Read This Before Using Red Light Therapy for Photodamage

Considering how much I loved the beach as a kid, I’m surprised that I don’t have more pigment issues and wrinkles today. The sun’s rays damage our skin, and the results show up when we’re older. That sun exposure causes future wrinkles, loss of collagen, and pigment issues. I don’t have a lot of wrinkles, but my skin is rough and dull. I’d like to reverse the damage the sun has done. Can light therapy reverse photodamage to the skin?

Yes, light therapy can reverse photodamage. It can soften the skin’s texture, increase collagen and elastin, even out color, and brighten the tone.  There is one exception, in that people with pigmentation issues might need to avoid red light in certain areas.   With this one exception, studies show that treatment with blue, red, infrared, green, and yellow colored light of the right intensities and wavelengths can reverse sun damage. While dermatologists offer topical treatments, this article is all about how to reverse photodamage using light therapy.

What is Photodamage/Photoaging?

Sunlight's UVA and UVB cause photodamage.
Sunlight’s UVA and UVB cause photodamage.

Photoaging is a form of skin damage. Skin exposure to the sun creates damage at the epidermis and dermis levels.

The sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV) damage skin cells to different depths, depending on the type of sun ray hitting the skin:

  • UVB damages the epidermis
  • UVA damages the deeper dermis

Because most of the signs of aging are skin damage, we also call photodamage “photoaging.”

What are Symptoms of Photodamage/Photoaging?

She spent time in the sun.
She spent time in the sun.

Photodamage changes the look and the texture of the skin.

This damage can cause symptoms found in the table below.

Photodamage Symptoms
wrinkles
more and deeper wrinkles
lines
fine lines
rhytids
pigmented wrinkles
melasma
pigment condition causing brown skin on nose, cheeks, forehead and lip
roughness
uneven texture
erythema
superficial capillary inflammation causing redness
solar lentigenes
pigment condition causing discolored spots

Does Photodamage Happen Only to Sunbathers?

Even if you stayed in the car with the window open, you got enough sun to cause photodamage.
Even if you stayed in the car with the window open, you got enough sun to cause photodamage. You don’t need to tan or burn to get photodamage.

Photodamage is a result of all sun exposure. It’s not just a product tanning or burning. Just the exposure to UVA and UVB now can cause photodamage symptoms years from now.

Photodamage Can Cause Wrinkles

Before and after red light therapy on photodamage eye wrinkles.
Before and after red light therapy on photodamage eye wrinkles.

Photodamage can cause wrinkles on the face, neck, and chest.

These wrinkles can be fine, deep, unpigmented or pigmented (rhytids are pigmented wrinkles).

Photoaging wrinkles occur:

  • around the eyes eyes
  • on the cheeks
  • on the neck, including “turkey neck”
  • on the chest, in the shape of the area clothing does not cover
  • the upper lip
  • on the sides of the mouth
  • on the forehead

Sun Exposure Causes Pigment Changes

Solar Lentigines rhytids
Solar lentigines (rhytids) are pigmented wrinkles. The pigmented frown lines are glabeller rhytids.

The body produces melanin (pigment) in response to sun exposure.

So it’s not suprising that pigment disorders are a common symptom of sun exposure.

Photodamaged pigment includes symptoms in these areas:

Photodamage Pigment Symptoms
rhytid
brown wrinkle
solar lentigenes
discolored spot also known as liver spot, age spot, and sun spot; a form of hyperpigmentation
melasma
brown splotches on nose, cheek, forehead, lip; a form of hyperpigmentation
freckles
small brown flecks across the cheeks

 

LED light therapy effect on sun damage in the chest area
LED light therapy can reduce chest skin photodamage.

Sun Exposure Causes Capillary Damage

Before and after light therapy on photodamaged red skin
LED light therapy can reduce skin redness from photodamaged capillaries.

Photodamage can affect the capillaries. The broken capillaries appear as redness, or erythema.

Photodamaged red skin can appear as the following symptoms:

Photodamage Capillary Symptoms
rosacea
red splotches on cheeks and chin
spider veins
small veins showing in nose

Sun Exposure Can Causes Rough Skin

Photodamage can cause rough, flaking skin. It can damage elacticity, so that the skin does not snap back into its youthful place. Photodamage is one cause of sagging skin.

If photodamage causes collagen loss, the skin can sag, crinkle, and take on a leathery texture.

Is Photoaging just Aging?

Some people who avoid sun exposure can reach old age without too many signs of aging skin.

Older people who have completely refrained from sun exposure often have plump skin with even coloring.

Sun exposure is the main cause of wrinkling, age-related redness, and roughness.

Photodamage gives you more wrinkles, deeper wrinkles more lines, and deeper lines.

Melasma hyperpigmentation before and after treatment
Melasma hyperpigmentation before and after LED  treatment that evened pigmentation and induced collagen creation.

