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Can At-Home Light Therapy Help Acne?

Can At-Home Light Therapy Help Acne?

When you’re struggling with acne, you’re open to doing just about anything to eliminate it. There are lots of poorly formulated products and questionable acne treatments out there, but acne treatment with light isn’t one of them. Research has shown that light therapy for acne is promising! The catch? There are two: At-home acne light devices don’t work for every type of acne and, whether done at home or in a doctor’s office, there’s no research on long-term results. But, there’s still “light” at the end of the tunnel….

Blue Light VS. Red Light

There are two types of light used to control breakouts: blue light and red light. Both target specific acne triggers, using different colors and intensities of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Treating acne with light is also known as photodynamic therapy (PDT), and it can be performed on all skin types, ages, and skin colors.

The best part? Whether you have blue light therapy or red light therapy for acne, and whether it’s at home or in a medical setting, you can reap those benefits along with the benefits from your own skincare routine for acne. Light treatments for acne can also be used alongside prescription products from your dermatologist. It’s worth mentioning that acne light devices don’t replace acne-fighting skincare products.

How Blue Light Acne Treatment Works

The specific wavelength of blue LED light emitted by at-home or in-office devices kills a major trigger of acne pimples while calming skin at the same time, and there’s research showing it can also diminish oily skin. However, blue light does present some amount of risk to skin that shouldn’t be ignored, as it can be damaging to overall skin health and promote signs of aging. There are risks and rewards each person with acne considering blue light treatments needs to weigh before making the commitment. And of course, taking steps to protect skin with antioxidants can help.

As an aside, the amount of blue light exposure we get from daily use of smart phones (unless you take steps to reduce this light; find out how here) presents a greater risk to skin than occasional short-term blue light treatments for acne.

How Red Light Acne Treatment Works

Red light for acne also uses LED technology, but it works on a different acne trigger; that is, on the overproduction of oil by the skin. For many who have acne, their oil contains skin-aggravating substances that lay the groundwork for acne to pop up on the surface. It seems that red light therapy helps minimize these substances and in doing so sets acne-prone skin on a calmer path. In essence, red light reduces the redness often seen with acne.

Cost and Time Commitments

Now for the not-so-fun part: Acne light therapy at home isn’t cheap—at least not if you want a device whose emission of LED energy is strong enough to work. Expect to pay $150–$600 depending on the brand and type of device you choose. Generally speaking, devices that cost less than this aren’t likely to be strong enough to produce great results.

Reputable brands selling red and/or blue light acne devices for use at home include TRIA, Quasar, and FOREO. Some devices emit only one color of LED light, while others emit both red and blue; the latter cost more, but you’re getting the distinct anti-acne benefits of both red and blue light.

As for the time commitment; if you find a three-step acne skincare routine a chore, these light-emitting devices probably aren’t for you. To give you the best chance of improving your acne, you must use these at-home devices at least once daily for several minutes at a time. That can become tedious, especially when using handheld devices, but some companies offer battery-powered LED masks that you turn on and let work while you do other things.

Note: Some of the pricier devices emit more powerful wavelengths of light, allowing you to gradually reduce the frequency of use (1–3 times per week) once you know how your acne responds to daily use.

Acne Light Treatment from a Dermatologist

Acne light treatment from a dermatologist isn’t necessary unless you have stubborn to severe acne, in which case your dermatologist might take a multi-faceted approach to getting it under control.

The difference between light therapy for acne at home and in a dermatologist’s office is that a doctor can fine-tune the results. Dermatologists also have access to topical medications that are applied prior to the treatment and then left on during the exposure to light; these are believed to be more effective for resistant acne.

Not surprisingly, in-office light treatments for acne are more expensive than devices you use at home. If your acne is mild to moderate or sporadic, you should do fine using blue or red light therapy at home.

References for this information:
American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, June 2017, pages 311–321
The Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, September 2016, ePublication
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, March 2016, pages 25–35; and March 2009, pages 44–50
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, June 2015, pages 36–44
Indian Dermatology Online Journal, May-June 2015, pages 145–157
Laser Therapy, Volume 20, 2011, pages 205–215

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!