Does LED Light Therapy Treat Acne? How Effective It Is According To Researchers

Brand courtesy / Dr. Dennis Gross
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Whether you’ve been combating acne since you were a teenager or only started breaking out as an adult, finding the right treatment to clear your skin is always daunting. Luckily, the skincare world offers an amalgam of options to address pimples at home. From topical products to oral medications, we have plenty of choices available to help us tackle every possible form of acne out there. One of these notorious acne treatments that have been in high demand in recent years is LED light therapy. This kind of treatment has stormed the skincare industry with its powerful acne-fighting effects, and now everybody wants their hand on it to address their acne-prone skin.

So does light therapy really help acne? And how does it do it so? Is it even safe? And more importantly, what forms of acne does it target? These are all questions we’d love to help you answer in this guide. Read on to find out everything you need to know about treating acne with LED light therapy.

What is LED therapy?

LED stands for light-emitting diode and is a painless, non-invasive treatment that uses varying wavelengths of light to enter the skin’s layers and improve concerns like wrinkles, sun damage, scarring, and acne. The different wavelengths and colors are critical as they penetrate the skin at various depths and target different conditions:[1]

  • Blue light acts on the uppermost skin layer, and it’s believed to destroy acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammations.
  • Yellow light penetrates deeper and improves hyperpigmentation and uneven tone.
  • Red light travels deeper into the skin and induces collagen and elastin production, diminishing fine lines and wrinkles.

Of all, blue light has been the most researched for acne treatment. It has been clinically proven numerous times to be effective in managing acne due to its ability to kill acne-causing bacteria, purify the skin, ease inflammation and diminish redness. Unlike topical products that work on the skin’s surface, blue light goes deeper to help eliminate bacteria before it starts to feed on the sebaceous glands and aggravate acne.

How does blue light therapy treat acne?

Blue light therapy treats acne by using light to kill certain bacteria on the skin and reduce inflammation. It turns out that P. acnes — which is the main bacteria responsible for triggering acne — is sensitive to blue light and is rapidly destroyed when exposed to it for more than 10 minutes.

However, it is important to understand that phototherapy can improve, but not completely treat, some specific forms of breakouts. It also does not work equally on all types of acne.

Studies suggest that blue light is beneficial for mild to moderate acne and mainly addresses inflammatory lesions (such as papules, pustules, and nodules). On the other hand, it has minimal effects on non-inflammatory acne (such as blackheads and whiteheads). I’m saying this because using LED treatment on a condition that is not caused by bacteria or inflammations will most likely provide no benefits.

How effective is it?

There’s a lot of scientific evidence that adds weight to the potential of blue light therapy in treating acne. For instance, in a clinical trial, 30 people with mild-to-moderate acne were treated for five weeks with blue light therapy. At the end of the study, 77% of patients noticed a major improvement in their acne lesions. Specifically, the number of comedones, papules, and pustules was reduced by nearly 60%.[2]

More interesting, though, is that red light has also been shown to improve acne and can enhance the benefits when combined with blue light. Even though red light does not have antibacterial effects, it can reach down into the skin layers to promote healing and decrease acne scarring through its collagen-boosting effects. One study actually compared the blue-red light treatment to conventional acne medicines. Results showed a mean improvement of 76% in inflammatory lesions treated with blue-red light compared with benzoyl peroxide or blue light alone.[3] Fortunately, most LED devices are made with a combination of red and blue lights, so it should be fairly easy to use both of them, even at home.

The bottom line? Blue light therapy can do wonders for acne, especially when combined with red light. Yet, the researchers point out that the results are heavily affected by the severity of the acne, the wavelength of light used, how much power the LED source has, and how consistent people are with the treatment.

What to expect

To get a better picture of what you can expect from LED light therapy, here’s an image taken before and after the treatment that shows the gradual results achieved by using a LED device for acne.

Over an eight-week treatment period, the treatment reduced the total number of lesions by 94%. The number of open and closed comedones was reduced by 100%, and the number of papules by 84%.

