Can Red Light Therapy Reduce Cellulite?

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

We all know the struggle of pesky cellulite. As we age, it gets harder and harder to achieve fat loss. Luckily, there is mounting research to support the effectiveness and health benefits of red light therapy in reducing those little bumps in a truly non-invasive way.

In addition, there is an increasing amount of research that shows infrared therapy increases the effectiveness of exercise and can also be combined with massage therapy, all while reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

Red Light Therapy for Cellulite

Red Light and Near-Infrared Light Therapy

For those who are unfamiliar with the process of red light therapy, red light and near-infrared (NIR) light therapy involves using wavelengths of light in the 660 nm (red) to 890 nm (near-infrared) range. This is the portion of the light spectrum that is considered “bioactive”, meaning having an effect on the body.

RLT is administered with either low-level lasers or LED lights. You may have also heard this referred to by other names, including:

  • photobiomodulation (PBM)
  • low-level light therapy (LLLT)
  • soft laser therapy
  • cold laser therapy
  • biostimulation
  • photonic stimulation
  • low-power laser therapy (LPLT)

Here’s What Red Light Does

The science behind red light therapy is that a specific wavelength of light causes a biochemical effect in cells that boost the mitochondria. A cell’s energy is created in the mitochondria as adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

You can think of the mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell. By increasing ATP production, the cell has more energy to function more efficiently and repair damage.

Red light therapy doesn’t cause damage to the skin’s surface, which differs from laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy. Light wavelengths work by causing damage to the outer layer of skin, inducing tissue repair. Differently, red light penetrates only about 5 millimeters into the skin, directly stimulating cell regeneration and collagen production.

Led light therapy is also thought to contribute to hormesis, building up the cell’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory defense systems.

According to the National Institute of Health, “Hormesis is a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.”

“In the fields of biology and medicine hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”1

Red Light Therapy Reduces Body Circumference

RLT is proven to reduce overall body circumference measurements of the waist, hips, thighs, buttocks, and upper arms causing a “body contouring” effect. A study published in the National Institute of Health found that red light therapy “has a potential to be used in fat cells and cellulite reduction as well as in improvement of blood lipid profile without any significant side effects.” 2

An assessment of fat thickness using ultrasound found that the subcutaneous fat layer was reduced from 12mm before treatment to 8mm after.

The results go on to state, “One of the main proposed mechanism of actions is based upon production of transient pores in adipocytes, allowing lipids to leak out. Another is through activation of the complement cascade which could cause induction of adipocyte apoptosis and subsequent release of lipids.”

Red Light Therapy Boosts Blood Circulation

Red light and NIR light therapy have been proven to improve blood circulation, in turn reversing the breakdown of collagen production and elastin contributing to the appearance of cellulite.

In a controlled study to determine the efficacy of red and near-infrared light therapy in the treatment of, skin roughness, and the increase in intradermal collagen density, it was found that, “The treated subjects experienced significantly improved skin complexion, skin tone, and skin feeling, profilometrically assessed skin roughness, and ultrasonographically measured collagen density.3

The blinded clinical evaluation of photographs confirmed significant improvement in the intervention groups compared with the control.”

Improves Lymphatic Drainage

The lymphatic system is responsible for hauling dead viruses and cells to the liver for excretion and disinfection. A condition called lymphedema occurs when this system becomes inoperative, building up protein-rich fluids that crystallize and cause burning and irritation.4

Scar tissue forms as the disease progresses, and as your body fills with toxins metabolism and immunity are compromised, leading to chronic infections and fatigue.

Red light therapy is well known for treating injuries with a process known as “angiogenesis”,  which is the process of growing new blood vessels to create a blood supply to an injured area.5

Blood vessels and lymphatic vessels coexist, so the generation of new blood vessels with infrared therapy also involves the creation of new lymphatic vessels. The improved lymphatic drainage helps to prevent swelling during cellulite treatment.

Red Light Therapy Boosts the Effects of Exercise

Red light and NIR light therapy have proven to be effective in controlling weight and obesity. In a Brazillian study conducted in 2015, researchers assessed the effects of phototherapy combined with exercise on 64 obese women between the ages of 20 and 40.6

One group exercised and received infrared light, while the control group just exercised. The results of the study concluded that exercise combined with the use red light therapy was the most effective at reducing body fat, minimizing joint pain causing pain relief, and increasing skeletal muscle mass. The researchers wrote:

“Our results demonstrated for the first time that light therapy enhances the physical exercise effects in obese women undergoing weight loss treatment promoting significant changes in inflexibility metabolic profile.”

An additional study published in 2018 found similar results. Obese women were divided into two groups, one that combined exercise and red light therapy  and one that just exercised. The group with light therapy saw more significant reduction in fat mass and insulin variables. The conclusion of the researchers:

“It was demonstrated that exercise training associated with light therapy promotes an improvement in body composition and inflammatory processes.”

“The light therapy group especially presented positive modifications of WNT5 signaling, FGF-21, and ANP, possible biomarkers associated with browning adiposity processes. This suggests light therapy is applicable in clinical practice to control obesity.”7

Combined with Massage

Research combining red light treatment with massage found that there was a 71% reduction in those pesky bumps. In a study with 83 subjects with mild to moderate cellulite, subjects received  light therapy and massage to their right or left thigh, with the other thigh serving as a control. 8

“Reduction in thigh circumference of the treated areas exceeded those of the control areas for the upper, middle, and lower thigh in most subjects. The maximum reduction (-0.82 cm) occurred in the upper thigh at 1 month.”

“The mean reduction of the upper, middle, and lower thigh circumferences was -0.64 cm for the treated thighs compared to -0.20 cm for untreated thighs. The difference was significant (p < 0.0001). Fifty-nine (71.1%) treatment thighs lost circumference compared to 44 (53.0%) control thighs.”

Additional Benefits of  Red Light Therapy

The use of low-level laser therapy  for cellulite reduction has additional benefits. A study assessing its effects on skin health found that “91% of subjects reported improved skin tone caused by sun damage, and 82% reported enhanced smoothness of skin in the treatment area.”9

Improved Confidence

The reduction of cellulite along with the effects of red light on skin rejuvenation can bring a significant boost to a person’s everyday confidence and appearance.

Reduced Stress

Poor mitochondrial function can exacerbate conditions such as anxiety and depression, which affect an individual’s stress level.

Research conducted by Fredric Schiffer et al. of The Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program studied the effects of infrared light on the reduction of anxiety and depression.

The study concluded that “NIR-PBM [near infrared photobiomodulation] may have utility for the treatment of depression and other psychiatric disorders and that double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trials are indicated.”

Toned Muscles

Muscle tissue is more densely packed with mitochondria than nearly any other cell, tissue, or organ in the body. ATP is needed for every muscle twitch and movement. For this reason, it has numerous benefits for building muscle, preventing fatigue, and improving endurance.

Some of the significant finds involving red light therapy include:

  • Greater reduction in fatigue
  • Red light therapy prior to exercise significantly lowers levels of creatine kinase (a marker of fatigue)

If Red Light Therapy Interests You

If you are interested in receiving light therapy treatments to help combat cellulite, you should first consult your dermatologist, oncologist, orthopedic, primary care doctor, rheumatologist or neurologist about treatment options.

Then look for local RLT providers at spas, medical facilities, and fitness studios. From small wands to entire beds, there are also a number of FDA approved at-home light therapy devices now being sold in-store and online.


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Medically Reviewed ByEvan Hirsch, M.D.

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