Out of all the whizzy skin-boosting technologies that are available both in-clinic and as at-home devices, LED therapy is the one that has truly taken off in the past two years. Along with Gua Sha and microneedling, ‘light treatment’ searches shot up most (by 20 per cent) over lockdown and beyond. Known to be safe and painless and backed by lots of clinical evidence, the brilliance of LED light therapy is that it re-boots our cells to function optimally and thrive: “it’s the equivalent of photosynthesis for mammals,” says Patrick Johnson, CEO and inventor of Celluma Led devices. Or, to use another analogy, charging your electric car. For our skin that means many things: less inflammation, faster healing, fading signs of ageing and improvement of conditions such as acne and eczema. LED is such a fail-safe skin booster, celebs like Victoria Beckham and Kourtney Kardashian and their MUAs can’t get enough of their masks, using LED masks before the Oscars and other major events for a pre-red carpet glow-up.
But not all LED therapy devices are made equal. With so many new ones available and big claims about wrinkle-reduction, acne improvement and so on seemingly identical across the price spectrum (which ranges from £100 to a few £1000), how do you know which gadget to plump for? We have all the answers right here.
How does LED therapy work?
LED (Light Emitting Diodes) or LLL (Low-Level-Light) therapy was initially developed by NASA, which is not just a mind-boggling marketing claim in this case: “in zero-gravity, cellular ageing happens at a massively accelerated rate,” says Johnson. “So the space agency looked for therapies to counteract this.” Irradiating cells with light at very specific wavelengths was shown to stimulate the cells’ mitochondria (their energy-generating centres or ‘batteries’) and kick-start biochemical changes in a process called ‘photobiomodulation’. “More energy in your cells means more cellular repair and regeneration, and an improved ability to fight decline, damage and disease,” he says.
The technology was soon translated into devices for improving skin as well as some health conditions and is backed by more than 3000 clinical studies* – in fact, LED therapy enjoys more clinical proof than lasers. “Decades of medical research on the benefits of LED/LLLT on the skin, body and brain demonstrate the ability of specific wavelengths not just to support and enhance skin cell regeneration, but have a positive impact on blood flow and inflammation as well,” says Laura Ferguson, co-founder of The Light Salon.
Is LED therapy safe?
It is, but that doesn’t mean ALL light therapy is. Measured in nanometres (nm), “anything below 400nm is in the UV light range (UVA, UVB, and UVC), and we know how dangerous that can be,” says Johnson. It is, of course, the whole reason we wear sunscreen, as these rays promote DNA damage, cancer and skin ageing. “Above 900nm, you get thermal (heat) events,” continues Johnson. “These can improve blood flow (it’s called vasodilation), such as with infrared saunas. But infrared wavelengths don’t upregulate cellular energy (called ATP) - only NEAR-infrared light, which is a subtly different wavelength, does.” Go even higher and you get ‘ablative’ lasers, which burn and cut like light sabres.
When it comes to effective LED light therapy, “There are only three proven wavelengths that are of value,” says cosmetic doctor and surgeon Miss Sherina Balaratnam. Unlike UV, we can see this light; it manifests in different colours. “There’s blue for killing C. acnes bacteria (as we’ll see, this is NOT the same maligned blue light that your gadgets emit), red for treating a wide variety of skin issues including wrinkles, wound healing and hair restoration, and near-infrared (NIR) light for skin, pain, muscle and joint conditions. No other wavelengths are supported by the scientific community,” says Balaratnam. To get very scientific, these colours correspond to specific wavelengths: 415nm for blue light, 630-680nm for red light and 830nm for near-infrared light. We mention this because “if your device lists wildly different values (and light colours, such as green), it’s not going to benefit your skin,” says Balaratnam.
So what can the right ‘colours’ do for your skin? Well, quite a bit…
Can LED therapy calm your skin?
Yes, and this benefit underlies all the others LED has, as inflammation causes all kinds of problems in the skin and body. Combining red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths has been shown to be the most effective calmer: “they reach different depths of the skin, so they work together for optimal results,” says Balaratnam.
“The combo [which looks orange when emitting from your device] helps activate anti-oxidant molecules in the skin. They will despatch cell-destroying and irritating free radicals which come sailing in from the environment (pollution, UV, etc.) but are also generated in the body itself (stress). This bolsters cells’ ability to combat damage and subdues redness and inflammation,” says founder and CCO of Cellreturn UK Lily Earle. The effect is powerful enough to, over time, help quell the symptoms of chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and flushing (LED hasn’t been officially cleared to improve rosacea, although most insiders say it does).
Beware, says tweakments authority Alice Hart-Davis, if users speak of their masks imparting a ‘rosy glow'. “A good LED device leaves skin totally calm – never flushed or hot,’ she says. “If that happens, you haven’t chosen the right gadget.”
Can LED therapy fight the signs of ageing?
Yes. “The anti-inflammatory, energising and circulation-boosting benefits are, by themselves, anti-ageing and healing,” says Balaratnam. Additionally, she says, the deeper-penetrating NIR waves reach the collagen-producing dermis to kickstart collagen and elastin generation as well as help hydrate and brighten skin. “The visible changes include a lessening of fine lines, crepiness, wrinkles and sun spots,” says Earle. “More collagen and elastin also means thicker, firmer skin, so you should see less sagging,”
Can LED therapy improve spots and acne?
