Light Therapy for Acne: Does it Really Work?
Acne light therapy is the pain-free, low-cost way to get rid of blemishes on acne-prone skin. It does not zap zits like a laser, but it kills acne bacteria and shrinks oil-producing glands to give skin a chance to recover on its own.
- Sunlight is good for treating acne, but it is specifically the red and blue wavelengths of visible sunlight that make a difference.
- Red light reaches deep into the skin and activates hemoglobin. Red light treatment cuts off just enough of the blood supply of oil-producing sebaceous glands that pores don’t get quite as oily.
- Blue light penetrates pores and kills acne bacteria—but not all the pore’s acne bacteria. There are always some acne bacteria in the sebaceous gland that can’t be reached by blue light.
- When it comes to acne light therapy, more is not necessarily better. Drying or burning the skin by holding the face too close to the lamp does not help.
- The best way to use blue and red light therapy at home is for helping keep the skin clear between acne treatments.
- Acne light therapy is always most effective when used as part of a complete skin care system such as Exposed Skin Care.
What Does Light Have to Do with Acne?
If you live in a part of the world that has seasons, you may have noticed that there certain times of year that your skin gets better no matter what you do, and there are also certain times of year that your skin gets worse no matter what you do. The reason your skin may change with the seasons has to do with sunlight.
There are specific wavelengths of visible light that kill acne bacteria. Visible blue light from the sun (in the frequency range of approximately 415 nm) that shines into pores can activate light-sensitive chemicals called porphyrins that are found in the outer cell membranes of the bacteria that cause acne. When these chemicals begin to vibrate in sync with solar energy, they rupture the outer lining of the bacterium. The contents of the bacterial cell begin to leak out, and the bacterium dies within 48 hours.
Visible red light from the sun has a complementary benefit in treating acne. Solar rays in the frequency range of approximately 650 nanometers reach deeper into the skin, down to the level of the sebocytes that produce the oil that sometimes clogs pores.
The red rays of the sun are absorbed by red compounds in the skin. They primarily heat up hemoglobin. Ordinary light shining on the surface of the skin, however, only reaches to the depth of the oil glands, and does not cauterize the blood vessels in the skin. The effects of red light on oil-producing glands are temporary, and they begin producing large amounts of all again a week or two after treatment.
If Light Helps Acne, Why Isn’t It a Good Idea Just to Dry Out the Skin?
The confusion about sunlight and acne comes from the fact that not everyone goes out into the sun when sunlight is strongest. If you live in Russia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, or the UK, or in southernmost New Zealand or South America, chances are that you enjoy midsummer sun. If you live in the southern states of the USA or the northern states of Australia or anywhere near the equator, chances are that you prefer to get your sun when it is mildest, in the winter (if your location experiences winter). It’s not so much “summer” sun that clears up acne, it is “extra” sun.
If you go out in summer heat, chances are you will also dry out your skin. It may burn, flake, or peel. This happens at the same time that red and blue rays of sunlight are helping to clear up acne, so it is an easy mistake to assume that drying out the skin is what heals acne. But it is not. Drying out the skin never heals it. Reducing the production of oil and the number of bacteria in pores gives acne-prone skin a chance to heal itself.
If you use a lamp to get your red and blue light acne treatment, you don’t get better results by holding your face so close to the lamp that your skin dries out or burns. You don’t get better results by doing light treatment once a day instead of once a week. This is because the beneficial effects of blue and red light are not just about skin oil production and acne bacteria.
The Greatest Benefits of Acne Light Therapy Occur After Low Doses
Swedish scientists lead the world in many aspects of acne research. Four researchers at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Göteborg did a careful study of the changes in numbers of bacteria and production of skin oil during 20 weeks of treatment with low-intensity and high-intensity blue and red light. The Swedish dermatologists recruited 15 men and women aged 16 to 44 to see if a combination of light treatment and medication made a real difference in getting acne under control.
The researchers observed that:
- Acne sometimes cleared up even when bacteria count and oil production stayed the same, and
- The effects of light therapy on inflammation were more important than the effects of light therapy on acne bacteria and sebocytes.
This means that the real benefit of exposing your skin to blue and red light is reducing inflammation. Even whiteheads and blackheads are slightly inflamed, and reducing inflammation in the walls of these pores helps them open.
This also means that causing inflammation in your skin by exposing it too much blue and red light is counterproductive. When there’s pain, there’s no gain of clearer skin.
Should You Get Acne Light Therapy at Home, at the Spa, or at the Dermatologist’s Office
Blue and red light therapy for acne became popular when government agencies put new restrictions on the use of Accutane and Retin-A for treating acne. Since acne light therapy has no effect on internal organs, it can be used without fear of dire consequences for the patient’s health. Dermatologists who had been charging their patients $500 a month for office visits and lab work required for the use of Accutane and Retin-A (as they were used until recently) eagerly started charging their patients $1000 a month for weekly acne light treatments.
Then blue and red light devices for spa and home use came out.
Some “light” treatment devices are really just hand-held heaters for the skin. These low-cost lamps are good for melting the oil in a pore so a blackhead will pop out, but they really aren’t any more effective than holding a cotton Q-tip under hot water and rubbing it over your skin.
Then there are genuine blue and red light treatment systems such as the oddly named Trophy Skin BlueMD that do provide effective treatment for the skin. None of these at-home acne light treatment systems yields instant results, and acne light treatment at the spa or dermatologist’s office don’t, either. What you can expect from using blue and red light treatment at home is:
- Reduction in the size of cysts and nodules even without Retin-A or Accutane, although the effects will be slow, and
- Maintenance of clear skin between applications of benzoyl peroxide or topical tretinoin.
Acne light systems don’t generate the wavelengths of light that cause cancer. They won’t burn the skin if used as directed (although over-zealous new users of acne light treatment kits often suffer self-inflicted burns). They are safe, but they are slow. And they don’t do all the work of acne skin care treatment.
To make any acne light treatment system work, you also need a complete system of skin care, a collection of products such as you can find at Exposed Skin Care.