Is LED light therapy safe?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, blue light therapy is a safe treatment for managing acne. However, mild side effects can occur in rare cases, including redness and swelling, but they usually disappear within a few hours or by the next day.[4][5]

Since the method is non-invasive, it does not cause pain and does not require recovery time. Also, the LEDs don’t use UV lights, so they’re unlikely to cause skin damage. Dr. Glynis Ablon at the Ablon Skin Institute in Manhattan explains, “one of the most important aspects of LED phototherapy devices is their safety. LEDs are nonablative and nonthermal and do not cause damage to the epidermis or dermal tissue. When LED phototherapy is used alone, patients do not experience redness, peeling, blistering, swelling, or pain.”[6]

When you should avoid light therapy

Obviously, there are some don’ts when it comes to LED light therapy. That said, you should avoid this kind of treatment:

  • When applying topical products that cause sensitivity to light
  • When you have an active rash or psoriasis
  • When your skin is easily reactive or severely damaged
  • If you take certain medications, such as Accutane
  • If you have a history of certain conditions, including skin cancer

In these cases, you should talk to your doctor before starting LED treatment to confirm you’re a good candidate for it.

How to use LED therapy at home

Aside from in-office treatments, you can follow a light-based therapy at home by using a LED mask. Typically, most at-home LED devices use a combination of lights to treat various skin issues. They’re super easy to use and do not require medical attention. Just place the mask on your face, sit back and relax for about 10-15 minutes. Once the treatment is done, remove the device and follow up with your usual skincare routine.

Technically, LED therapy can be used on any part of the body, but the most popular usage is for the face and neck. Because the complexion is more exposed to environmental factors than other body parts, it’s more prone to develop acne, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles.

Another important aspect of getting adequate results from your blue light therapy is time. Generally, most devices require to be used anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes; read the instructions of your LED mask and follow them accordingly. Also, don’t forget to protect your eyes from the lights. Most devices come with protection goggles, but if the one you purchase doesn’t include a pair, you must buy eye protection separately.

How to prepare the skin for LED therapy

Right before using the LED mask, cleanse your face with a gentle cleanser — starting with a fresh canvas is essential to allow the light to penetrate the skin without any hindrance. Also, ideally, consider exfoliating your skin one or two days before LED therapy to eliminate dead cell buildup and gunk that may hinder the light from penetrating the skin. Personally, I do it every time, and I found that lights work more effectively on freshly exfoliated skin. Once you have your skin cleansed, you’re ready.

What to do after

After the blue LED therapy, you want to apply a serum that targets your concerns. For instance, a serum with salicylic acid is excellent for targeting clogged pores, inflammation, and excess oil and works well in combination with blue light therapy to treat acne. A vitamin C serum or one with hyaluronic acid can also help when layered after light treatment. If your skin is sensitive, you can try a product with niacinamide and zinc, like The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, which goes gently on the blemish-prone skin to control excess sebum and fights acne.

After the serum, you should always follow up with a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated and protected. Sunscreen with broad spectrum SPF 30 is also essential, so apply it daily as the last step of your morning skincare routine.

Summary

Blue light therapy is known to kill acne-causing bacteria without causing major adverse effects. It can be effective for inflammatory acne, including papules, pustules, and nodules. However, LED treatment is not a substitute for your usual skincare regimen and actually provides better results when used in tandem with a targeted anti-acne medicine.


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Ablon G. Phototherapy with Light Emitting Diodes: Treating a Broad Range of Medical and Aesthetic Conditions in Dermatology. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018 Feb;11(2):21-27. Epub 2018 Feb 1. PMID: 29552272; PMCID: PMC5843358.
  2. Dai T, Gupta A, Murray CK, Vrahas MS, Tegos GP, Hamblin MR. Blue light for infectious diseases: Propionibacterium acnes, Helicobacter pylori, and beyond? Drug Resist Updat. 2012 Aug;15(4):223-36. doi: 10.1016/j.drup.2012.07.001. Epub 2012 Jul 28. PMID: 22846406; PMCID: PMC3438385.
  3. Papageorgiou P, Katsambas A, Chu A. Phototherapy with blue (415 nm) and red (660 nm) light in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Br J Dermatol. 2000 May;142(5):973-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2000.03481.x. PMID: 10809858.
  4. Pei S, Inamadar AC, Adya KA, Tsoukas MM. Light-based therapies in acne treatment. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2015 May-Jun;6(3):145-57. doi: 10.4103/2229-5178.156379. PMID: 26009707; PMCID: PMC4439741.
  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association, Laser and Lights: How Well Do They Treat Acne?
  6. Journal of Clinical and Aestethic Dermatoogy, Phototherapy with Light Emitting Diodes: Treating a Broad Range of Medical and Aesthetic Conditions in Dermatology, Glynis Ablon, MD, FAAD
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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