Red light therapy is one of the most controversial forms of alternative medicine in the UK, and its validity has been widely questioned. Although this article is not going to debunk the benefits of red light therapy, its methodology, benefits, risks and effectiveness have all been extensively debated. Therefore, a short summary of all the main arguments is suggested.
Red light therapy can be based on blood vessel-enrichment, using red light to promote blood flow into and through your skin.
Form of Red Light Therapy
One form of red light therapy, known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal laser therapy (HPILT), is based on the theory that red light should ‘jump start’ your body’s ‘energy production system’ when there are ‘excessive’ levels of lipid in your blood, causing damaging lipid oxidations (fat oxidation) and inflammation. Some research suggests that this form of therapy can improve the appearance of eczema and psoriasis. However, according to one systematic review, most of the small number of studies show inconclusive results and conflicting findings. Also, side effects of red light therapy, such as itching and skin discolouration, have been reported.
A second form of red light therapy involves having a small laser that heats the top layer of your skin. Researchers at the University of Bristol found that some people had ‘reduced skin thickness and increased turnover’ after receiving this form of red light therapy. However, some people did not feel comfortable receiving this form of therapy, and more research is needed. Also, some research suggests that only some types of red light therapy are efficacious.
A third form of red light therapy involves spending 30 minutes a day in a ‘passive’ room for up to three weeks, where you are exposed to a red light therapy device. These devices are placed over your skin by trained health professionals and give off very little heat, so they are considered to be safe, even though some practitioners claim that the red light causes burning. This form of red light therapy is mostly seen as an alternative to medication, and patients who report improvements usually use it for more than three months before the procedure is discontinued.
Although evidence from observational studies is often used to determine the effectiveness of red light therapy, this is often the only type of research conducted. A recent systematic review of more than 130 studies found that only two observational studies suggest a small overall benefit, and the studies had limited geographical and dosing scope, which limits the usefulness of the findings.
A review of seven clinical trials (the gold standard of clinical research) found that there was no evidence of a benefit from red light therapy for psoriasis, eczema, or even moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis. However, for children and adolescents with atopic dermatitis, evidence suggests that red light therapy may be useful, although further studies are needed.
Another review of red light therapy for chronic plaque psoriasis found that there is no strong evidence to suggest that red light therapy is beneficial, although it did suggest that red light therapy is effective for moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis, when combined with conventional therapies such as systemic steroid therapy. Also, another study reported that red light therapy may be effective for people with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis, as it was found to be more effective than conventional therapies. But, while red light therapy may be effective for a proportion of people with mild-to-moderate plaque psoriasis, other research suggests that red light therapy may not be effective for those with more severe psoriasis. Also, most trials used a patch test, which means that the results may not be generalisable to people who have chronic psoriasis, such as those with severe psoriasis.
So, while evidence suggests that red light therapy may be beneficial for some people with mild-to-moderate psoriasis, the current evidence is very limited.
However, this does not mean that red light therapy is useless for people with moderate-to-severe psoriasis or people with atopic dermatitis. When treating people with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis, you need to consider whether red light therapy will be an effective treatment option, and if the results are good, you will need to work out what the best way to use the treatment is.