Acne Light Therapy: What Works, What Doesn’t, and How to Know if It’s Right for You

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

A special light that’s used to treat acne is one of the biggest innovations that the industry has seen in the last decade and the science behind it is solid 🔬. Unlike acne fads, there is substantial research suggesting that light therapy can be an effective treatment for especially mild to moderate acne, with few side effects.

Woman in a spa having acne light therapy
Many dermatologist’s offices provide light therapy for acne treatment.

What is Acne Light Therapy?

With light therapy, acne responds to a particular kind of light that gets shone onto the skin for a short period of time with a specialized device. There are different types of light treatment options on the market 🏪.

The Science Behind Light Therapy

The four main types of light treatments for acne include blue light therapy, red light therapy, combined light, and photodynamic therapy. Each works in a slightly different way, but each has been proven to be effective in fighting acne to some degree 👩‍⚕️ .

Blue Light Therapy:

If your acne is mostly made up of pimples, blue light therapy is the best option, because the frequency of blue light can kill acne-bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes or P.acnes 🦠.

How Does It Work?

The frequency of blue light matches the resonant frequency of the bacteria’s frequency so, using blue light therapy, the cell walls of the bacteria start to disintegrate, effectively killing them. Blue light can’t kill all P.acnes bacteria, which is good, because they’re commensal pathogens. This means that in balanced numbers, the bacteria actually contribute to healthy skin. Blue light therapy can kill up to 50% of excess bacteria in a minor infection, like a pimple.

Red Light Therapy:

This light therapy is most effective in the treatment of blackheads and whiteheads because it decreases oil production by providing a gentle heat source that won’t dry out your skin.

How Does It Work?

Red light works because of its wavelength. Wavelength on the visual spectrum determines the color of the light you see. Red has a long wavelength, around 700 nanometers, and it is the last visible color before invisible infrared light. Although we can’t see infrared, we can feel it in the form of heat 🌡️.

We can see the visible spectrum of light when white light gets distorted in bubbles.

Red light therapy doesn’t include any harmful rays, and it is milder than pure infrared light, which is what the sun emits. Because it softens oil and shrinks sebaceous glands, this light can both treat and prevent acne to a degree.

Combined Light Treatment:

Because most acne is caused by a variety of factors, many sources of light therapy now offer combined light which uses both red and blue light.

How Does It Work?

This simply combines the effects of both colors of light, so it provides a balanced treatment. Research has found it to be effective.

These Work Best For Mild To Moderate Acne

All three therapies discussed so far have shown good activity against less serious acne. For severe acne, including cysts, there is another option available.

Photodynamic Therapy:

Photodynamic therapy is the most abrasive of the light therapies, and only available at a dermatologist’s office. It involves several steps.

How Does It Work?

First, the skin undergoes microdermabrasion, which exfoliates the skin to ease treatment. Next, a photosensitizing agent is applied and left on for a while. This makes the skin extra sensitive to the effects of the light, which is applied next. Typically, light treatment is painless, but photodynamic therapy is reported to cause moderate pain – if the device is modern and updated.

Who Can Benefit From Acne Light Therapy?

The three main causes of acne are inflammation, bacteria, and excess oil production. All play a role in acne formation, but sometimes one or two factors dominate.

With light therapy, acne caused by bacteria 🦠 and/or excess oil production will respond well and there will be relatively few side effects.

Inflammation:

  • Inflammation is the root cause of acne. Inflamed skin swells slightly, and this causes pores to constrict, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria.
  • Blackheads, whiteheads, or pimples, and a reddish or uneven skin tone all indicate inflammation 🔥.
  • Red light therapy is usually a temporary solution because it can soothe inflamed skin, but it won’t prevent inflammation. This is why we caution people against using only light treatments for acne and recommend a more diverse approach.

Bacteria:

As previously explained – not all pathogens are bad. When acne-causing bacteria aren’t trapped in a pore, they help keep skin clear. Their main food source is the oil produced by the skin, so these bacteria help prevent buildups and clogging, which can cause blackheads and whiteheads.

  • Bacteria may be the biggest cause of your acne if you typically have pimples or cysts.
  • P. acnes cause problems when they get stuck in pores. Oil typically gets trapped as well, so the bacteria have extra food, which causes their numbers to grow much faster than normal. The body registers this as a minor infection, which triggers an immune response with increased inflammation. As part of the process, the immune system cells destroy themselves as well as the bacteria, and all the dead cells combine to form pus, which is what gives pimples and cysts their yellow heads.
  • If you have pimples, blue light therapy can be a great option for you. For serious cystic acne, even regular treatments with red and blue light won’t work, although photodynamic therapy probably will.

Oil Production:

  • If you typically have blackheads and whiteheads, oil production may be the primary culprit. Even without bacteria, excess oil can still cause serious acne.
  • Oil is produced by the sebaceous glands beneath the outer layer of the skin, and some oil is good because it can protect the skin from mild irritants. But too much oil is a problem because it can clog the pores and cause inflammation 🔥, from which blackheads and whiteheads can form. Red light therapy may be helpful in this case.

Where to Get Light Therapy

When light therapy for acne was first developed, it was only available at a dermatologist’s office. Now, there are all kinds of at-home devices too.

At-Home Light Treatment or At The Doctor?

Light devices for home use are much more convenient, and they can be significantly cheaper than regular visits to the dermatologist 👩‍⚕️. But there is a major downside: home light treatment will not be as effective as the dermatologist’s.

Is Light Treatment Enough For My Skin?

In short – no. A good skincare regime that includes it will be far more effective. We recommend using Exposed Skin Care’s 3-step system 🏆 in addition.

The Exposed 3-step process includes a Facial Cleanser and a Clearing Toner, both used in the morning and at night, an Acne Treatment Serum, used in the morning, and a Clear Pore Serum, used at night. Each step of the Exposed process includes both scientific and natural ingredients to ensure your skin is getting the care it needs.

Unlike many other acne treatment systems, we use low concentrations of key acne-fighting ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid to avoid irritation. By treating your skin gently, we reduce acne for the long term.

The best way to treat acne is with gentle, consistent care, which is exactly what our Basic Kit is designed to do.