Most people are aware of medications and therapeutic treatments for skin conditions, but what if you could get great results with light? As many Americans are burdened with skin abnormalities, light therapy has the potential to help many people. Interestingly, LED light therapy, one of the various types, was originally studied by NASA in the 1990s for its role in promoting wound healing in astronauts and is now widely employed by dermatologists and estheticians to address a range of skin issues. Light therapy is gaining traction as a great alternative or adjunctive treatment for skin disorders, with many studies showing beneficial results.
Whether you’ve experienced acne, eczema, or psoriasis – light therapy has the potential to help treat these conditions. This article will provide an overview of light therapy and will explain the many benefits associated with its use for skin conditions. We'll then discuss functional medicine labs to help individualize treatment for patients on their journey toward healthier skin.
What is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, a non-invasive skin treatment, is administered via various wavelengths and colors and has been shown to be effective for a variety of skin disorders. Depending on the type, light therapy can be administered either in a clinic or with a variety of at-home devices, such as light masks or light wands (2).
Mechanisms of Light Therapy
Light therapy affects the skin through a variety of mechanisms, these include:
Photobiomodulation operates by delivering certain wavelengths of light to our body's cells. Light is absorbed particularly by the mitochondria, the part of our cells responsible for generating energy. When the mitochondria soak in this light, they become more efficient in their energy production process. As a result, various cellular functions can improve, enhancing the overall functioning of our bodies.
Activation of Skin Cells
Research has shown that light therapy can effectively rejuvenate skin by influencing collagen (a protein integral to skin firmness and elasticity). When our skin cells are exposed, they respond by increasing the production of collagen, which contributes to improved skin texture and reduces fine lines. Furthermore, light therapy can stimulate cell regeneration, promoting healthier, more youthful-looking skin.
Modulation of Inflammation
Light therapy has been found to modulate inflammatory responses in the skin, essentially working as an anti-inflammatory tool. Studies have shown that this therapy can inhibit the production of prostaglandin E2, a compound with a significant role in the inflammatory process. In addition, it can decrease intracellular reactive oxygen species, which are involved in inflammatory reactions. It's also been found to impact the NF-κB pathway, which regulates immune responses, further indicating its potential role in managing inflammation.
Impact on Microorganisms
Phototherapy, particularly with near-infrared light and blue light, has been found to have antimicrobial properties. It is effective in killing both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, as well as certain fungi. As we are currently living in a world burdened by a looming threat of antibiotic resistance, light therapy provides a new avenue for treating these types of diseases.
Different Types of Light Therapy
The most common types of light therapy include:
Broadband Ultraviolet B
Broadband UVB therapy has been used for decades to treat moderate to severe psoriasis. It served as the foundation for the later development of narrowband UVB therapy, which has been shown to be more effective.
Narrowband Ultraviolet B
Narrowband UVB therapy is a cost-effective treatment that uses high-energy UVB light to treat various skin conditions including psoriasis, eczema, and itching. Using this therapy has been shown to lead to improvements in existing lesions, prevention of new lesions and in many cases, remission.
UVA1 therapy is a form of phototherapy that does not have the risk of sunburn reactions typically associated with shorter-wavelength UVA2 and UVB. This therapy differs significantly from tanning and home units, which often emit shorter, more harmful wavelengths. UVA1's therapeutic effectiveness lies in its ability to penetrate deeper into the dermis, affecting various cells. It has proven beneficial in treating skin conditions due to its ability to impact disease-causing T cells and activate new blood vessel formation (11).
Blue Light Therapy
Blue light therapy is useful for conditions including acne, sun damage, and non-melanoma skin cancers. The therapy often involves the application of a photosensitizing medication to the skin, making it sensitive to light damage, after which blue light is shone on the treated area to kill the sensitized cells, resulting in healthier, rejuvenated skin. Furthermore, blue light therapy is utilized for the treatment of acne, as it can kill the bacteria P. acnes that contribute to common acne due to its sensitivity to blue wavelengths of light.
Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy
Red light therapy and near-infrared light therapy employ low-wavelength light to improve skin health and facilitate healing in muscle tissues. This type of light therapy works by stimulating mitochondria which in turn can lead to cellular repair and rejuvenation. Red light therapy is commonly used to address wrinkles, acne, scars, and signs of aging, while near-infrared light therapy shows promise in reducing inflammation and pain in various conditions. Both therapies are generally considered safe for short-term use (2).
Benefits of Light Therapy for Acne Treatment
Light therapy for acne offers multiple benefits: it reduces sebum production, has anti-inflammatory effects on acne lesions, and has antibacterial properties that target P. acnes. In addition, it works by shrinking oil glands to lessen pore-clogging oil. Blue or red light wavelengths are typically used as they kill acne-causing bacteria without skin damage. Notably, some studies have shown that blue light therapy can clear acne by nearly 70% within 8 to 10 treatment sessions. While generally safe, this type of light therapy can cause mild side effects like skin redness and dryness. Moreover, a few home light devices that use blue or red light are FDA-approved for treating mild-to-moderate acne, with self-applied blue light treatment showing promising results.
