Treatment involves shining red and near-infrared light of specific wavelengths (frequency and intensity) onto the skin. There’s no damage, pain or burning sensation. It passes through the layers and into the deep tissues, stimulating cells to boost growth and healing. Science calls the process photobiomodulation. Dermatology professionals use it to treat lines and wrinkles, acne, psoriasis, and sun damage. Various home use versions are available promising similar results.
OK, I know. It sounds a bit far-fetched. Made up even. I was sceptical too. But I’ve experienced first-hand the glow-giving effects on my 40-something year old skin. So, naturally I wanted to understand more. What’s special about red and near-infrared light, how does shining it on your skin work, what results does it give and where can you get it?
It was time to release the WeAreBodyBeautiful research ferrets. They came back with some grade-A sciencey shit. And now you can learn all here, in red light therapy and facials 101.
What you’ll learn in red light facials 101:
About light & life
Sunlight contains every colour of the rainbow, from red to blue. But visible light is only a small part of all light.
We measure light waves in nanometers (nm). The human eye sees light with wavelengths from 380 nm to 700 nm. Light waves shorter than visible violet at 380 nm are ultraviolet or UV light. Waves longer than red at 700 nm are infrared or IR light. All light is part of the bigger electromagnetic radiation spectrum along with radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and gamma rays. As well as being waves at different lengths and frequencies, light also consists of photon particles.
Now, we know that light affects organisms. Think back to school science lessons. Plants use photon energy from sunlight, with water and carbon dioxide, during a chemical process called photosynthesis. This creates sugars which are necessary to grow and live.
And in humans too, certain molecules are light-sensitive and specific wavelengths kick-start biochemical reactions. One example is light hitting the special cells in the retinas of our eyes called photoreceptors. They absorb light and, via a chemical reaction, convert the energy into an electrical nerve signal our brain processes into vision.
In fact, a lack of sunlight even has detrimental effects on the human body resulting in Seasonal Affective Syndrome (SAD) and rickets caused by lack of Vitamin D3.
This biochemical reaction started by light is called Photobiomodulation.
Photobiomodulation & its uses
The word ‘photo’ means from or produced by light. Light creates changes in our body, called a photochemical reaction. So, photobiomodulation is the scientific term given to how light can change or modulate a biological system.
The benefits light offers depends on the specific wavelengths and how deep it reaches into your tissues.
Photobiomodulation therapy, predominantly using red and near-infrared light, has other names too. Such as Low Level Light therapy (LLLT), soft laser and photobiostimulation and red light therapy.
Studies show it works to treat pain, inflammation and hard to treat wounds, and even dementia, cancer chemotherapy side effects and brain disorders. It’s widely used to speed-up healing of burns and sunburns by significantly reducing redness, swelling, and peeling of the skin. It also reduces healing time of skin grafts, infected wounds, amputations and other alternative and more aggressive cosmetic procedures such as laser resurfacing.
The therapy also helps to heal, reduce symptoms and reoccurrence of Herpes simplex lesions (cold sores). The red and NIR light helps strengthen immune system cells to help fight the virus in the body. It also speeds-up healing time.
In dermatology, blue light treats acne and red and near-infrared light treats inflammation such as psoriasis and rosacea. And the boost of collagen from red and NIR light also helps soften scarring (both colour and appearance), signs of sun damage and aging, such as sun spots and wrinkles.
Therapeutic red light
It’s a narrow therapeutic range of red light that’s most useful for health, healing and aesthetic purposes.
The human eye sees red light as the wavelengths between 630mn and 700 nm long. It’s used to treat the surface of the skin.
Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, with wavelengths between 700 nm to 1,000,000 nm. The infrared spectrum is divided into near, mid, and far-infrared.
- Near-infrared light or NIR has wavelengths of 700 to 1400 nm. It generates the most heat out of the different red lights. The healing action of near-infrared light can boost tissue repair and increase metabolism. These effects are due to how it stimulates the mitochondria in the cells, but more about that later.
- Mid-infrared light has wavelengths of 1400 to 3000 nm. It can reach the hypodermis, increasing circulation and generating heat to help injured areas of the body.
