

What Is Light Therapy, and What Are the Potential Benefits?

Harnessing the healing power of light has been utilized throughout history and continues to evolve today. Learn what light therapy is and what it's used for.

By Allison Futterman
Jan 4, 2024 7:00 PM
woman getting red light treatment


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Light emitting diode (LED) or light therapy is a non-invasive treatment that involves exposure to artificial light in varying colors to treat a variety of health benefits, mostly skin ailments.

Ancient Greeks recognized the healing potential of sunlight, and the city of Heliopolis was known for its healing temples. They had rooms with different colored window coverings — each meant to create a specific color of light thought to treat different conditions. 

But just how successful are light therapy treatments? Here's what you should know about them. 

How Does Light Therapy Work? 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, light therapy uses various wavelengths to treat specific conditions. The different wavelengths all produce different colors of light. 

Read More: How to Improve Your Mental Health

What Is Light Therapy Used For?

Light therapy is used for a variety of health conditions and concerns. Its applications span from mental health treatments to dermatological therapies.

  • Red Light Therapy — used to treat acne, wrinkles, and scarring

  • Blue Light Therapy — used for treating sun-damaged skin and certain skin cancers

  • Yellow Light Therapy — used to treat rosacea and skin redness 

  • Near-Infrared — used to promote wound healing and increased energy

Read More: Therapy on a Plate: How Your Diet Can Benefit Your Mental Health

Does Light Therapy Work For Skin?

Yes, light therapy can help various skin conditions and concerns. The effectiveness largely depends on the type of light therapy used and the specific skin issue being addressed. Although these treatments can be done at a dermatology or plastic surgeon’s office, some people self-administer this treatment using devices designed for this purpose.     

What Does Red Light Do For Skin?

Red light therapy can work to increase the production of collagen, making skin look smoother. Patients can use red light therapy to reduce wrinkles and age spots, improve eczema and psoriasis, and lessen scars.

What Does Blue Light Do For Skin?

Blue light works on the deeper layers, targeting oil glands, which leads to fewer breakouts. Blue light is known to kill bacteria and to have an anti-inflammatory effect, so it’s primarily used to treat acne. It’s slightly different from the blue light emitted from smartphones and TV screens. The light used in blue light therapy is more controlled

ReadMore: Cold Plunges: The Science Behind Cold Water Therapy

Can LED Therapy Treat Depression?

Although LED therapy has been used to treat various types of depression, it’s most known for its use in treating seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. People with SAD experience depression as the seasons change and there is less sunlight.

LED Therapy and Seasonal Depression

Limited natural sunlight causes irregularities in neurotransmitters, such as melatonin and serotonin. LED therapy for SAD seems to be most effective when done within the first hour of waking up.  

Read MoreWhat You Can Do About Seasonal Depression

Can Light Therapy Treat Insomnia?

Some researchers believe that LED treatment can help to reset the circadian rhythm. To help alleviate insomnia, people sit one to two feet away from a lightbox for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the specific situation. This is usually done under the guidance of a healthcare provider. 

Light Therapy and Circadian Rhythm Disorders

There are circadian rhythm disorders that LED treatment is being used to address. These include jet lag, advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, shift work sleep disorder, and delayed sleep phase disorder. 

Read More: What Happens When We Go Without Sleep?

Can LED Therapy Treat Wounds?

Yes, emerging research indicates that LED therapy (mainly red light) can accelerate the healing process for wounds. 

Light Therapy and Burns

It’s believed to work by activating endogenous TGF-beta 1, which is a protein that affects cell growth and division. Another way LED therapy can help burns is by reducing inflammation.

Read More: Anxiety and Depression Relief, No Therapist Required

Can LED Therapy Treat Cognitive Function?

Studies indicate that LED therapy may have benefits for people with cognitive impairment. Results show short-term improvement in attention, executive function, and working memory.

Other investigations demonstrated increased cerebral blood flow and neuropsychological function. This is a promising area of treatment for people with dementia, as well as those with traumatic brain injuries, though more research is required.

Read More: Combat Cognitive Decline With These 5 Activities

Frequently Asked Questions About Light Therapy: 

How Can I Do Light Therapy at Home?

At-home LED therapy requires the use of a light box that mimics natural sunlight. They’re available in varying amounts of brightness, typically between 2,500 and 10,000 lumens per square meter — called “lux.” These devices aren’t regulated, so it’s important to do research to figure out which one is right for your needs.

Is LED Therapy Harmful?

Since LED treatment doesn’t emit harmful ultraviolet light, it’s generally safe. However, LED therapy may not be right for certain people. Anyone with glaucoma or eye damage from diabetes, people who have photosensitivity from medications or health conditions, such as lupus, or anyone taking Accutane aren't good candidates for this treatment. 

How Long Does It Take To Achieve Results From LED Therapy?

This varies, depending on the condition it’s being used to treat. Some people have results within a couple of treatments (for skin) or a few days (when using a lightbox). But often, it can take weeks to a couple of months to achieve the desired result.

Read More: How Music Therapy Is Easing Anxiety and Isolation

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.