LED lights: Are they a cure for your skin woes?

There is some evidence they work, but it's far from conclusive.

The claims about light-emitting diode (LED) skin devices certainly sound appealing. They're touted to treat everything from wrinkles, redness, and signs of aging to acne, scarring, and dark spots.

If you've visited a spa or even a drugstore lately, you've probably seen one of the growing number of treatments and products on the market. The question is, are these claims true? Can LED light devices really do all these things for your skin? And more importantly, are they safe?

Experts say that it's too early to know whether these devices are effective. Some small studies have shown promise for certain conditions, says Dr. Elizabeth Buzney, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. "I think it's a really exciting emerging area," she says. But the evidence isn't quite there yet.

About LED skin therapies

For many years, scientists have studied how the sun's rays affect the skin. First, they focused their attention on the so-called burning rays of the sun, or ultraviolet B radiation, more commonly referred to as UVB. Then, the focus shifted to ultraviolet A rays, or UVA. Those are the sun's rays that age the skin, leading to wrinkles and discoloration. "Only recently have we started to talk about the effects of visible light on the skin — not necessarily LED light, but visible light in general," says Dr. Buzney. Researchers are now aiming to better understand how both visible light and LED light affect the skin.

LED lights have been around since the 1960s, but have only recently been used as a skin treatment. Different wavelengths of the visible light spectrum correspond to different colors of LED light and penetrate the skin to different depths. Depending on how deeply they penetrate, LED lights are thought to have different biological effects.

Red and blue lights are typically promoted in LED skin treatments. Experts believe that red LED light acts on cells in the skin known as fibroblasts, which play a role in production of collagen, a protein that makes up a large part of connective tissue and helps the skin to recover when it's harmed. So, in theory, red light could help to reverse some of the signs related to photoaging in the skin, says Dr. Buzney. In addition, some studies show that red light may help to restore hair for those with androgenetic alopecia, or male- and female-pattern hair loss, she says.

Blue LED light is most often used to treat acne. It may do this by reducing activity in the sebaceous glands, so they produce less of the oil that can plug the hair follicles, leading to acne. Blue light may also kill acne-causing bacteria known as Cutibacterium acnes. Often blue and red light are used in combination to help fight acne — the blue light targeting the C. acnes and the red light targeting inflammation and redness. However, more research is needed to confirm that these lights are truly effective and that they produce lasting results.

Short-term safety

For the most part, these LED light therapies appear to be relatively safe, at least in the short term, says Dr. Buzney. The FDA has approved some products for home use. LED skin devices don't have a lot of power, so they're unlikely to burn your skin. However, it is important to shield your eyes from the light while using them, says Dr. Buzney. One brand, Neutrogena, recalled its Light Therapy Acne Mask in July in response to concerns about the device's potential to damage the eyes in people with underlying eye conditions or those who are taking medication that makes the eyes more sensitive to light. Yet there is still a lot that's not known about the effects of these devices. "The long-term safety of these light therapies remains uncertain," says Dr. Marissa Heller, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. So, consider these unknowns when weighing the pros and cons of LED light therapy.

In addition, if you are looking to treat a medical condition using LED light therapy, always confirm the diagnosis first with a doctor, says Dr. Heller. For example, some people use LED light therapy to treat sun damage. "That worries me," says Dr. Heller. "If you don't see a doctor, you may not know if it is actually skin cancer or another condition that won't be improved by the device."

If you're interested in using an LED skin device, weigh these factors in your decision making.

Efficacy. There aren't yet large studies demonstrating that these lights are more effective than existing treatments.

Cost. Treatments can cost $80 a session or more — a lot for something that may or may not work.

Variability. There may be variability in the quality of these devices. The FDA reviews devices for safety, not efficacy, so quality may not be consistent.

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