- Far-infrared light has wavelengths of 3000 nm to 0.1 mm. It can reduce inflammation, pain and fatigue, and increase circulation.
Wavelength, power, and spot size of the light and the thickness, location, and type of tissue affect how deep it reaches into your skin. Skin colour is also a factor6. Therefore, there are no universal figures for wavelength subdivisions, or the depth of skin they can penetrate.
Red and NIR light of specific wavelengths reaches different depths in the skin and stimulates skin cells. Specific light-sensitive molecules inside our cells absorb the light photons and gain energy. This energy excites the cells so they work harder.
The magic happens in the cell Mitochondria. The light energizes their cellular respiration process boosting creation of a vital ATP energy molecule. To understand exactly what happens, first we’ll look at the cell mitochondria, how they produce ATP and where photobiomodulation with red light comes in.
What are Mitochondria?
All the cells in your body, except red blood cells, have miniature power generators called mitochondria. They are essential for normal bodily functions. Their primary responsibility is to convert air, water, and food into energy for our cells. Without them, cells couldn’t grow, divide or function. The cells that use the most energy have higher numbers of mitochondria. The liver has up to 4000 mitochondria per cell!
Mitochondria have other roles in cell signalling, balancing calcium, maintaining body heat and killing cells that are no longer useful.
A chemical called adenosine triphosphate or ATP is the energy currency of the mitochondria. And when the mitochondria have more energy, they do more work and the body heals faster.
Mitochondria have an outer and inner membrane with an intermembrane space between the two. Pores in the outer membrane allow proteins, positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons to pass through. The protein-rich inner membrane encases the gel-like matrix, which is where most stages of mitochondrial respiration take place to create ATP.
Mitochondrial respiration to produce ATP
Mitochondria make ATP during cellular respiration. Mitochondrial respiration is either aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen). Aerobic respiration is best because it produces more ATP energy. It’s a complex process with four stages. The first takes place in cell cytoplasm, the second and third inside the mitochondria matrix, and the fourth across the inner mitochondria membrane.
- Pyruvate oxidation
- Citric Acid or Krebs cycle
- Oxidative phosphorylation: Electron transport chain & Chemiosmosis
Thankfully, we don’t need to go into the detail of each stage. Suffice to say each stage processes nutrition particles in biochemical reactions to produce either waste as carbon dioxide and water, or new molecules, electrons and substances used in the next step. Steps 1 & 3 create a little ATP, whereas step 4 creates the most. If you want to boffin-it-up, 🤓 learn more here and here.
So, where does photobiomodulation with red and NIR light come in?
Well, it’s now generally accepted that molecules in a mitochondrial enzyme called Cytochrome c oxidase or COX are the primary light-sensitive chromophores. They absorb either red and NIR wavelengths depending on the depth and tissue type of the mitochondrial location. COX enzyme is also a key player in stage 4 of cellular respiration called Oxidative phosphorylation. To understand how it reacts and why this is good, we must next understand a little more about stage 4 Oxidative phosphorylation.
Stage 4 Oxidative phosphorylation & Cytochrome c oxidase
- Electron Transport Chain
- Chemiosmosis (via ATP synthase)
Here’s a diagram of the overall process.
COX is the 4th and final protein enzyme (called a Complex) of the Electron Transport Chain. Each Complex embeds in the inner mitochondrial membrane. Electrons move along the Complexes from molecule to molecule, and as they do, they release energy. The Complex uses this energy to then pump out positive Hydrogen ions (H+ protons) through channels in the inner mitochondria membrane into the intermembrane space.
This build-up of H+ protons creates a proton gradient (or electrical charge like a battery) across the mitochondria inner cell membrane. During the following Chemiosmosis process, the Hydrogen protons flow back into the mitochondria through an enzyme called ATP synthase. ATP synthase harnesses the flow of protons like a turbine to synthesize ATP.
Now, the crux of how red and NIR increases ATP production.
How red and NIR increases ATP production
Because red & NIR light stimulates COX, it works harder and more efficiently in Complex IV. This means it moves electrons and pumps protons faster, ready for the final ATP production stage in Chemiosmosis. This increases overall ATP output in the cell.