Benefits of Light Therapy for Psoriasis Management
Light therapy for psoriasis offers numerous benefits in the management of psoriasis by regulating the abnormal proliferation of skin cells, effectively slowing down their rapid growth. It exhibits immunosuppressive properties that aid in diminishing inflammation, enabling the skin to heal and managing the overactive immune response characteristic of psoriasis. This therapy also significantly improves the symptoms of psoriasis, such as scaling, redness, and itching, effectively treating both small stubborn areas and larger patches of the skin affected by the disease. Although considered safe and efficacious for different types of psoriasis, patients should be aware of potential side effects, including skin aging and an increased risk of skin cancer if using PUVA (psoralen plus UVA).
Benefits of Light Therapy for Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis
Light therapy presents several advantages for those struggling with eczema and atopic dermatitis. The process, which utilizes a special machine to emit controlled amounts of narrowband UVB or UVA light, is an effective treatment for widespread or localized eczema that does not respond to topical treatments. One of the principal benefits is its ability to alleviate itching and inflammation associated with the condition. This is achieved by administering precise doses of UV light that help control the skin's excessive inflammatory response, which plays a critical role in triggering atopic dermatitis symptoms. In addition, the use of light therapy has the potential to reduce the burden of S. aureus on the skin, which is important as this bacteria can play a role in the development and exacerbation of the condition.
Benefits of Light Therapy for Vitiligo Treatment
Light therapy, specifically using narrowband UVB, has proven highly effective for treating vitiligo. Primarily, it stimulates repigmentation in the areas affected by vitiligo by exposing the skin to specific doses of UV light, which halts or slows the progression of the disease. It also has a role in regulating immune responses that target melanocytes, the cells responsible for skin pigmentation. The outcomes of light therapy can be significantly improved when combined with other treatments.
Benefits of Light Therapy for Anti-Aging
Light therapy is a successful anti-aging approach that stimulates collagen production (which is important as it is a necessary component for maintaining skin elasticity and strength). This treatment method can effectively reduce the visible signs of aging like pigmentation changes, fine lines, and wrinkles, by regulating the skin's structural proteins. Light therapy accomplishes these benefits through a non-thermal mechanism that emulates the beneficial impact of thermal damage without the associated negative effects. Additionally, it enhances overall skin tone and texture.
Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Treatment for Healthy Skin
Functional medicine labs offer a variety of tests that can help tailor treatment for patients, allowing providers to optimize management strategies.
GI-MAP Zonulin Test
The GI-MAP Zonulin test allows for a comprehensive evaluation of the gut microbiome, which is important as it plays a part in skin health. Imbalances in gut bacteria can lead to inflammation and skin disorders like acne, psoriasis, and eczema. In addition, testing zonulin levels can help practitioners gain extra insight as elevated levels can indicate “leaky gut,” which has been linked to various skin conditions.
96 IgG Food Sensitivity Panel
The IgG Food Sensitivity Panel can identify potential food sensitivities that may trigger inflammation and subsequently affect skin health. Elevated Ig antibodies in response to specific foods can contribute to skin issues like acne, eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis.
Access Medical Labs Histamine Test
The Access Medical Labs Histamine test measures the levels of histamine, an inflammatory compound released by the body in response to allergens. High levels of histamine can lead to skin problems like hives, rashes, and eczema.
SpectraCell Micronutrient Test
The SpectraCell Micronutrient test provides insight into nutritional deficiencies that could be affecting skin health. Deficiencies in vitamins like A, C, D, and minerals like zinc, can contribute to dry skin, poor wound healing, and acne.
Safety Considerations and Side Effects
While undergoing light therapy sessions, it is imperative to protect your eyes from intense light by wearing safety goggles. Sensitivity to light or photosensitivity (often induced by medications such as calcipotriene) may lead to acute skin reactions like burning, a common side effect of UVB phototherapy. Therefore, it’s always best to discuss the medications you’re taking, especially if you plan to use an FDA-approved device at home. Despite its general safety, red light therapy can potentially cause skin or eye damage if misused or used excessively. Further, the long-term safety of devices utilizing red light therapy remains unknown. A systematic review on the ocular safety of light therapy suggests that it is generally safe for the eyes in physically healthy, unmedicated persons, although individuals with preexisting ocular abnormalities or increased photosensitivity may warrant further study. Thus, while light therapy is an effective treatment for many skin conditions, it is important to observe safety measures, monitor skin reactions, and consider potential long-term risks.
In summary, light therapy can be an effective choice in treating many different skin conditions. Various studies have shown great results, and the future of new treatments is promising. No matter if you have acne, eczema, vitiligo, or you just want younger-looking skin, light therapy may make a great addition to your treatment plan - either at the clinic or at home. Just remember to always wear safety goggles!
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