That’s another yes. “Blue LED light controls sebum, destroys acne and other bacteria, and calms other bacterial conditions for improved skin clarity,” says Balaratnam. This is at the specific wavelength of 415nm, which is the most intensely anti-bacterial. Go below 400nm and you’re veering into high-energy visible light (HEVL) territory, damaging blue light that’s part of the UV spectrum (and also emitted by smartphones) and can nuke skin cells.
Blue light at the right wavelength, says Earle, also has an anti-inflammatory effect and has been shown to not only dampen acne outbreaks, but help prevent them from occurring.
Fusing red and blue light enhances the acne-busting benefits, as a 2015 University of Chicago study proved. This is why the anti-acne setting on your device will often shine purple, combining lights of both colours.
Can LED therapy boost your mood?
It can: LED affects our hormone levels and can boost serotonin (happy hormone) and melatonin (the sleep hormone) levels, as well as balance cortisol (the stress hormone). So it’s an all-over feelgood-therapy.
MORE GLOSS: Why LED Therapy is the mood booster we all need
Why do skin doctors recommend LED therapy?
Skin therapists and doctors, as well as dedicated LED clinics like the Light Salon, have long offered stand-alone LED treatments to improve and maintain skin health. But increasingly, clinicians see LED as an essential add-on to more invasive treatments like micro-needling and laser. “The most popular anti-ageing treatments, including Morpheus 8 and Ultherapy, work by inflicting controlled damage to the skin in order to offset a collagen-boosting healing response,” says Johnson. “But we have learned that this should be offset by something that turns off the inflammatory process soon after it’s induced skin repair, so it doesn’t run wild and starts doing long-term damage.” Calming and balancing LED therapy is thought to be the technology to achieve this. Even the doctor who invented microneedling, says Johnson, advises NOT to have that treatment if you can’t follow it up immediately with low-level light therapy.
“I know from observing my patients that professional LED sessions as part of the treatment package significantly speed up their results and reduce their downtime,” says cosmetic physician and dentist Dr Ayah. “It’s particularly obvious in those who struggle with problematic skin conditions such as acne and eczema.”
LED light also stimulates the lymphatic system and strengthens the immune system, while professional devices (more about that later) are used by physicians for a host of non-skin related medical conditions such as osteoarthritis, wound healing, muscle pain and hair loss.
What should I look for in a good LED therapy device?
This is where things get confusing, and LED device manufacturers all start contradicting each other. Here’s what they can (mostly) agree on:
Get the wavelengths right
The proven wavelengths are 415nm blue light, 630-680nm red light and 830nm near-infrared light. You can discount devices that make a big play of their ‘rainbow’ of other colour settings, such as green, although some of these may refer to proven light combinations, such as blue + red = purple. “Each colour frequency also needs to be precise, consistent and stable, which requires high-quality [read: expensive] LED bulbs or diodes, says Ferguson. “If they’re not, the light will not hit the targeted area, cells won’t absorb the energy properly, and you won’t get the results.”
Power is not a guarantee for better results
Apart from the two factors above, the intensity or power (the wattage) of the device needs to be optimised rather than turned up to the max; ‘stronger’ is not always ‘better’,” says Ferguson. “Delivering too much too quickly can generate heat, which you don’t want. Delivering too little will get no results.” The power and the distance of the device to the skin, along with the quality of the light and the length of each session, all need to be calibrated together to determine an effective dose of energy for your cells. Evidently, it’s a delicately balanced puzzle that’s quite open to interpretation and opinion by manufacturers. Clinical proof that their device works (as opposed to proof that LED technology in general works) is key here.
Results are cumulative, and consistent use is key
Inflammation in the body and skin is a constant, lifelong issue – which means LED therapy should be a constant habit. “LED is like exercise – the more you do, the more you gain,” says Ferguson. “One session will boost cellular activity, but multiple sessions will offer visible results. This is because your skin cells absorb and react to light differently from day to day.” Like the difference between an intense PT session and a DIY workout where you may not be working quite as hard, a quality, powerful professional device requires fewer sessions to get results than a quality, lower-wattage at-home mask.
Medical-device clearance is important (but can be misleading)
Many at-home masks are now flaunting their FDA clearance. It is proof that the authorities in the US, where at-home LED devices are classed and must be passed as ‘medical’ (in many other countries, they’re allowed to be sold either as cosmetic or medical devices) have checked over the safety of the device and have accepted the proof the manufacturer (which can differ quite significantly in scope and ambition) that it lives up to the claims it makes.
But this submitted proof can vary from a cosmetic claim like ‘helps reduce wrinkles over time’ to the full medical spectrum of results such as acne and pain reduction. This means devices with FDA clearance, while all robustly safe and somewhat effective, can vary massively in what they can really treat and how efficient they are – and in most cases you won‘t know these details unless you study the clearance and the papers submitted to the authorities. It goes some way in explaining why your FDA-cleared LED device can be £200 or £2000!
