- Light therapy for acne is a method of acne treatment that utilizes specific wavelengths of light to target acne-causing bacteria.
- Blue light and red light therapies are often used to treat acne.
- Light therapy is considered effective and safe against the symptoms of mild to moderate inflammatory acne.
- Individuals with acne can receive in-office light therapy treatments from their dermatologist or skin care provider.
- It’s also possible to purchase at-home light therapy devices.
Light therapy is a safe, non-invasive treatment for mild to moderate acne breakouts. It utilizes specific light wavelengths–most often red light, blue light or a combination of the two–to target acne.
What is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, or phototherapy, treats symptoms of mild to moderate acne. Each color of light therapy utilizes a specific wavelength (blue waves or red waves) to treat acne breakouts. Blue light therapy targets the Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria that causes acne, killing it and helping to prevent future breakouts.
Research shows blue light therapy to be effective against mild to moderate symptoms of inflammatory acne, or acne vulgaris. Blue light therapy hasn’t been scientifically proven to be effective against severe acne. Existing studies cover short-term results of therapy, and there is little data to show long-term benefits.
Blue and red light therapies can treat acne blemishes. They can’t, however, treat cystic acne, nodular acne, blackheads or whiteheads.
Light therapy treatments don’t require any downtime to recover, and there are few side effects or adverse events associated with them.
Light treatments vs laser treatments
Different types of acne respond to different forms of light therapy and laser treatments. Light therapy and nonablative laser therapy both utilize forms of light to treat acne. Neither type of treatment requires downtime for recovery, and you can resume your usual activities immediately.
Light treatments address surface-level acne and the bacteria that causes it. They don’t penetrate to deeper layers of skin, and they can’t address non-inflammatory acne symptoms.
Laser treatments penetrate to deeper layers of skin, and help to clear away damaged skin cells and clear the pores. Laser treatments for acne encourage cell turnover, new skin cell growth, regulation of oil production and collagen production. They also treat whiteheads, blackheads and certain types of pustules.
Does Light Therapy Work for Acne?
Light therapy is considered both effective and safe for mild to moderate acne. However, it should be combined with other skin care products and acne care measures.
Light therapy for acne can help kill bacteria, treat active breakouts and alleviate symptoms of future breakouts. For some individuals, laser therapy prevents future breakouts. The results of light therapy for acne depend on the person and their specific skin concerns.
For best results, you need repeat light therapy treatments for acne. Light therapy doesn’t work against acne scars, so if you have severe scarring, another method such as laser skin resurfacing might be more effective.
It could take up to 12 weeks to see results of light therapy for acne, and it may take several sessions before any change is noticeable. Your provider may also recommend occasional follow-up sessions to maintain results.
Blue light therapy for acne
In addition to treating acne, blue light therapy protects your face from damage that causes aging. It’s also anti-inflammatory and can help reduce other symptoms of acne vulgaris such as inflamed skin and redness.
Red light therapy for acne
Red light therapy for acne can help to address inflammation, heal damaged skin and reduce the appearance of acne scars. Unlike blue light therapy, red light therapy is not antimicrobial.
Red light can penetrate to deeper layers of skin to relieve inflammation and promote healing. It may be used for chronic skin issues or combined with blue light therapy to address more moderate to severe forms of acne.
At-Home Light Therapy Devices for Acne
It’s possible to purchase an at-home light therapy device, rather than going to a practitioner for sessions. Light therapy devices and light therapy masks are available for purchase commercially. It’s possible to purchase blue light devices, red light devices or a device with a combination of both blue and red lights.
Some scientific research has shown that at-home light therapy devices can successfully treat mild acne. In one study, participants who used light therapy devices at home reported a noticeable reduction in their acne symptoms–particularly the number of pustules and papules on their skin.
There is currently no evidence that at-home light therapy devices work as well as a light therapy treatment protocol from your provider. Results aren’t guaranteed, and because they’re so individualized, it’s not possible to predict who will experience alleviated symptoms and who may not.
