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What Is Facial Light Therapy? Here’s How It Can Help Your Skin

A woman holds a skin are device up to her face, a woman lies on a bed wearing an LED mask, and a person uses an LED wand on their cheek.
Foreo/NewKey/Solawave

You’ve seen them—those weird masks with lights inside that kind of make you look like Hannibal Lector. But what are they?

The masks are a form of skin care that uses LED light therapy, and while it might look odd, those masks might just be what your routine is missing.

But what does facial light therapy do, and if you’re curious about it, how do you get started?

We spoke with Kendra Joseph, PA-C of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, and Joshua Zeichner, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology and the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, all about LED lights for the skin. If you’re curious about these devices (surprise, they’re actually not all masks), here’s everything you need to know.

What Exactly Is Facial Light Therapy?

A woman uses a handheld LED wand on her face.
Solawave

We know. Some of those light therapy masks look weird, but we promise this strange-seeming treatment is actually legitimate and has real benefits. We’ve got the experts to prove it.

So what is it? Joseph explained to LifeSavvy that light therapy apples different wavelengths of light to the skin. The skin then absorbs the light energy into the tissue where it helps improve cell function. The therapy can be used to treat a variety of conditions including rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, fine lines, wrinkles, and dull skin.

SolaWave 4-in-1 Facial Wand

It's not all face masks.

Zeichner drilled down a bit into specifics explaining that different colors of LED lights are designed to offer different benefits. The light is absorbed differently based on color and that affects how it optimizes the cells. For example, red light can help fight inflammation and stimulate collagen while blue light can have antimicrobial effects useful when treating acne.

While you’re used to seeing masks, light therapy devices can come in all shapes and sizes including handheld wands, pens, and in-office machinery.

How Do You Incorporate Light Therapy into Your Skin Care Routine?

A woman holds a round LED device to her face.
Foreo

Whether you’re looking to use light therapy in order to help with anti-aging or to combat acne, there are specific ways to do it according to both Joseph and Zeichner.

The good news is that LED light therapy is generally safe and easy to use, and any skin type and tone can benefit from the devices. You don’t need to be scared of it, either. Joseph assuaged any fears when she told LifeSavvy it won’t burn, cause pain, or harm your skin. She said you might feel a slight warming sensation when using, but that’s it.

Joseph’s only caution was to avoid use if you have a history of skin cancer or are taking any oral medications. If that’s the case, consult with her dermatologist before starting treatment.

FOREO UFO 2 Face Mask Treatment

Travel with your treatment thanks to this compact device.

As for how to use light therapy, both Zeichner and Joseph said every day at any time of day is fine, but to be safe starting once or twice per week is a good idea. You can simply follow the instructions listed on your device. Also, be sure you have a freshly cleansed face so skin care products don’t interfere with absorption.

Don’t expect instant results, though. Joseph said you’ll likely need several sessions in order to see significant changes. Once you reach your desired effects, though, you can use the device less frequently and incorporate it as part of a maintenance routine.

Joseph does also say that when in doubt about the treatment, it’s best to consult with a medical skin care professional to ensure you get the best results.

What Skin Care Should and Shouldn’t Be Used With Light Therapy?

A swatch of retinol cream sits next to a bottle, and a woman applies sunscreen to her face.
Paula’s Choice/EltaMD

While both Zeichner and Joseph said light therapy is safe and effective for pretty much everyone, does it play well with all skin care? According to the experts, it’s less about what you should and shouldn’t use and more about when you should use certain ingredients.

“I would avoid applying skin care products that contain retinol or retinoid as well as products with high percentages of AHA/BHA immediately before your LED light treatment,” said Joseph. “This may increase your chances of irritation and burning.”

Paula's Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment Cream

You can stil use retinol. It's just a matter of when you use it.

Yes, it’s fine to continue their use, just not in the same routine as your device. Instead, apply your retinol or retinoids on the days you won’t be using light therapy. Also, keep in mind that those ingredients could make your skin more sensitive, so you might want to adjust the frequency and length of use of your device.

As for which products you should use, Joseph said that comes down to what you’re trying to treat. As a general rule, it’s safe to apply vitamin C, retinoid, moisturizer, or sunscreen after treatment (not before), and yes, you should always, always wear sunscreen.

EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46 Tinted Face Sunscreen

Sunscreen during the day is an asbolute must whether you're using LED lights or not.

What Should You Look For In At-Home LED Light Therapy Device?

A woman wears a light therapy mask over her face while reading, and another woman holds the mask up to her face.
Newkey

If you’re sold on working LED light therapy into your skin care routine, Zeichner and Joseph had the same recommendation. Look for FDA-cleared or FDA-approved devices to ensure you’re getting the best and safest treatment possible. Also, be sure there are built-in eye guards or some sort of eye protection included.

For those who are a bit skeptical of at-home light therapy, you can receive the treatment with in-office tools and work with your dermatologist to determine your best treatment plan.


If you’ve been wanting to step up your routine and incorporate more skin care tools, LED light therapy might be worth a shot.

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is an Atlanta-based writer who has written about everything from whether Crisco is a good moisturizer to how to KonMari your space. Her work has appeared in Bustle, My First Apartment, and Make It Grateful. Read Full Bio »
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