Medically Approved

Does LED light therapy help clear up acne?

5 minute read
Woman using LED light to treat acne

Research says yes. Done either at a doctor’s office or at home, this technique can help battle breakouts. Find out if it’s right for you.

Beth Janes

By Beth Janes

Pop quiz (and we do mean pop): What’s the most common skin condition in the United States? It’s probably no surprise that the answer is acne. Breakouts are most frequent among teens and young adults: Up to 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 get at least minor breakouts, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. And acne affects up to 15% of adult women, in part thanks to fluctuating hormones. (Men are less affected.)

There are several tried-and-true treatments for acne. But if you’re someone who battles blemishes, you probably already know that acne can be stubborn, and additional ways to treat it are always welcome. Enter a fairly new high-tech option: LED light therapy.

The Optum Store has a wide range of acne-fighting treatments, including LED light therapy products. Shop now and have it all shipped right to your door.

What is LED light therapy?

LED light therapy uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to tackle acne with 2 different wavelengths (colors) of light. The treatments are available at dermatologist offices and can also be done at home. It may sound like sci-fi, but it’s backed by research. Learn how it might be your ticket to clearer skin.

How blue and red LED light therapies work on your skin

LED therapy uses tiny light bulbs that emit various colors of light. Blue and red can be used to tackle acne.

Blue LED light. With its shorter wavelength, blue LED light targets the top layer of skin cells. “Blue light has an antimicrobial effect, so it helps reduce acne by killing several types of bacteria that can collect in your pores and lead to breakouts,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut, and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven.

Blue LED also lowers the activity of your oil glands, says Peterson Pierre, MD. He’s a board-certified dermatologist in Thousand Oaks, California. This decrease is important because overactive oil glands can cause clogged pores and create the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive.

Red LED light. This kind of LED light has a longer wavelength, so it penetrates deeper into the second layer of skin. It targets cells that play a role in the skin’s inflammatory response and its production of collagen. Collagen is a protein that keeps skin smooth and has been shown to help with healing. “Red LED is used to fight redness and inflammation,” Dr. Pierre says. Anyone who’s had a pimple knows it’s often the redness and swelling that can turn a minor blemish or clogged pore into a bigger deal.

In-office vs. at-home LED light therapy

Should you get LED light treatments at your dermatologist’s office or try one of the many available at-home devices? There are some key differences to know about:

In-office treatments. When you visit a dermatologist, you sit in front of a screen of powerful LED bulbs (usually a combination of red and blue lights). Treatments usually take 15 to 20 minutes each, 1 to 3 times a week for 8 to 12 weeks. “Time and money can be limiting factors for some, because you need consistent treatment for weeks to see improvement,” Dr. Pierre says.

The payoff can be worth it. “In-office versions of any treatment will always be more effective than at-home versions,” he says. “In this case, you get more powerful lights and better machines, in addition to the experience of the person administering the treatment.” You will likely see results more quickly, too. 

At-home LED treatments. Devices made for at-home treatments use the same type of bulbs — red, blue or a combination — but they tend to be not as strong. There are several kinds of treatment tools you can buy (shop our selection now):

  • A handheld device that resembles a flashlight. You hold the light to your skin for the time designated by the manufacturer (it varies, but about 20 minutes per session is typical).
  • Plastic masks with LED bulbs inside, which fit over your face, leaving your hands free.
  • Tabletop devices that look like a screen of bulbs.

“The recommended amount of use for at-home devices varies by manufacturer, but some suggest daily use for a few weeks to get started,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says.

Home devices may be more convenient than weekly dermatology appointments. But there are trade-offs. “At-home treatments can still be effective, but the devices can be pricey and require regular use and patience — it takes time to see results,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. The bottom line, according to Dr. Pierre: “The best compromise is to do a series of in-office treatments followed by maintenance at home.”

If you have a skin issue that needs attention, you can make a virtual appointment with an Optum health care professional. Same-day appointments are often available, and no insurance is required. Get started.

What you can expect

Experts and research, including a 2018 review published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, agree that LED light therapy is safe and effective. But there are some things to keep in mind.

It’s not a slam dunk. LED light therapy “has a benefit because it targets redness and inflammation while decreasing oil production and bacterial load,” Dr. Pierre says. “But it’s not a cure for acne, even though it can definitely help.” It’s also not right for every case: “The treatments are the best fit for mild to moderate acne,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson.

It should be part of a skin care regimen. Because LED light therapy alone isn’t a total acne fix, most doctors suggest using it along with a solid acne-fighting skin care routine. That might include, in some cases, prescription medications or other in-office treatments, says Dr. Mraz Robinson.

It’s generally safe and gentle. Topical and oral acne treatments are often harsh on the skin. LED light therapy offers a milder alternative. “It’s really appealing to patients looking for a more natural approach,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to take precautions, though. Eye protection is critical for both at-home and in-office treatments, she says.

It may not be for you if you’re sensitive to the sun. People taking medications that make the skin sensitive to sunlight are not candidates, Dr. Mraz Robinson says. And if you have fair skin, use caution. “The treatment doesn’t make you more sensitive to the sun, but if you sunburn easily, be very careful because LED treatment is a form of visible light and could cause a burn, although the risk is low,” Dr. Pierre says.

It may be covered by insurance. “Light therapy by a board-certified dermatologist for the treatment of acne may be covered, so contact your insurance provider to verify,” Dr. Mraz Robinson suggests.

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Additional sources
Statistics on acne: American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin Conditions by the Numbers"

How red and near-infrared light waves work:

Collagen and healing: Journal of Drugs in Dermatology (2018). “Collagen Powder in Wound Healing”