Light Therapy Can Act as a Sunscreen

Noon sun has more UV rays than sunrise or sunset.
Noon sun has more UV rays than sunrise or sunset sun.

Blue, green, yellow, red and infrared LED light therapy can reverse sun damage, when applied in the correct wavelengths, intensities, and times.

Red light has a photoprotective effect on the skin. It can act as a sunscreen.

Exposing yourself to the right kind and amount of red light can saturate the light receptors (chromophores) in the skin.

This appears to have the effect of stopping the skin from absorbing UV rays.

In this regard, red light is a completely non-toxic sunscreen.

Is it Too Late to Reverse Sun Damage?

I doubt it’s ever too late to reverse sun damage, but I don’t see what dermatologists see, so maybe I’m being unrealistic.

LED light therapy induces collagen production, and that’s always an improvement.

The light therapies that reduce sun-related wrinkles and pigmentation work on all types of skin.

Before and after treatment erythmea
Before and after LED light therapy treatment of photodamage redness (erythmea)

How Do You Treat Photodamage with LED Light?

Red light therapy is appropriate for some times of photoaging, but not for hyperpigmentation.
Red light therapy is appropriate for all photodamage except in some cases of hyperpigmentation.

There are hundreds of approaches to treating photodamage.

My favorite is using a home LED light therapy device.

Photodamage responds well to blue, green, yellow, red, and infrared light.

Can the Red Light Itself Cause More Photodamage?

Red light can sometimes increase melanin in the skin.

This can increase pigmentation issues such as sun spots and freckles (if freckles are unwanted, as technically freckles are not a disorder!).

Normally we think of pigmentation as being a UV light issue.

Based on the evidence from some  studies, and multiple posts I’ve read on the internet (admittedly anecdotal), red light can cause an increase in melanin and therefore pigmentation concerns.

People with existing melasma and age spots have reported red light exposure increasing the severity of their pigmenation issues.

In at least one study, researchers found that red light increases the skin’s melanin.

How to Deal with Red Light Pigmentation Problems

There is good news, though, because there’s a very easy workaround to this problem.

Yes, red light can induce melanin production, but you can reverse that by combining red light with blue light.

You will see in one of the studies I mention below, the use of combined blue and red light decreased melanin in the subjects’ skin.

In the most drastic case, you can avoid red light altogether.

You can use blue, green, yellow, and possibly infrared LED light therapy.

The answer is using blue with red, or avoiding red.

Red light reduces pigmentation differences, including freckles.
Red light can increase pigmentation, adding to age spots, melasma, and freckles. Combining blue with red light can reduce melanin and reduce pigmentation problems.

What Colors of LED Light Treat Photodamage?

The science  shows that  at least four wavelength ranges can improve photodamage conditions.

Below you will find four studies that successfully reversed photoaging symptoms.

Here is a summary of the light therapy wavelength and doses used in those studies.

A Note About Light Doses

If you are unfamiliar with how to read a red light dose, please see What is a Dose of Red Light Therapy? (opens in new window on this EMF Channel site).

A dose of light is a combination of wavelength and energy.

The wavelength is the distance between two wave peaks as light travels in a wave pattern.

A 415 nm wavelength light is blue (or violet, the color ranges are not set in stone).

A 633 nm wavelength light is red.

We measure the energy that reaches the skin in “joules.”

A typical light therapy dose is between 5 and 50 joules.

When lasers were the only method of light transmission, scientists measured the energy in density per square centimeter.

When you see a notation like this, it means “50 joules per squared centimeter.”

50 J/cm^2

Scientists used square centimeters because laser targets are so small.

LED targets are much larger. The surface area treated is much larger.

Instead of defining energy in a squared centimeter, we just refer to energy in the area treated.

A light dose that leaves off “/cm^2” implies that this is the joules per target rather than per square centimeter.

Now you will see a light dose like this, and it means “50 joules per area treated”:

50 J

So, 50 J/cm^2 means that a 1/4 inch spot received 50 joules of energy. That’s relatively intense.

50 J means that the entire area treated received 50 joules. If this area is very small, that’s an intense dose. If this area is someone’s entire body, that’s a relatively low dose.

Combined Blue and Red Light Therapy Photodamage Dose

The combination below reduced pigmentation, and acne symptoms. 48 and 96 J/cm^2 are relative high energy doses. If you are using an at-home device, you might need to spend quite a bit of time per treatment to copy this study’s method.

  • 415 nm blue light, 48 J/cm^2
  • 633 nm red light, 96 J/cm/cm^2

Yellow Light Therapy Photodamage Dose

The dose below increased softness and reduced wrinkles. The dose energy might be a typo  as it is extremely low.

  • 590 nm yellow, 0.1 J/cm^2

Red Light Therapy Photodamage Dose

Warning: Some people will have pigmentation increase on red light therapy.

