Red light therapy, or photobiomodulation (PBM), is a treatment that has recently gained popularity thanks to research and affordable at-home devices. PBM uses specific wavelengths of light to treat a wide variety of health and skin conditions.

During a session, you lie in a full-body LED red light therapy bed or pod, or a practitioner places a handheld device over an area of pain or inflammation. The penetrating light stimulates your body’s cells to reduce pain, boost energy, and heal.

What is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy (RLT) is a treatment that uses LED lights to deliver healing, anti-aging, and skin care benefits. It has a natural ability to penetrate the skin and reduce inflammation in muscles, tissues, joints, and organs. It increases blood flow and encourages antioxidant activity, which helps with pain relief in the body. A growing number of studies have found that RLT may improve various conditions, including chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and herpes simplex infections.

A big reason for this is that it creates something called hormesis -- a low-dose stress on the cells that actually makes them stronger by boosting protein synthesis and enzyme activation. This increases the immune system, promotes cell repair and regeneration, and helps your body absorb nutrients more efficiently.

It also stimulates collagen, the body's most abundant protein. Collagen is essential for skin health and its appearance. It is what gives your skin its strength, elasticity, and structure. Studies show that regular RLT can boost collagen levels, which in turn leads to younger-looking skin. This type of light therapy can also help with a variety of skin conditions, such as acne, rosacea, and sunburn.

In addition to treating skin problems, RLT has been shown to be effective in reducing pain caused by osteoarthritis, according to one study. It can also help with temporomandibular dysfunction syndrome, or jaw pain and tenderness, another condition associated with arthritis. A small study found that people with androgenetic alopecia who used an at-home red light device on their scalps twice a week for 12 weeks experienced hair growth.

RLT can also be helpful with sleep issues and even autoimmune disorders. It has been shown to increase melatonin levels, which can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. A 2012 study on female athletes found that 30 minutes of red light therapy before bedtime helped them fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep.

RLT is available in medical offices and at home with a dedicated device. However, it’s important to talk to your doctor before trying this therapy, especially if you have diabetes, are pregnant, or have sensitive skin.

What is Infrared Therapy?

Infrared is also known as IR, near-infrared or NIR, and far-infrared or FIR radiation. It lies just beyond the visible light spectrum, with wavelengths between 700 and 10,000 nanometers. Proponents of IR-based wellness treatments say they can do the following:

Increase L-arginine levels, which promotes the formation of nitric oxide in the body, a crucial molecule that helps improve blood flow. Nitric oxide is also thought to reduce inflammation, prevent clots and vasospasms in blood vessels, and combat free radicals that contribute to oxidative stress.

Another potential benefit of IR is promoting detoxification by raising core temperature. This can trigger sweating and flush out toxins through the lymphatic system, which is important for maintaining good health and preventing disease.

Some researchers are exploring the possibility of using IR to treat cancer by triggering a process called photoimmunotherapy. This involves combining materials that manipulate light and heat with antibodies targeting specific tumors. Then the resulting complex binds to cancer cells and causes them to die. Research is still ongoing. Other cancer therapies that use infrared include a technique called photodynamic therapy, which uses ionizing radiation to kill tumor cells. This is considered a potentially viable treatment for advanced cancers. It is unlikely to work against common cancers, however.

What is the Difference Between Red Light Therapy and Infrared Therapy?

Red light therapy is often used in medical offices or available for purchase at salons and wellness centers. It's also promoted to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, improve acne, and help hair grow in people with androgenic alopecia. Most experts say more research is needed, but the treatment is safe and noninvasive, especially if used short-term and as directed. Unlike cancer-causing UV rays from the sun and tanning beds, red light doesn't have any known negative effects.

The science behind RLT is simple: It affects the mitochondria in cells, which increases their energy and allows other parts of the cell to do more work. It can also stimulate collagen production and boost fibroblast activity, which helps form skin tissue. RLT may also promote blood circulation and reduce inflammation. Several studies suggest it might treat nerve damage related to diabetes (diabetic neuropathy) by reducing pain, numbness, and inflammation. It can be used to improve muscle strength, performance, and recovery during exercise. It may reduce the pain of arthritic joints in people with temporomandibular disorder, or TMJ, by reducing tenderness and swelling of the jaw.

For skin issues, researchers have found that RLT decreases fine lines and wrinkles, increases skin elasticity, smooths skin texture, and diminishes dark spots and acne scarring. It can also help prevent and/or treat herpes simplex outbreaks by slowing the spread of the virus and increasing immunity.

Some studies suggest that red light therapy might relieve some painful side effects of cancer chemotherapy. For example, a study from 2019 found that it could reduce oral mucositis, which is a side effect of chemotherapy used to treat head and neck cancer.

Despite the growing interest in RLT, most experts don't know yet whether it's effective for most of its claimed uses. The studies that have been done so far often had small sample sizes, didn't use a control group, or were conducted only on animal cells instead of human tissue. Moreover, red light can sometimes be hard on the eyes (if used too long) and can cause burns and blisters if not applied properly. Therefore, if you want to try it, it's best to do so under the guidance of a trained practitioner.

Which is Better for Me?

Red light therapy (also known as photobiomodulation, PBM, or low-level laser therapy, LLLT) involves emitting red and near-infrared wavelengths right into the skin. This encourages cellular rejuvenation, lowers inflammation, and boosts the production of the key molecule that provides energy to your cells. It also increases circulation, stimulates collagen, and fights free radical damage. It can help with a variety of conditions, including cancer treatment side effects, skin problems such as rosacea and wounds, arthritis symptoms, hair loss, acne, fine lines and wrinkles, and other health concerns. It also creates something called hormesis, which is a very low-dose stress that boosts protein synthesis and enzyme activation in the cell.

The visible light spectrum consists of all the colors that can be seen; different colors have specific healing properties. Green is good for healing, blue increases alertness, and yellow improves complexion. Red light therapy focuses on the 660 to 850 nanometer range, with most of its output centered around 660 nanometers. This is very close to the infrared wavelength used in full-spectrum saunas.

Red light therapy has many benefits, and it’s becoming more popular thanks to easy-to-use at-home devices. One study showed that fibromyalgia patients treated with red light therapy three times a week saw significant reductions in pain and fatigue by the end of the trial. It can help improve sleep and increase the production of ATP, the energy molecule that keeps your body functioning properly.

While there is plenty of positive research supporting red light therapy, it’s important to talk to your doctor before trying this type of treatment. This is especially true if you are pregnant or have any serious medical condition. It’s also a good idea to check in with your dermatologist or pain specialist, as they may be able to recommend a device for you.

If you want to see what red light therapy can do for you, a consultation at an independent clinic is a great place to start. You can also purchase a device to try it at home, but make sure that you get a professional-grade product that is safe and effective for your unique needs.