Shine a Light On Clearer Skin With Red Light Therapy for Acne
Acne has come to be known as the scourge of the pubescent, a cruel twist for those for whom life is already at its most awkward, but somehow it’s not taken very seriously on a societal level. It’s treated as a fleeting phase and a rite of passage. “You’ll grow out of it,” they say. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The reality about acne is twofold. First, many people experience such severe acne that it causes permanent scars and wreaks havoc on their self-esteem. Second, while acne is generally at its worst during adolescence, the idea that it automatically resolves after high school is a myth. A large number of people continue to struggle with it well into adulthood and some even have it to some degree their entire lives.
Treatment for acne is certainly no walk in the park, either, with many involving harsh chemicals and serious side effects. And many sufferers are put through one treatment after another, only to find they’re ineffective.
Some acne sufferers have discovered relief in the form of light therapy. While you may have heard of blue light being beneficial for treating acne, did you know that red light can help you achieve clear skin as well? Let’s take a quick look at the benefits of red light therapy for acne.
Facts About Acne
- The scientific name for acne is acne vulgaris (vulgaris is a latin adjective meaning common).
- According to the American Medical Association, acne affects between 40 and 50 million people in the US alone. While teens make up the bulk of those affected, it’s estimated that 54% of women and 40% of men over 25 suffer from the condition.
- Acne can be inflammatory or noninflammatory. The latter, also called comedonal acne, typically refers to whiteheads and blackheads and responds well to treatment. The former consists of swelling, redness and an accumulation of pus. Examples of inflammatory acne include, from mildest to most severe, non comedonal acne, papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.
- While acne most commonly affects the face, it can also be found on the back, neck, chest, shoulders and upper arms.
- There is a difference between pimples and acne. While everyone gets the odd pimple, acne is recognized as a chronic skin condition and a disease. Pimples are a symptom of acne.
What Causes Acne?
There are essentially four steps, or factors, in the development of inflammatory acne symptoms.
- Excess sebum production: Sebum is your skin’s natural lubricant, produced by glands attached to hair follicles. When your body produces too much sebum it can clog pores.
- Clogging of hair follicles by oil and dead skin cells.
- Bacteria: Everyone has acne-causing bacteria on their skin, called Propionibacterium acnes, or P. Acnes, that feed on sebum. Research has found that P. Acnes behaves differently on different people, causing acne in some and not in others. What’s more, researchers have recently discovered that certain strains of the bacteria are more commonly found on healthy skin than acne-prone skin, indicating a possible preventative effect. (Source)
- Inflammation: The redness, swelling and pus commonly associated with acne is a result of an inflammatory response to bacterial infection. P. Acnes secretes substances that break down sebum, which it then consumes. These secreted substances irritate the surrounding tissue, causing an inflammatory response that leads to swelling, redness, and pus.
Some researchers have recently posited that inflammation may play a larger role than originally thought, and that acne is at its root an inflammatory disease. (Source) This has major implications for treatment with red light therapy.
There are also factors that can trigger or worsen acne, including:
Genetics: While there is no known acne gene, genetics can influence whether or not someone is prone to acne. How a person’s immune system responds to inflammation can be hereditary, for instance, as can the speed at which one sheds dead skin cells, both of which can influence acne.
Hormones: Androgens are a type of hormone that, among their many functions, cause sebaceous glands to enlarge and secrete more sebum. At puberty your hormone levels shoot up quite dramatically, and your sebaceous glands are suddenly kicked into overdrive. This is why teens suffer more from acne than any other age group. Androgen levels tend to stabilize some as your body stops growing.
Medications: Several medications can cause acne or worsen it, including corticosteroids, androgenic steroids, anticonvulsants, barbiturates and lithium, to name a few.
Diet: You might be old enough to remember when it was thought that too much pizza and chocolate causes acne, or maybe you’re from the generation that dispelled that myth. Well, new evidence indicates that diet may indeed be a factor in the development of acne. Studies have shown that people who consume high-fat foods (including meat and dairy), high-sugar foods, or a combination of both are more likely to have acne (there is still no indication that chocolate causes acne, though. Phew!)
How Is Acne Treated?
That the cause of acne hasn’t been pinned down makes it all the more difficult to treat. Here are some of the more common acne treatments.