The dose below increased collagen and reduced pigmented wrinkles (rhytids). 4 J/area is a moderately low energy dose.

  • 660 nm (red) pulsed, 4 J/area

Combined Red and Infrared Light Photodamage Dose

Warning: Some people will have pigmentation increase on red light therapy.

The dose below reduced wrinkles. The 66 and 126 joules doses are at the high end.

  • 633 nm (red),  126 J/cm^2
  • 830 nm (infrared), 66 J/cm^2

Reduce Photodamage with a Combination of Red and Blue Light

Red and violet
Red and Blue combined visually looks like purple

While testing a ight dose to treat acne, researchers stumbled on a dose that treated photoaging.

They combined red and blue light during the therapy and discovered that the combination reduced the melanin present in the subjects’ skin.

By reducing the melanin, the treatment smoothed out the hyperpigmentation present on some faces.

Researchers treated the subjects with lights that switched between 415 nm (blue) and 633 nm (red) light for 8 sessions over 2 weeks.

The light doses were:

  • 415 nm, 48 J/cm2
  • 633 nm, 96 J/cm

48 J and 96 J are on the higher side of the typical energy doses used in light therapy.

In addition to reducing acne symptoms, the treatments reduced total melanin in the subjects’ faces.

Fourteen of the 24 patients spontaneously reported that their skin looked brighter and more even toned.

source, source

The Use of Yellow Light to Reduced Photodamage

Yellow
Yellow

In a study that reduced multiple photodamage symptoms, researchers used a yellow light with a 590 nm wavelength.

They administered a very low dose of only 0.1 J/cm^2, unless that is a typo in the summary article. The dose is:

590 nm, 0.10 J/cm^2

Three hundred patients received 590 nm light therapy with no other interventions.

270 of those patients reported that their skin:

  • had a softer feel
  • had reduced rough areas
  • reduced fine lines in some cases quite dramatically

A similar study using 590 nm but changing the pulsing of the light yielded even more benefits.

59 out of 90 patients reported softer skin with smother pigmentation.

Judges blinded to who received treatment viewed and rated the treated skin. They catalogued the benefits as:

  • smoother texture
  • fewer and reduced lines
  • less redness
  • less pigmentation variability
  • markedly increased collagen
  • reduced inflammation

source, source, source

Use Red Light to Reduce Photodamage

Red
Red

Red light is a hugely successful color that addresses about everything photodamage does to the face and neck.

One study found that 660 nm red light could increase collagen by as much as 31%.

Researchers treated subjects with a preliminary moisturizer.

They then irradiated subjects with 660 nm pulsed light.

The total dose was 4 J per area, which is a low energy

Subjects received twelve treatments over four weeks.

Tissue tests revealed a 31% increase in collagen at the top end.

Rhytids (pigmented wrinkles) reduced by 51%.

Judges blind to who was treated said the wrinkle improvement was mild to moderate.

source, source

Use Red and Infrared to Reduce Photodamage

infrared and red can work combined or by themselves, depending on the goal.
infrared and red can work combined or by themselves, depending on the goal.

Red and infrared are by far the most popular lights in over the counter therapy devices.

One study used 633 nm red and 830 nm infrared light to reduce the effects of photoaging.

Thirty-one subjects received nine treatments over 12 weeks.

They alternated between 126 J/cm^2 of 633 nm light and 66 J/cm^2 of 830 nm light, which are high-energy doses.

16 subjects had a 25-50% improvement in photoaging scores.

25 subjects had significant reduction in wrinkles around the eyes.

source, source

Conclusion

I have a friend who used red light therapy for several years.

He’s 2 months short of age 70, and he looks about 50.

We have hundreds of studies showing that LED light therapy can reduce photodamage, with positive effects on wrinkles, pigment, and collagen.

References

  • Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring
  • Blue and red light combination LED phototherapy for acne vulgaris in patients with skin phototype IV
  • Clinical experience with light-emitting diode (LED) photomodulation
  • Clinical trial of a novel non-thermal LED array for reversal of photoaging: clinical, histologic, and surface profilometric results
  • Regulation of Skin Collagen Metabolism In Vitro Using a Pulsed 660 nm LED Light Source: Clinical Correlation with a Single-Blinded Study
  • A study to determine the efficacy of combination LED light therapy (633 nm and 830 nm) in facial skin rejuvenation
  • Photoaging (Sun Damage)
  • What is the difference between normal ageing versus photoageing?
  • Photoaging
  • Treatment of Hyperpigmented Photodamaged Skin
  • Brightening and Improvement of Facial Skin Quality in Healthy Female Subjects With Moderate Hyperpigmentation or Dark Spots and Moderate Facial Aging
  • Melasma, a photoaging disorder
  • Different Types of Hyperpigmentation