Can Red Light Therapy Help with Scars?

Author : Ari Whitten
Medical Reviewer: Evan Hirsch, M.D.

Red Light Therapy and Scars

There are very few people who are completely happy with their skin. For many of us, scars, stretch marks, and blemishes are a big part of the problem.

Until recently, even small scars presented just two options; you could learn to live with them, or you opt for costly (and potentially risky) cosmetic surgery. Clearly, neither of these are ideal – so recent steps forward in red light therapy offer dermatologists a safe and effective third option.

Since there are a significant number of benefits that come from red light therapy – it’s worth taking a quick look back over the treatment’s specific use in dermatology and skincare.

LED Red Light Therapy – An Overview

To get a good understanding of red light therapy, it’s useful to understand a little about how the cells in our body work. 

Most of our cells have a ‘mitochondria’ – a tiny powerplant that provides the energy needed for the cell to perform its functions. Of course, cells rarely work by themselves, so the mitochondria also helps to facilitate communication between cells. The more effectively our cells perform and work together, the better our bodies perform overall. 

In truth, the mitochondria actually takes energy our body absorbs and turns it into the kind of energy our individual cells require. Some of the energy absorbed comes from food – but some of it comes from specific light wavelengths. 

Back in the 1990s, NASA explored how it could manipulate this light energy to help with space missions. From growing plants to healing wounds– it was discovered that red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) could create the different wavelengths needed to boost energy production in cells – making them perform more effectively throughout the body.1 Soon after, a significant number of associated health benefits were identified, and red light therapy devices started being used for a massive range of issues – from fighting the signs of aging to treating arthritis and joint pain.

Red light treatments are completely non-invasive; in fact, they simply provide your cells with the energy boost they need to do a better job of whichever function they’re tasked with.

Near-Infrared and Red Light Therapy for Skin

Exposure to light has, for a long time, been a go-to therapy for doctors who are treating skin conditions. In the not-to-distant past, ultraviolet (UV) light was used to treat a host of skin conditions – but as scientific understanding developed, it was realised that UV light came with damaging side-effects, often similar to sun damage.

After countless clinical trials, red light ‘low-level laser therapy’ (LLLT) was found to offer the same benefits but without the severe side-effects that UV energy caused. Perhaps the most significant of these benefits is the increased production of both collagen and elastin – the fibres that make your skin strong and firm. Our bodies produce lots of collagen and elastin when we’re young – but it decreases as we age.

Now, if you’ve seen even one commercial for skin cream, you’ll understand that ‘younger’ and ‘firmer’ skin is on virtually everyone’s wish list – but for many of us, there are more specific skin issues we’re looking to tackle. 

The good news is, collagen and elastin are key components of the tissue repair process that takes place when our skin is damaged – so with red light speeding up their production, we heal quicker, and scarring is reduced. For existing scars, collagen and elastin ensure a more even skin tone and help to rejuvenate the skin’s surface – significantly reducing the appearance of scar tissue. 

So, the short answer is yes; red light therapy will almost unquestionably help with scars. In fact, “help with scars” is probably an understatement; a 2015 study showed ‘statistically significant’ improvements in the reduction of scar tissue across a number of patients. If you’re familiar with medical studies, you’ll know that such strong claims are not used lightly.

How Red Light Therapy Helps with Acne Scars

Red Light Therapy For ScarsPerhaps the most common scars dermatologists see are those resulting from acne. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that up to 50 million Americans are affected by the acne every year. While the condition affects 85% of people during their adolescence and early adulthood, instances of the condition are increasing in adults – with around 15% of US women affected each year. 

The way red light therapy works means the treatment doesn’t just help with the scarring that can occur if acne has previously been left intreated – but it can actually help to prevent and reduce acne breakouts too.

Let’s focus on the scarring first:

In the same way that red light treatment is used to tackle wrinkles and fine lines, increased collagen production helps to even out the skins surface and the skin’s tone. While this doesn’t disperse the minor scar tissue, it does significantly reduce the appearance of scars and pockmarks – in many cases, leaving them virtually invisible.2

So, red LED light can help reduce the appearance of scars you may already have – but how does it work as an acne treatment; preventing the scars in the first place?

At this stage, we arrive at the cutting edge of clinical research. As this is being written, active studies are taking place – and overviews of existing trials already acknowledge that laser and light therapies are showing ‘promise for the future’ in the treatment of acne.

When you understand acne, this is no surprise. Over the last decade, the condition has become more deeply understood – and where it was once thought to be contagious, it is now considered primarily an inflammatory disease.3 I’ve focused on the use of red light to reduce inflammation previously – so we already know that red light will be a huge help in easing the inflammation that acne causes.

The thing is, there’s more to acne than just inflammation; there is a bacterial component – so if you want to tackle the condition with maximum effectiveness, you need to deal with the bacteria too. The good news is, the ‘Cutibacterium Acnes’ bacteria responsible for acne breakouts is photosensitive – which means that when it’s exposed to intense red light, its internal temperature increases, causing it to disintegrate. 

The overall result? Reduce inflammation and significantly reduced pathogen numbers. When it comes to acne scars, prevention is better than the cure – and red light does an outstanding job of preventing the possibility that scar tissue will build.  4 

Does Red Light Therapy Have Any Side Effects?

When you consider the side effects that can result from the surgery, steroid treatments, and the chemical peel options that many people explore to deal with scars – red light therapy is overwhelmingly safe. 

Everyone’s skin is different, so to be absolutely confident that you’re not going run into any minor side effects, you should have a chat with your dermatologist before beginning any treatment – but my experience tells me that specialists are generally just curious to know how effective the red light device you use is! 

It’s not uncommon to get a slight headache and minor eye irritability when you use light therapy treatments – but these are very short-lived. To reduce that chance of either occurring, it’s worth covering your eyes during your therapy session.

You’ll probably be pleased to hear that you won’t experience any downtime after a red light therapy session either – since it’s completely non-invasive. As such, you can head straight for yoga, the pool, work, or even bed when your session is done!

Red Light Therapy Devices

Although red light therapy devices work to quickly reduce the signs of scarring, you will need a course of sessions if you want to see significant improvements. 

It’s also a good idea to top your treatment up with maintenance sessions too. The number of maintenance sessions you need will vary; again; since different peoples’ skin reacts individually. If you’re not sure exactly what’s right for you, the therapist leading your sessions will be able to advise and monitor your results to help you get the best possible outcome.

The alternative to repeat sessions is getting a home device – and with a range to suit virtually all budgets, it might work out to make more financial sense compared to costly repeat bookings at a treatment centre. If you’re curious, I’ve put together a guide that will help you find the perfect device for your needs.

Are Red Light Treatments Right for You?

Virtually everyone who gives red light therapy a try comes away having had a positive experience. The clinical trials do a lot of the talking; you will almost certainly see a reduction in the coloration of scars, blemishes, and stretch marks – and the same studies show that increased collagen production results in smoother skin too; so scars appear reduced and less obvious.

The beauty of red light therapy is its non-invasive nature. While it’s absolutely understandable that you would be hesitant to turn to a surgeon’s scalpel to reducing scarring, the idea of sitting in front of a red LED light is far less-worrying prospect!

If you’re curious and have any kind of scarring issue, my advice would be to try red light therapy for yourself. Whether you choose to explore one session with a treatment provider nearby or look into the range of impressive cost-effective devices on the market – you might only be a few treatments away from seeing big differences.

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Medically Reviewed ByEvan Hirsch, M.D.

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