Light Therapy for Acne and Wrinkles

Light Therapy for Acne and Wrinkles

You may have heard about a high-tech sounding treatment for acne and wrinkles: Light-emitting diode (LED) therapy. Also known as photodynamic therapy or PDT, these light-emitting treatments for acne and signs of ageing complement rather than replace a well-formulated skin-care routine (yes, you'll still need sunscreen). As with any light-emitting for skin, there are pros and cons with to consider, whether it's done at a doctor’s office or with a handheld device in the privacy of your own home. In either scenario, if you're patient and don't expect miracles, the research is promising!


Blue Light Therapy for Acne

How it Works: Specific wavelengths of blue light target the strain of bacteria that plays a pivotal role in causing acne for many people. The light causes the development of oxygen radicals that kill P. acnes bacteria without damaging healthy skin.

  • Why you should consider it: Demonstrated effective in destroying levels of acne-causing bacteria; best for mild to moderate inflammatory acne; there are handheld devices you can use at home; reduced potential for side effects (such as dryness or peeling) that can occur with benzoyl peroxide or topical prescription products; a worthwhile option for those whose skin cannot tolerate topical disinfectants; pain-free, no downtime; safe to have done when pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Why you shouldn't consider it: If done by a medical practitioner, requires several treatments per week; expensive (averaging $40 per treatment); LED treatments are not effective for cystic acne, blackheads, or whiteheads (milia); long-term results are unknown (but the treatment does have a good safety record).

Professional device names: ClearLight Acne Photoclearing System; Blu-U; Omnilux Blue.


Red Light Therapy for Wrinkles

How it Works: Wavelengths of red light that may help improve skin’s barrier function by improving its ability to retain key elements it needs to heal and generate new collagen after its production has slowed due to age or cumulative damage. Red light LEDs are also believed to target the skin’s oil glands to reduce cytokines, a class of pro-inflammatory substances believed to play a role in chronic acne.

  • Why you should consider it: May help reduce signs of ageing, including wrinkles around the eyes; a better choice for those struggling with acne and wrinkles; minimal risk of side effects, especially when used without light-activating chemicals (this is common when done by a medical professional); no downtime.
  • Why you shouldn't consider it: Whether done by a medical professional or at home with a handheld device, requires multiple treatments; does not affect acne-causing bacteria; long-term results are unknown (but so far these treatments seem to be safe); when done by a medical professional, the costs can vary from $50–$200 or more per treatment, depending on the device and treatment protocol your dermatologist prefers.

Device names: Acnelamp (available as a handheld or tabletop option; prices vary); Omnilux Revive, Omnilux Red (in-office only).


At-Home Devices

If you are considering an at-home light-emitting device for anti-ageing or clearing acne, we'd recommend shopping carefully and buying only from reputable manufacturers. Due to concerns over lawsuits, most manufacturers of these devices are forced to limit their intensity, often to a much lower strength than the LED-emitting machines your dermatologist uses. In a sense, that’s good news because it is possible to overdo these treatments and consumers could end up damaging their skin, which is never the goal.

Some LED devices sold to consumers actually do match the strength of those used in the dermatologist's office. This is definitely an issue where caution is warranted, so be sure to read all accompanying instructions and follow the usage directions to the letter!

At-home devices we recommend for treating acne: Quasar MD Blue ($595); Quasar Baby Blue ($349); Quasar Clear Rayz for Acne ($249); Tria Acne Clearing Blue Light ($299).

At-home devices we recommend for treating wrinkles: Quasar MD Plus ($795); Baby Quasar Plus ($399); Tanda Luxe Skin Rejuvenation Photofacial Device ($195).

LED light-emitting devices require protective eye wear. The wavelengths they emit can damage unprotected eyes, and if you don’t remember to protect your eyes at home with the higher intensity output you would be risking your sight. Be sure to invest in protective eyewear prior to using such devices around your eyes, and never look directly into the device.

Don't get to caught up in the "FDA approved" for what's known as "class 2 medical device" claim that's used for many at-home LED devices. All this means is that the FDA approved the device for safety, not effectiveness. Latex gloves are also a class 2 medical device, as are wheelchairs. This distinction is a key reason it’s important to look at the published research demonstrating results, not a blanket, potentially misleading claim of FDA approval.


TRIA Laser Hair Removal

Many (so many we lost count) of our readers have asked about TRIA laser hair removal. The TRIA is an 810-nanometer diode laser system with research showing it can reduce hair growth on the underarm, legs or elsewhere. It is tricky to use and the instructions must be followed exactly or the machine won't produce even minor results, but it is absolutely an option to consider if you are willing to make the time and financial commitment (and yes, it hurts). We do not recommend TRIA for any other purpose other than hair removal, and strongly advise you to follow the directions exactly, which includes not overdoing it (this isn’t a situation where more frequent treatments will produce better results).

TRIA for Wrinkles

Different in wavelength and purpose than the TRIA device for hair removal is TRIA’s Age-Defying Laser, an at-home diode (non-LED) laser device that retails for $495. We believe such devices will be a growing trend in the field of at-home facial rejuvenation products. Despite the high price, the technology behind this device is sound, and the results from consistent use are likely to be impressive for most people, making the investment worth it. But the key word is "consistent"!

The question of whether or not this works better than tretinoin is difficult to answer, as there are no comparative studies. We suspect that most people who use tretinoin or higher-strength retinol products will want to keep doing so, and use an at-home device as part of a comprehensive anti-aging routine.

What about TRIA’s Age-Defying Laser replacing the fractionated laser (such as Fraxel) treatments that a dermatologist offers? No question: The in-office procedure can produce better results from fewer treatments, but it costs more, too. The other point to keep in mind is that a doctor can customize and strengthen the treatment in a way that users of at-home devices cannot, which allows for more targeted results in much less time.

Which way to go? This is a decision you need to make based on how much time and money you’re willing to spend. The TRIA Age-Defying Laser costs less than an in-office Fraxel treatment, but it requires a minimum of 12 weeks of treatments, five days per week. In contrast, you will likely love the results after only 2–3 brief Fraxel treatments, spaced 4–6 weeks apart. Both can be painful, with Fraxel being more painful.

One more comment: The TRIA Age-Defying Laser is “FDA cleared,” not “FDA approved.” What’s the difference? To get a “cleared” rating, TRIA had to show that their device was “substantially equivalent” to a device or product already being marketed for the same use (and that device or product must have a demonstrated safety record). To gain “FDA approved” status, TRIA would have to show that their specific device is safe and effective.


The Bottom Line

As far as treating acne, in-office dermatologist administered LED treatments are worth considering if other topical medications haven’t worked, or before you see a dermatologist you can try one of the at-home LED devices for acne. Just keep in mind that skin-care products with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and tretinoin (a prescription-only topical medication), along with other medical options are the preferred first lines of defence.

For anti-ageing, LED therapy is an option when performed in-office or with the right handheld devices for home use, but just like when used for treating acne, light therapy will never replace a great skin-care routine (and daily use of sunscreen, whether the forecast is cloudy or sunny)! At best, they are a complement, and at worst you won’t see results and will feel as though you’ve wasted your time and money.

Last, with any of these treatments, especially if you opt to use a device at home, consistency and patience are the keys to success. These treatments require a time commitment, and if you're not willing to invest the time, you may not want to invest the money—or you may want to see your dermatologist to discuss more "potent" treatments such as non-ablative lasers or fractional resurfacing.


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!