COX also completes the Electron Transfer Chain more efficiently. It’s an important stage to remove the waste molecules and ensure all respiration stages continue. It does this by handing-off the electrons to Oxygen, which then promptly splits and binds with Hydrogen protons to form water. And an additional antioxidant effect of Red and NIR photons is important here too.
Red and NIR light donate their proton energy to electrons in the mitochondria. The energised electrons then break the bonds in nitric oxide. Too much nitric oxide blocks the action of oxygen to form water at the end of the Electron Transport Chain. This stalls ATP production. So, without excess nitric oxide, the process keeps moving efficiently to create ATP.
OK, so how does this increased ATP translate to anti-aging results?
ATP, Collagen & elastin
With more ATP our cells work and heal faster. This is super news for our fibroblast calls.
Skin has unique bouncyness due to the extracellular matrix (ECM). Fibroblast cells in our dermis produce this gel-like support system. It consists of the proteins collagen and elastin, and proteoglycans which are highly hydrated sugar molecules.
The ECM gives the skin strength, elasticity, and hydration and is essential for healing after an injury.
Genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors affect how skin ages. After the age of around 25, the ECM starts to degrade. The production of the essential components slows down, leading to skin that’s drier, weaker, has less elasticity, more wrinkles and imperfections. Boo.
Red light therapy stimulates the mitochondria in your skin cells and specifically your fibroblast cells. They therefore produce more ATP and get an energy boost to build new ECM, regenerate cells and promote oxygen utilization.
So, now you understand what red and NIR light triggers inside our skin, next we’ll look at the results you can expect.
The effects & results of red light anti-aging facials
Red light and NIR antiaging facials use Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) as the source of the light. They’re bright, but otherwise there’s no sensation. As explained earlier, the lights stimulate our skin cells so they create more ATP energy molecules. This sparks a further series of helpful metabolic events as follows:
- Reduces inflammation
- Increases circulation, cell growth & regeneration
- Faster cell metabolism, lymphatic & antioxidant activity detoxifies cells
- Stimulates fibroblasts to produce more collagen & elastin
You need around 3 to 5 sessions weekly with a home device or mask. The effects build for gradually visible results. Some are more efficient and powerful so give noticeable results in as few as 4 weeks, whereas others take 8 to 12 weeks. They’re for ongoing use with less regular maintenance sessions as you feel you need them.
Like many other cosmetic technologies, results vary by individual. Your age, skin type, lifestyle, and genetics all play a part. So, for some results are subtle and for others they’re more significant. Typical results are:
- Smoother, firmer & well-hydrated skin
- Brighter skin that glows
- Fades dark spots & pigmentation
- Calms redness & irritation
- Softens acne scarring and other scars
- Minimises fine lines & wrinkles
- Skin looks healthier & younger
Clinical proof for red light facials
Since NASA (18) used red light therapy for experiments on plant growth in the 1990s, doctors have been using it for medical purposes. Numerous clinical research studies show red light therapy is effective.
Research in 36 subjects with sun-damaged skin had positive results. A combined 633 nm and 830 nm light-emitting diode (LED) treatment over five weeks led to significant improvement in wrinkles, softness, smoothness, and firmness of the skin. Electron microscopic analysis showed thicker collagen fibres.26
In a 2014 study of 90 were people treated with 611-650 nm red light (RLT) or 570-850 nm energising light (ELT), and compared to 23 controls. Both treatment groups showed increased intradermal collagen and an improvement in skin feeling and roughness.27
Another study used LED devices to treat 76 subjects with 830 mn, 633 nm, a combination of the two wavelengths or a control light. At the end of four weeks, there was a significant reduction in wrinkles, increase in skin elasticity and an increase in fibroblast activity, collagen and elastic fibres in the treatment groups.28
Professional red light facials vs at home devices
Like most at-home and professional comparisons, you can expect more pronounced results in a shorter time with professional sessions. Spas and clinics combine red and NIR with other skin treatments such as Microdermabrasion, Skin Peels, Micro-Needling, Injectable treatments, and Laser.
