Could light therapy be the secret to better skin?
A dermatologist sheds light on this skincare tool
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When it comes to skincare, you're used to the bevy of products, tools, and techniques that promise smooth, glowing, flawless skin. Something you may not be as privy to? The use of light as a skincare treatment. As it turns out, light of specific wavelengths comes with a slew of skincare benefits, ranging from diminishing fine lines to boosting circulation, which ensures proper delivery of nutrients to skin cells as well as elimination of waste (such as free radicals).
There are three main light-based technologies: LED, IPL, and laser. Which one you seek depends on your skincare goals. Allow us to break them down, with the help of Los Angeles-based dermatologist Dr. Edgar Fincher of Moy, Fincher, Chipps Facial Plastics & Dermatology.
LED light therapy for anti-aging and anti-acne benefits
LED, which stands for light-emitting diodes, is a non-invasive form of light therapy that uses non-thermal wavelengths (meaning, you won't feel any heat) of light energy to trigger a cellular reaction. There are various colors of lights that can be used during LED light therapy, and they all do different things for your skin. For example, red and near infrared-red light stimulates the collagen-producing fibroblast cells on the skin, resulting in plumper skin and lessened fine lines. Blue light, on the other hand, is known to kill off bacteria and reduce oil gland activity, making it a worthwhile treatment for those with oily, acneic skin.
Depending on where you get it done, LED light therapy sessions can cost $30 to $90 per session. Sessions last roughly 20 minutes, and eight to 10 sessions spaced a week apart may be required for best results. Results are accumulative, but most people start seeing a change in their skin after four sessions. And, the treatment is painless and suitable for all skin tones and types. Dr. Fincher notes that, though this type of light therapy is not meant for things like clearing stubborn pigmentation, reversing wrinkles, or tightening skin, it can be done at home using a light-emitting mask or in a doctor’s office. Because it's non-invasive (meaning, there's no recovery time), it's convenient and accessible for many.
If you want to try an LED light therapy option at home that targets specific areas on the face, the Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Spot Treatment is a handy, easy-to-use LED tool that uses blue light to ward off acne-causing bacteria along with red light to fight inflammation. It has nearly 800 5-star reviews on Amazon, and fans of the device saying it works wonders for cystic acne.
Looking to splurge? Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare's SpectraLite FaceWare Pro is the ultimate LED gadget. The mask uses 100 red lights and 62 blue lights to encourage collagen production and keep breakouts at bay.
IPL therapy for improving texture and evening skin tone
IPL, which stands for intense pulsed light, is stronger LED light therapy and is a step up in terms of level of light penetration and potential discomfort. Unlike LED light therapy—which uses light energy that doesn't produce heat—IPL works by emitting broad wavelengths of pulsating light energy that converts to heat to absorb deeper into the skin cells. The potential benefits include improved skin texture as the light penetrates the dermis (the second layer of skin), as well as the fading of dark spots of hyperpigmentation from sun damage and melasma.
On the downside, this form of light therapy can feel slightly uncomfortable, like a rubber band snapping the skin during each pulse, and a typical treatment takes 30 minutes. Dr. Fincher says that IPL is only suitable for light to moderately pigmented skin. This is because it can have the reverse effect in those with darker skin tones by increasing the appearance of spots and causing post-inflammatory pigmentation (a type of hyperpigmentation) due to how the light energy reacts with natural pigment.
"This treatment has been around for decades and has been used successfully for reducing redness, enlarged capillaries, and reducing brown spots and pigment," explains Dr. Fincher. "Typically, the only visible side effect post-treatment is the darkening and slight peeling of brown spots from the skin." IPL usually requires three to six treatments spaced one month apart to see permanent results. It's important to wait the four weeks before getting another treatment in order to let the skin recover and go back to its natural state before being treated again. It can be done at home or in a doctor's office (which will cost you between $350 to $550 a session), but Dr. Fincher notes that the power behind home units is far less than the devices found in a doctor’s office. "This difference translates into lesser results, as well as an increased number of treatments required to get those results," he says. That said, the benefits of using at-home devices are that it's convenient and costs much less.
For an at-home IPL treatment, try the Viss IPL System—the Skin Rejuvenation cartridge helps improve things like melasma, broken capillaries, and dark spots.
Laser treatments for resurfacing the skin
Lasers are the ultimate device for total resurfacing of the skin, and are often referred to as "skin rejuvenation." During treatment, a concentrated, single-wavelength laser beam targets a narrow area of the skin, meaning only the desired skin cells are affected and the normal, healthy skin cells remain untouched. This is effective for things like acne scars, sun spots, and fine lines where you want to spot treat specific areas of the face. These treatments are powerful and should be done by a board-certified dermatologist.
Lasers are touted in the skincare world because, depending on the laser used, they can treat a variety of skin conditions such as rosacea and acne. Dr. Fincher says that certain lasers, like carbon dioxide (CO2) or erbium (Er) lasers he offers in his office, can go below the surface of the skin into the dermis. "These lasers remove the old, damaged collagen and elastin (the proteins that keep the skin tight and smooth) and stimulate new proteins in their place," he explains.
As for the ouch factor, it depends on what type of laser (of the dozens) is used and whether your provider applies a numbing cream, but generally, they, too, have been likened to a rubber-band snap. Those who have eczema, psoriasis, or have had recent unprotected sun exposure should avoid lasers and consult their dermatologist.
Laser resurfacing costs between $1,200 to $2,200. Many people see the effects of laser resurfacing immediately, but for optimal results, three to four treatments one month apart is recommended. Results can last for several years, but the natural aging process may cause lines to appear over time.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.