As cosmetic treatments and advanced skin care steadily gain popularity, beauty enthusiasts’ appetite for technical devices once exclusive to dermatologists has also increased. Light emitting diode (also known as LED) tools are among the most in-demand at-home skin care tech devices because they can treat a variety of skin types and concerns with virtually no risks or side effects.
Like lasers, LED harnesses the power of concentrated light to target specific parts of the skin and create change. However, LED uses multidirectional light at lower energy levels making it highly tolerable and without downtime. “There aren’t a lot of modalities that can be used kind of across the board,” says licensed esthetician Mel Lagares. “Especially for [concerns like] acne that are so inflammatory. As much as you want to do more invasive treatments, LED is perfect because it isn’t going to irritate or exacerbate it.”
Although the therapeutic benefits of non-thermal, visible light have been scientifically recognized since the early 1900s, an inadvertent discovery during NASA research of light-accelerated plant growth popularized LED therapy for wound healing in the 1980s. Subsequent research has fueled today’s vast selection of LED devices with potential use ranging from scar revision to hair growth. While new research and innovation plow on as the category is projected to reach nearly $500 million by 2028, our understanding of LED is still young.
The benefits of red, blue, and infrared light are the most well-studied and likely to be included in reputable LED products. Each light has a general hero concern it's proven to treat, a result of the FDA’s strict claim allowances for medical devices. “Red light is great for reducing wrinkles, inflammation and, at times, pain. Red light has been shown to boost collagen production and prevent its breakdown,” explains oculoplastic surgeon Dr. Kami Parsa. “Blue light treats mild to moderate acne.”
Infrared light sits outside the visible spectrum and has a treatment scope similar to red light. “Infrared, which is the longest wavelength of them all, penetrates the deepest, and because of that it may help with things like acne scarring,” board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Jodi LoGerfo, elaborates. “Also, it's said that it can help tighten skin and help with sun damage.” Green and yellow (or amber) light are less endorsed, but have demonstrated potential treatment for hyperpigmentation and vascular conditions, respectively.
Despite a seemingly short list of treatment recommendations, what we do understand about LED lends the technology to more than what meets the eye. Ahead, TZR spoke with experts to understand all the skin concerns that can benefit from LED so you can get the most out of your at-home device.
Blue light therapy can help keep your oily skin at bay even if you're not currently suffering from acne. Blue light is most frequently used for its ability to kill off acne-causing bacteria that contribute to chronic breakouts. However, blue light can also decrease activity in the sebaceous glands, effectively managing oil overproduction and allowing you to put down the blotting papers.
Rosacea is a chronic, inflammatory condition that often manifests with broken blood vessels and acne-like blemishes. Red, blue and amber lights offer a potential combination treatment. “Red is like a one size fits all,” says Courtney Brooks, lead esthetician at Dr. Dennis Gross Dermatology. “You can use it for reducing redness, so I think red light can be for everybody.” Brooks goes on to say that although not considered acne, the blemishes linked to rosacea have demonstrated similar responses to blue light therapy. Finally, shallow absorption of yellow light may increase blood flow and alleviate dilated blood vessels.
Think of melasma as the final boss of hyperpigmentation. It lies deep in the skin, is extremely difficult to treat, and has a high rate of recurrence. Surprisingly, red light again offers its services. “When we see melasma on the skin, we see brown, right? So that's how people associate that with hyperpigmentation. But when you look intensely at melasma, there's actually redness and broken capillaries underneath,” says Brooks. “I'm not just treating the brown. We have to treat different depths of the skin to try and really lighten it. So in that sense, I do think red light could be beneficial.”
Ingrown Hairs & body Acne
Precise, spot treatment LED devices can act as a solution to those prone to painful and difficult-to-reach ingrown hairs or body acne. “I’ll use my spot treatment [LED device] after a wax if I know someone is sensitive to exfoliants or prone to darkness from ingrown hairs,” says Lagares. While blue light therapy won’t target the melanin-making pathway, using it after hair removal can help reduce the incidence of inflamed ingrown hairs that lead to stubborn dark spots.
Most skin professionals reach for LED following chemical peels and lasers to jumpstart the healing process and immediately reduce redness.“My favorite way to use LED is at the end of a procedure,” says Brooks. “If someone needs a deep acne facial and then you put them under the LED for 30 minutes, they look tight and shiny and have no inflammation.” For fans of cosmetic procedures like lip fillers, laser hair removal and regular chemical peels, at-home LED may be able to extend those benefits by continuing to encourage healing. Just be sure to consult with your treatment provider before including LED in your post-procedure care regimen.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to definitively point to any particular LED light that specifically targets melanin. However, infrared light penetrates deeper into skin where melanocytes live. The light’s ability to help decrease inflammation may prevent or reduce the severity of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Regardless, LED promotes optimal skin health even if it does not directly address hyperpigmentation. “LED just puts your skin in the best, healthiest version of itself so that your products that do treat pigmentation work better,” says Brooks.
Best Practices For Using At-Home LED Devices
Make Sure Your Device is FDA-Cleared
FDA clearance ensures device safety and proper, clinical documentation to support the product’s claims. The clearance doesn’t guarantee effectiveness, but can increase the chances you’re purchasing a well-made product. FDA approval does not pertain to LED devices, so avoid products using inaccurate language.
Beware Of Lofty Claims
While LED has the potential to treat a wide variety of concerns, too many promises are likely too good to be true. Avoid snake oil by sticking with brands that opt for conservative applications over aggrandized assurances. “LED is not going to replace Botox. It's not going to replace filler. It's not going to replace a CO2 laser treatment,” says Dr. LeGorfo. “All of this has to be cautiously navigated because [LED devices] are not miracles.”
Use LED Devices On Clean, Dry Skin
Viral videos may convince you to test out using your LED device and favorite sheet mask simultaneously, but LED lights need a direct path to the skin to do their work. Simplicity = maximum efficacy.
Consistency Is Key
In-office LED treatments typically use higher-energy devices for longer periods of time to give more dramatic results, but that doesn’t mean your at-home device is useless. Think of your LED tool as an additive to an already stellar skincare routine. “People tend to neglect [their routine] and think that certain treatments or [tools] are going to give them all of the answers,” says Lagares. Stay on top of your regimen and your daily LED for the best results.