Retinoids and similar drugs: Creams, gels and lotions containing retinoic acids or tretinoin help prevent the clogging of hair follicles. Side effects include redness, dry skin and increased photosensitivity.
Azelaic acid: This compound found in wheat, rye and barley has antibacterial properties and can soothe inflammation. It’s also used to treat discoloration caused by some types of acne. Side effects include dryness and mild irritation.
Topical androgen receptor inhibitor: Clascoterone cream 1% is a new acne treatment, only approved by the FDA in 2020. It works by binding with androgen receptors located in hair follicles and sebaceous glands, preventing them from binding with androgens, which would increase sebum production.
Antibiotics: Applied to the skin, they can reduce the amount of P. Acnes found on the skin, and can also help with redness and inflammation. They can be used in conjunction with retinoids (antibiotics in the morning and retinoids at night). They’re also often used with benzoyl peroxide to combat antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics: Oral antibiotics are usually a short-term treatment to reduce acne-causing bacteria, as antibiotic resistance can occur more quickly than with topical antibiotics. For this reason they’re generally always combined with benzoyl peroxide.
Oral contraceptives: Combination pills that include both estrogen and progestin have been shown to be effective in the treatment of acne and thus are often prescribed to women. They work by lowering androgen levels, which results in decreased sebum production. Side effects can include weight gain, nausea, headaches, breast tenderness and menstrual irregularities. They also slightly increase the risk of blood clots.
Isotretinoin: You’ve probably heard of this treatment under the brand name Accutane. It’s used to treat severe cystic acne that is unresponsive to other treatments. It works by shrinking sebaceous glands, thereby reducing pore-clogging excess sebum. While it’s highly effective in eliminating acne—often permanently—it’s usually only prescribed as a last resort due to its serious risks and side effects. Minor side effects include dry mouth and skin, chapped lips, and nosebleeds. More serious ones include thinning hair, muscle and joint pain, stomach issues, unhealthy cholesterol levels, night blindness, and in rare cases, liver damage and pressure on the brain. It’s never prescribed to pregnant women as it’s known to cause severe birth defects, miscarriage and stillbirth.
Drainage and extraction: Surgical treatments are sometimes necessary for cystic acne that has become or is at risk of becoming infected. It’s also sometimes done to improve the appearance of skin for people with a large number of noninflammatory pimples. To avoid potential infection or scarring, it’s very important not to attempt this treatment without the help of a professional.
Cortisone shot: This treatment involves injecting a diluted corticosteroid directly into the cyst or nodule. It works by reducing inflammation and speeding up healing.
Light therapy: Blue light is the most common form of light therapy used to treat acne. It has a well-known powerful antimicrobial effect, destroying the bacteria that can cause acne before it has the chance to feed off sebaceous glands and cause inflammation. While it is safe and non-invasive, it can cause temporary redness, irritation, swelling, and skin may blister, crust, and peel. It’s advised to avoid sunlight in the days after treatment as well, due to increased photosensitivity.
Blue light isn’t the only light capable of treating acne, however. Let’s take a look at how red and near-infrared light can help you achieve clearer skin, safely and naturally.
What Is Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is a therapeutic treatment during which red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths of light are delivered through the skin to the body’s cells, where it creates an optimal environment for cellular energy to be produced more efficiently. This increase in energy allows your tissues and organs to perform more optimally. Essentially, red light therapy enables your body to use its own energy to treat a variety of issues, including acne.
(Want to learn more about how red light therapy works? We’ve got you. This article covers a lot of the hard science behind the treatment, while this one provides an overview of its numerous benefits. And then there’s our trusty blog, which is chock full of information.)
Treat Acne Safely and Naturally With Red Light Therapy
One of the hallmarks of red light therapy is its ability to reduce inflammation. It does this in a couple of ways.
Red light therapy boosts circulation
Red light therapy has been shown to improve blood flow by triggering the release of nitric oxide (NO). NO is your body’s natural vasodilator, meaning that it relaxes the inner muscles of your blood vessels, causing them to expand.
This increased blood flow allows oxygen and nutrients to reach your cells more efficiently, which aids in the optimal functioning of your organs, promoting faster healing of breakouts.
Red light therapy reduces inflammation
While excess sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria are the key ingredients of acne, what you see—meaning the redness, swelling and pus—is inflammation, caused by your body’s immune response.