Here’s a comparison table to show the key similarities and differences.
|Professional red & NIR light||At-home red & NIR light|
|Who’s it for?||For men and women, safe for all skin tones and types.||For men and women, safe for all skin tones and types.|
|What skin types?||Aging, dull or inflammed skin with fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation problems.||Aging, dull or inflammed skin with fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation problems.|
|Schedule||Around 8 sessions in quick succession for best results, one every 24 to 48 hours.||3 to 5 sessions per week for 4 to 12 weeks.|
|Maintenance||Less regular maintenance sessions or repeat the course as required.||Ongoing sessions as you need them.|
|Preparation|| Clean skin, free from creams or metallic jewellery.
It helps to exfoliate before a session. Maybe combined with other treatments.
| Clean skin, free from creams or metallic jewellery.
It helps to exfoliate or use a home microdermabrasion device before a session.
|Session|| The device is perpendicular to your skin around 10 cm away. You may lie or sit depending on the configuration of the device.
No gels needed.
| Devices and application vary. Some are flexible or solid light panels positioned close to the face and neck. Others are
small handheld devices moved across the skin in sections, solid moulded light masks or (the best) soft flexible battery-powered masks.
No gels needed, however with some LED masks you can also apply a hydrating sheet mask.
|How long is a session?||10 to 30 minutes||10 to 30 minutes (depending on the device).|
|Sensation|| No pain or burning sensation. Relaxing down-time. Goggles provided with NIR treatment and as the light is very bright.
No downtime. Skin maybe red afterwards due to increased circulation.
| No pain or burning sensation. Relaxing down-time or quick hand application in sections.
No downtime. Use before your home microcurrent device.
Skin maybe red afterwards due to increased circulation.
|Side effects|| None! Very well-tolerated and completely safe procedure.
It’s safe to go in the sun before and after a session.
| None! A safe & simple procedure with no side effects. However, overuse can cause dry skin.
It’s safe to go in the sun before and after a session.
|Contraindications||Very safe procedure with just a few reasons you should not use it (see below)||Very safe procedure with just a few reasons you should not use it (see below)|
|Cost||£50 per session or £250 for six sessions||From £99 to £385|
|Results|| Smooth, firm, toned, dewy & healthy skin with a natural glow. Reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles & scars.
Results can last many months.
| Smooth, firm, toned, dewy & healthy skin with a natural glow. Reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles & scars.
Maintain results with regular weekly sessions, or more/less frequent as you need.
|Pros & Cons||
Who should avoid red & NIR light facials?
There are a few medical and health reasons you aren’t suitable for Red and NIR light therapy both professionally and at home. These are:
- You’re pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s not tested on pregnant or breast-feeding women so the risks are unknown
- You suffer from lupus erythematosus, photosensitive eczema or albinism as it may cause a severe skin reaction
- You suffer from any photosensitive disorder (sensitization to light) such as epilepsy
- You currently take steroids or cortisone injections
- You are taking any medication that can cause photosensitivity. Medications include certain antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and diuretics. If you are unsure about your medication, check with your doctor.
- If you suffer from light induced headaches
- If you suffer from any genetic conditions of the eye
- You have an open or bleeding wound
NOTE: Other substances not listed can also cause photosensitivity. Common examples are: St John’s wort, coal tar, deodorants, antibacterial soaps, artificial sweeteners, naphthalene (mothballs), petroleum products, brightening agents found in laundry detergent, and cadmium sulphide (a chemical injected into the skin during tattooing).
Where can you get red light facial?
If you have the dosh and want to splash out, you can try searching locally for a trusted beauty spa. Check the reviews, and ask about the equipment and training before you go ahead.
Alternatively, you can try one of these clinically-proven safe and effective home devices:
CurrentBody Skin LED face mask – Read our review
For fast full face rejuvenation, brightening & wrinkle reduction
About the author
Zia Sherrell is a digital health journalist and content creator with over a decade of healthcare experience and a Master of Public Health. She writes for Netdoctor, Medical News Today, Healthline and of course wearebodybeautiful.com. Her topics are diverse, from public health to medical cannabis, nutrition, and biomedical science. She empowers and educates readers with engaging, evidence-based writing. When she’s not typing madly, Zia enjoys travelling and chasing after her dogs.