Today’s world of skin care can seem like a grab bag of trendy treatments and ingredients promising to work wonders on your skin. Oils, retinol, chlorophyll, microneedling—the list goes on and on. Between its celeb fan base and starring role on many Instagram feeds, LED light treatment is definitely the new kid on the beauty block.
You may have already noticed these futuristic LED light masks and pens on the shelves of your local drugstore. But if you're anything like me, you're probably wondering what light therapy even is and if it actually works. Say no more; I tried four different light therapy products ranging in price from less than $40 to over $200 and can give you the scoop on these space-age skin savers.
What are LED light treatments?
“LED (light emitting diodes) are essentially just infrared lights that are found in different wavelengths, depending on the color,” explains Rachel Nazarian MD FAAD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. These colored lights send waves deep into the skin to trigger different reactions, she explains. These reactions caused by the different lights can trigger skin to do things like kill bacteria and stimulate regeneration, hence making them popular picks for skin care tools. This process is also sometimes referred to as photorejuvenation or light therapy.
Another reason LED light tools have become so popular is that anyone can benefit from a little light action. “LED lights are often used after facials or other cosmetic procedures and so can really be used by anyone if they want to improve mild acne, build collagen, or improve circulation,” explains Shari Marchbein, MD FAAD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology, NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
You may be wondering what the difference is between the damaging blue light from computer and phone screens and the LED skin therapy blue light. The difference is in the wave lengths. Screen blue light is potentially damaging due to it emitting the shortest wavelength at the highest energy, a.k.a. radiation, which can lead to free radicals that damage the outer layer of skin. Beneficial blue light sends low-level light energy into the deeper layers of the skin, allowing it to trigger the healthy reactions mentioned above.
Which light is best for me?
The CliffsNotes version of LED light talk is this: blue equals acne treatment and red equals anti-aging treatment.
“The blue light wavelength can stimulate free radical oxygen, which is toxic to some skin bacteria,” explains Dr. Nazarian. “The blue light kills bacteria in the skin, including the specific strain thought to play a role in acne,” she adds.
“The red infrared lights are used to stimulate collagen and elastin deep under the skin, so they can be used to address fine lines and wrinkles—hence its popularity with anti-aging regimens,” says Dr. Nazarian. In addition to fine lines and wrinkles, red light is also great for targeting inflammation.
“Red light is ideal for decreasing certain markers of inflammation in the skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. What’s more, it can also decrease the marks left behind with old acne lesions and tackle skin redness. “It also may target oil glands which make it a great treatment for both acne and rosacea,” she says.
Is it safe to do at home?
Go ahead! Both of our experts say using an at-home light is totally safe. “The only downside is that they are a fraction of the strength of what you would find in-office,” Dr. Nazarian explains. “But benefits are still there, and I would recommend home treatments over doing nothing.”
Can you mess it up and hurt yourself? Nope! It’s totally pain-free and doesn’t cause any damage. According to Dr. Nazarian, LED lights do not create burns or skin damage and most impressively, they can be used on every skin type and color. “The most important thing is to wear eye protection to protect your eyes from the light,” she says. Dr. Marchbein agrees and explains that although LED lights don’t damage the eyes per say, they can be quite bright.
Lastly, dermatologists say to avoid open wounds or active skin infections, Dr. Marchbein adds. “This is overall a very safe treatment,” she says. “LED does not contain UV light and so is not damaging to the skin.”
Yeah, but do at home treatments actually work?
In a quick word: yes. We already know the products you try at home aren’t up to the same caliber as those used in a doctor’s office, but they can still be incredibly valuable skin care tools for in-between visits or for someone with mild breakouts, Dr. Marchbein says. “The benefits of LED treatments are cumulative, with best results seen over time.”
To really figure out if the most popular at-home light treatments work, I decided to try them myself! Here's what I discovered.
Good for: the lazy skin care addict who wants an easy overall treatment.
I found this to be a great option for tackling a bit of everything. When I tested this, my skin was in one of those in-between stages: no major breakouts, but it was far from clear—a few whiteheads and blackheads sprinkled throughout. I tested this mask for ten days and saw a noticeable difference in my skin: my whiteheads lasted about half the time, no new pimples popped up, and my oily skin was kept at a minimum.
Bottom line: I found this mask easy to use. You plug the mask into the activator, which is basically a controller that has a button to start the treatment. The activator is what turns on lights, and you have thirty sessions per activator. Once you use up all thirty, you have to discard it and buy a new activator (not a new mask.) I will say, I thought the light was quite bright. Even with the built-in glasses over my eyes, I was uncomfortable. But at less than $40, this is a great intro to light therapy that’s not just Instagram bait.
Good for: spot treatment—fast.
I’ve had this handheld tool for a few years now, and I swear by it. This is strictly a blue light, so it’s used for pesky pimples solely. Now, unlike other light treatments, this one actually utilizes blue light, sonic vibration, and gentle warming to combat inflammation. Just like Dr. Nazarian explained, this blue light goes deep into skin to fight bacteria. The warming (which is so light that I hardly notice it, honestly) helps to open and ready pores for the light, while the sonic vibrations help with circulation to reduce swelling and inflammation (a.k.a. the nasty parts of pimples). You can use it up to three times a day for two minutes each.
Bottom line: This has been my secret weapon for sudden singular breakouts. At only $39, it's definitely worth it. I’ve used this on small pimples and big pimples and noticed their redness and inflammation go down virtually overnight. Now, to be clear, it won’t make a breakout disappear like magic. But, it does cut down on the time I live with my unwelcome guest. I tend to use this on a pimple for about two to three days until it goes down to a reasonable size. Also, I really like how small and concentrated the light is—my eyes are saved, and I can treat just one area of the face as opposed to taking it all on.
Good for: hefty pimples that need some serious TLC.
This is a newer device to the market and a pretty popular one. It packs a pretty price tag at $150, but it serves up a solid treatment. Again, this uses only blue light for a very targeted approach. The light is powerful and the device is easy to use. When I got mine, I didn’t even read the instructions, I simply pressed power and let it do its thing. It has a built-in timer, so it emits the bacteria-fighting blue light for thirty seconds and lets you move on to the next spot without much thought.
Now, the reason I’m saying this is best for hefty pimples is this: The way the tip is designed is such that it has a beveled edge that almost encloses the area the light hits. I found this harder to use on spots that didn’t have super big pimples but rather small whiteheads or just general congestion. After testing for four days, I wasn’t seeing a ton of results with my oily skin and micro-pimples. But when I applied to a larger zit, then things started happening.
Bottom line: If you’re committed to the cause and have fairly sizable or frequent blemishes, Foreo is a good option. It’s easy to use (thirty seconds on each pimple every night is so manageable) and has zero cleanup.
Good for: someone who wants it all and is willing to pay for it.
Alright, first thing's first with this light: It’s a three in one. There’s blue, red, and yellow light in one device. Now, obviously I feel pretty well versed in the blue and red light territory, but yellow light which targets collagen production was fascinating to me. This handheld device is super easy to use and you’re never more than a click away from each light. I tested this product for about five days and felt like I was basically having a rave in my bathroom each night.
Because there are three lights, you have the option of using just one treatment or using a combo of a few. I tended to stick to blue and red each night, with a little yellow here and there. The instructions say to use for 10 minutes per application, twice daily. The overall effects were solid: blemishes looked less red and irritated with the blue and when I used the yellow, I swear my skin looked just a little perkier.
Bottom line: Because of the amber and red lights, which tend to have results that take time to surface, sticking to the proper usage method is crucial to seeing the improvements. Also, for $265, you’re going to want to stick with this treatment to make sure it's worth every penny.