Your body’s immune response often relies on macrophages, cells that detect, engulf and destroy pathogens and other harmful organisms. One subtype, or phenotype, of macrophages known as M1 initiates inflammation by releasing molecules that rally other cells to action. Another phenotype, M2, is known to assist in the resolution of inflammation, by promoting healing and growth of healthy tissue (this article in the Journal of Immunology resumes it quite succinctly in its title, “M1 Means Kill; M2 Means Heal”). The effects of this on acne are potentially threefold: it can prevent the inflammatory response that causes acne in the first place, it can speed up healing, and it can help prevent scarring.
Red light therapy boosts collagen production
A key byproduct of greater cellular energy is the increased production of collagen. Collagen is the main building block for every tissue and organ in your body, and it’s a necessary part of the healing process. This can help speed up the healing process, as well as prevent the formation of acne scars and reduce the appearance of existing ones.
What Does the Research on Red Light Therapy for Acne Say?
The scientific community is increasingly interested in red light therapy for its innumerable benefits and acne researchers are no exception. Here is a summary of some of the research being conducted on red light therapy for acne.
- In a 2007 clinical trial, 28 participants were administered red light treatment randomly to one side of the face for 15 minutes twice a day over a period of eight weeks. Results showed a significant decrease in acne lesions on the side that receive treatment compared to the sham side.
- A similar 2012 study compared the effects of red light vs near-infrared light in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Twenty-eight participants with mild to moderate acne were treated with red light on one side of the face and NIR light on the other, twice weekly for 12 sessions. Ten weeks after treatment the side that was treated with red light showed a significant decrease in acne lesions compared to the NIR side.
- A 2006 study looked at the effects of a combination of blue and red light in the treatment of acne. Twenty-four participants were given eight sessions of treatment over one month, alternating between 20-minute sessions of blue and red light. Acne was assessed after 2, 4, 8, and 12 weeks. Researchers recorded a 46% reduction in acne lesions after 4 weeks, and an 81% reduction after 8 weeks. They also noted a better response in moderate acne than mild.
- A similar study was conducted in Korea in 2013. Thirty-five participants were instructed to irradiate their forehead and cheeks with a device emitting blue and red light or a sham device for 2.5 minutes, twice a day for 4 weeks. After 12 weeks, inflammatory acne was reduced by 72% and noninflammatory acne by 54%. The control group showed no significant reduction in acne lesions. The treatment group also demonstrated a reduction in sebum output, attenuation of inflammatory cell infiltrations (translation: decreased inflammation), and a decrease in sebaceous gland size.
- In a 2017 clinical trial, researchers studied the effects of aminolevulinic acid (ALA) combined with red light therapy or intense pulsed light therapy. Twelve participants were administered an ALA cream to the entire face two hours before receiving red light treatment to one side of the face and IPL to the other. Subjects underwent three treatments with a two-week interval between each, and a follow-up was conducted after 8 weeks. Both treatments proved to be effective in reducing acne lesions. Researchers also noted that while IPL produced fewer side effects (less redness), red light showed more efficacy.
Treat Acne Without Risks and Side Effects With Red Light Therapy
Another reason you might choose to opt for red light therapy for the treatment of acne is that, unlike many of the treatments listed above, red light therapy has no known short- or long-term risks, and the side effects are minimal and temporary (like the redness mentioned in the study above).
Why Choose Rouge?
The key to effective red light therapy is frequent, consistent use. If you stop using it, your acne may make a comeback after a time. This is why in-home red light therapy is gaining popularity at breakneck speed. Compared to pricey professional sessions, the cost of a personal device is infinitesimal, and once the initial investment is made, you have a lifetime of treatment ahead of you. Not only that, your device can be used to treat a wide variety of issues from head to toe (read more about them here!).
The studies above suggest that red light is more effective than NIR light at treating acne. Rouge devices are equipped with both red and NIR LEDs, with the option of using one or the other, or both at the same time (we pretty much always recommend using both at once though—one does not take away from the other, and in fact, you could see benefits in other areas using NIR during your acne treatment sessions, including, among others, pain, sleep disturbances and cognitive health).
Ready to give acne the boot? Shop the Rouge collection of red light therapy devices today!