Light therapy mask
A light therapy acne mask is a wearable mask that emits blue, red or a combination of red and blue lights. Light therapy masks are considered effective for mild to moderate acne. They should not be used by people who experience migraine headaches, vision issues or have epilepsy.
Light therapy pen
Light therapy pens are small, targeted, pinpoint devices designed to deliver light therapy as a spot treatment, rather than all over the face. A light therapy pen uses blue light, red light, or a combination of both and can be used to target specific pimples.
Light therapy wand
A light therapy wand is a device that’s larger than a light therapy pen and is used to cover more area on the face. These handheld devices can be passed over the face to treat breakouts.
Light therapy panel
Light therapy panels are the most expensive option of at-home light therapy devices. Some panels come on a stand that you can sit in front of to receive treatments. Other panels are curved and shaped so you can lie down beneath them.
Although red light and blue light therapies are considered to be safe, there are some side effects associated with them. People who receive light therapy may experience mild:
Sometimes, it’s possible to experience rarer, more serious side effects. These include:
- Hyperpigmentation due to post-treatment sun damage
- Oozing at the treatment site
- Severe pain
If you develop blistering, oozing or a fever after your session, contact your doctor right away. You may have a skin infection.
People who are taking antibiotics, prescription isotretinoin (Accutane), are sensitive to sunlight or are pregnant should not use light therapy for acne.
Can light therapy make acne worse?
It’s possible that, in some individuals, blue light therapy could worsen symptoms of severe acne. However, there is little information about why this sometimes occurs.
Cost of Light Therapy Treatments
The cost of light therapy treatments varies from one type of treatment to another. In-office treatments are the most costly over time, ranging from prices as low as $25 per session to $800 per session.
Home light therapy devices are less expensive but may not be as effective as in-office treatments. Their costs range anywhere from $50 to $2,000, depending on the device you choose.
If you’re experiencing mild to moderate acne, light therapy is a non-invasive and safe way to treat your breakouts. Blue light therapy is antimicrobial and can help to kill the P. acnes bacteria that causes acne. Red light therapy promotes skin healing and can reduce the appearance of mild acne scars.
You might opt to get light therapy treatments from your provider in-office. Alternatively, you may purchase an at-home device such as a light therapy mask, pen, wand or panel. Many home devices are less expensive in the long-term than going to in-office treatments, but they may not be as effective.
Light therapy for acne has few side effects, but it’s possible to experience mild bruising, redness, irritation, peeling or pain after light therapy treatments. If you experience more severe symptoms or display signs of an infection, contact your doctor right away.
- Cunliffe, W. J., & Goulden, V. (2000). Phototherapy and acne vulgaris. British Journal of dermatology, 142(5), 855-856. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2133.2000.03528.x
- Dai, Tianhong et al. “Blue light for infectious diseases: Propionibacterium acnes, Helicobacter pylori, and beyond?.” Drug resistance updates : reviews and commentaries in antimicrobial and anticancer chemotherapy vol. 15,4 (2012): 223-36. doi:10.1016/j.drup.2012.07.001
- Elman, M., & Lebzelter, J. (2004). Light therapy in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Dermatologic surgery, 30(2), 139-146. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1524-4725.2004.30053.x
- Gold MH, Andriessen A, Biron J, Andriessen H. Clinical Efficacy of Self-applied Blue Light Therapy for Mild-to-Moderate Facial Acne. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009 Mar;2(3):44-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20729943
- Kawada, A., Aragane, Y., Kameyama, H., Sangen, Y., & Tezuka, T. (2002). Acne phototherapy with a high-intensity, enhanced, narrow-band, blue light source: an open study and in vitro investigation. Journal of dermatological science, 30(2), 129-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0923-1811(02)00068-3
- Lee, S.Y., You, C.E. and Park, M.Y. (2007), Blue and red light combination LED phototherapy for acne vulgaris in patients with skin phototype IV. Lasers Surg. Med., 39: 180-188. doi:10.1002/lsm.20412
- Mariwalla, K. and Rohrer, T.E. (2005), Use of lasers and light‐based therapies for treatment of acne vulgaris. Lasers Surg. Med., 37: 333-342. doi:10.1002/lsm.20276