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

Using a special light to treat acne is one of the biggest innovations the industry has seen in the last decade, and the science behind it is solid 🔬. Unlike acne fads, there is substantial research suggesting that acne light therapy can be an effective treatment for especially mild to moderate acne, with few side effects. When paired with anti-acne topical treatments and routines, the benefits of acne light therapy can be even greater.

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 skin 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 acne 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 acne light 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, skin 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. In order to get the most benefit from acne light therapy, it’s important to take a multi-pronged approach to skincare, such as a basic three-step acne routine for morning and night.

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 skin light treatments for acne and recommend a more diverse approach.

To combat inflammation, choose products with salicylic acid to unclog pores and allow acne-fighting ingredients and light therapies to penetrate the skin and work against that bacteria. A deep cleaning facial wash like Exposed Facial Cleanser is an ideal first step to tackling inflammation in tandem with other acne therapies because it’s still gentle, with soothing sage extract and pro-vitamin B5 to calm irritation.

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.
  • The sebaceous glands beneath the outer layer of the skin produce oil, 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 because it softens oil and shrinks sebaceous glands. Get the most out of red light therapy for oil production by pairing it with a powerful-yet-gentle facial toner that rebalances the skin after cleansing. Look for ingredients such as azelaic acid and antioxidants to absorb oil and impurities, such as Exposed Skin Clearing Tonic.

Bacteria:

  • If you typically have pimples or cysts, bacteria may be the biggest cause of your acne.
  • Remember, not all acne-causing bacteria are bad. If they aren’t stuck in pores, they help skin clear by “eating” the oil produced by the skin, preventing buildups and clogging.
  • When acne-causing bacteria does get stuck in pores with oil, the bacteria have extra food and kick into overdrive, triggering an immune response in the body and resulting pimples and cysts with yellow heads and pus.

If you have pimples, blue light therapy can be a great option for you, especially in tandem with a deep-penetrating serum made with benzoyl peroxide to prevent new blemishes and whiteheads. Look for a benzoyl peroxide level of 3.5%, like Exposed Acne Treatment Serum, to fight the acne-causing bacteria stuck in pores while also calming and healing with green tea extract. 

For serious cystic acne, consider photodynamic therapy instead of regular red or blue light treatments. To pack an even greater punch against cystic acne, discuss a full routine with your dermatologist that will give you long-term benefits of acne-busting ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide while being gentle on irritated, cystic skin, like the Exposed Basic Kit that works to quickly get acne under control.

Not sure what type of acne you have? Take our quiz to determine your skin type and how to meet your skin goals!

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 skin light treatment will not be as effective as the dermatologist.

Is Light Treatment Enough For My Skin?

In short – no. Dermatologists agree that a good skincare routine coupled with light therapy will be far more effective. Choose a routine that has proven acne-fighting powerhouses like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, but also the addition of calming ingredients that won’t overly irritate already-inflamed skin. 

A simple but effective routine only needs to be 3 steps. For example, the Exposed 3-step process includes:

  • Step 1: Facial Cleanser for morning and night that removes excess oil and impurities without leaving your skin feeling overly dry.
  • Step 2: Clearing Toner for morning and night that prevents the buildup of dead skin cells and opens your pores.
  • Step 3 (Morning): Acne Treatment Serum for a powerful yet soothing dose of anti-acne ingredients that will work during the day.
  • Step 3 (Night): Clear Pore Serum to clarify and balance your skin while you sleep, leaving you with a brighter, healthier complexion.

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, paired with natural extracts and herbal blends that calm and reduce redness and prevent dryness and 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.