The most reliable way to know if you’ve got one of the most powerful at-home devices is European CE Medical Device (CE MDR) clearance, which requires that your LED device can effectively treat medical conditions such as arthritis, psoriasis and acne, alongside cosmetic issues such as redness and crepeyness. “Here, you know you’re dealing with medically certified, clinical-grade LED,” says Hart-Davis. “It’s a proper quality guarantee.” This is different from regular CE clearance, which simply guarantees the safety of the cosmetic device.
Which are the best at-home LED therapy devices?
Unsurprisingly, this is a tricky question to answer. We will concentrate on just a handful of popular devices with some decent science behind them. We’ve stuck to masks and panels; there’s also an increasing number of pens and other handheld LED devices you move around your face, but while any LED is good LED, it’s doubtful that a gadget that doesn’t irradiate skin consistently for a set amount of time is going to do all that much for your skin.
Before you stump up your hard-earned cash, remember that, like skincare, only consistent use will get you benefits. So be prepared to use your purchase often and, well, forever!
And one caveat: some brands suggest you use your device after applying skincare to ‘improve results’. Wrong, says Johnson: any skincare will deflect LED light and hamper its penetration. LED treatments must always be done on cleansed, product-free skin.”
FDA-cleared and a certified CE Medical device for treating acne, wound healing, psoriasis, and pain alongside cosmetic indications like pigmentation and wrinkles, this flexible panel has shown itself in clinical tests to be “3x more powerful than other at-home devices” in terms of the energy it emits. Dermalux make even more powerful LED devices for clinic use, but the Flex is considered a professional device that is also cleared for home use. Plenty of pros and beauty editors use it as part of their arsenal, and Hart-Davis submitted it to a doctor-assisted trial with dramatic results: her wrinkles reduced by 20% after using it 4-5x weekly for 3 months. Easy to set up and stow away, you ought to do three 30-minute treatments weekly in the long run.
Also boasting CE Medical device clearance alongside ten FDA clearances for medical and cosmetic uses (including stiff joints, muscle spasms and compromised blood circulation, acne, and more), all Celluma’s LED panels are for clinicians and at-home use – there is no difference between ‘pro’ and ‘punter’ devices. These flexible panels (there’s even on to combat hair loss) can be moulded to suit face and body areas, and hold their shape. One point of difference with other pro devices is that they are used right against the skin; another is ‘pulsed’ delivery of the light energy. Both, says the company, optimise light absorption and therefore results (and may explain why the wavelengths are calibrated slightly differently than is the norm). Visible results on wrinkles are promised when used for 30 minutes 3x weekly for four weeks, with each session delivering “48 hours of photonic activity” in your cells. Along with the Dermalux Flex, it’s the device most backed by doctors.
Korean-designed with proprietary doctor-led technology, this face and neck-covering mask claims to be the strongest LED brand on the market for at-home use, based on the fact that it has up to five times more diodes (light bulbs) than other masks (and more than the Dermalux and Cellreturn panels). This, however, is something the competition contests, saying the consistency and accuracy of the wavelengths and diodes is far more important than their number. Company founder Lily Earle will not disclose the wavelengths and wattage due to her technology being patented, but points to a published medical trial that proves the device’s rejuvenation claims, which are FDA-cleared but have no Medical CE mark. Earle doesn’t prescribe a treatment protocol but says for best results to use it indefinitely for 20-minute sessions, three times weekly.
The easiest to use of all the masks. You just pop it on your face (no straps, no weight), press a button and relax for three minutes. According to Dr. Gross, you need to do this every day for 10 weeks to get equivalent results to four professional LED treatments, and it has to be said it’s no problem complying to this, giving it’s a nice soothing thing to do and takes about as long as brushing your teeth. This was the first at-home mask to get FDA clearance – that is for wrinkle reduction and, says Dr Gross, mild to moderate acne. He points to extensive third-party research and clinical studies; the mask does not have CE medical clearance, though.
The Light Salon has become a byword for professional LED therapy in the UK, and its Boost at-home devices are proudly said to feature the exact same technology as its professional salon panels (with extensive in-house clinical trials to show for it). “They just emit less power so they have to be used more often and sit directly on the skin,” says Light Salon co-founder Laura Ferguson. This collar can be strapped or placed anywhere on the face and neck: according to Ferguson, using Boost devices five times a week for 10 minutes is equivalent to two professional sessions a week (on the basis of four weeks or longer), with improvements of the professional programme continuing for up to 100 days afterwards. The collar is FDA-cleared for rejuvenation, but has no CE Medical accreditation.
Part of a growing collection of ‘facial feature’ LED masks (ones for the neck and for just the lips are also available), Currentbody’s flexible full-face mask has FDA clearance or wrinkle reduction while the eye mask is “going through the process”; neither is a CE Medical device. This mask promises “younger-looking eyes” (softened crows’ feet, crepeyness and frown lines) in 8 weeks of daily 3-minute use. Physicians such as Dr Ayah like devices such as these as they promote compliance: “consistent use is key with LED, and any quality LED device that is quick and easy can sustain in-clinic results,” she says.