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Do red light face masks really reduce signs of aging? We talked to dermatologists to find out

You can use these trendy LED treatments at home, but are they safe and effective?

Do red light face masks really reduce signs of aging? We talked to dermatologists to find out

It feels like everyone is talking about red light therapy. Beyond the usual social media buzz, my mom recently told me that her esthetician recommends Solawave's Skincare Wand for reducing wrinkles. Yahoo Senior Beauty Editor Jennifer Romolini is also a Solawave fan. Then, a friend shared that she uses a red light mask every day for 15 minutes, and said she's seen fine lines disappear and redness diminish. All these women have stunning skin, so I decided to investigate. What is red light therapy, and do at-home red light therapy devices really work?

Red light therapy uses non-invasive LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to reduce signs of aging, redness and inflammation. "Red light therapy works by emitting wavelengths of light that are absorbed by receptors on the skin," Green says. "It's thought to act on fibroblasts in our skin. Fibroblasts are essential for collagen production, a protein that works to provide structure and smooth the skin."

You've probably heard of collagen, which is a protein that provides structure and smoothness for your skin. By stimulating the creation of collagen, red light therapy aims to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It can also reduce inflammation and redness, like rosacea. "Red light therapy may also act on the mitochondria within cells, which are essential for producing energy for proper functioning," Green says. "By increasing energy production, the cells are able to function more efficiently during processes such as skin restoration and new skin cell growth."

Dermatologists and plastic surgeons often combine red light therapy with other in-office treatments using devices that can treat the face, panels positioned around a particular area, or even beds that can treat the entire body. Professional LED devices are not worn — instead, they're kept a short distance from the skin.

"Many dermatologists will employ red LED therapy after a chemical peel or laser session to reduce redness and inflammation after the procedure," Green says. "Dermatologists may also use stand-alone red light therapy."

Marmur says dermatologists may use other types of LED therapy, including blue and green light therapy. "Red, blue, and green LED[s] are good for stimulating collagen, reducing inflammation and improving skin texture," she says. "In the office, various LED devices are used after Fraxel or Sciton laser resurfacing to reduce skin bacteria and reduce redness while accelerating healing."

Additionally, photodynamic therapy (PDT) may be used to treat precancerous lesions, certain types of skin cancer, acne and eczema. And intense pulsed light or broadband light therapies (IPL and BBL, respectively) use powerful diodes to emit multiple LED colors. "The intense diodes improve skin pigmentation, sun damage, vascular lesions, redness from rosacea, inflammation from acne and stimulate collagen," Marmur says.

If you've ever gotten your teeth whitened at your dentist's office, you know you usually see results more quickly compared with at-home treatments. Red light therapy is similar. Your dermatologist's red light treatment will be stronger and more effective than anything you can do at home — but that doesn't mean you won't experience any benefit from at-home devices. The devices are also typically safe to use as long as you follow directions, experts confirm.

Green says: "It is not yet known how effective at-home red light/LED face masks are, as there has not been much research into the LED devices on the market. These masks are typically weaker than in-office treatments and may only provide minimal benefits. Changes may be so microscopic that they are not visible. [But] yes, it is safe to do red light therapy at home as long as you follow the manufacturer's directions. At-home red light therapy masks are low in intensity and do not release much heat. It is important to use the protective eyewear provided in the package and keep your eyes closed during treatment for maximum eye protection."

Marmur says: "At-home LEDs are a great option — if the device is backed by clinical studies and FDA cleared. Be cautious with the red light wearable masks due to cases of cornea injury due to the glare of the LED and infrared lights so close to the eyes. Using a device in front of the skin, 12-24 inches away for limited amounts of time, about 20 minutes, is the precedent used by dermatologists and possibly best for home treatments."

Uganabo says: "Most of the time, the red light in-home devices [are] referred to as a low-level light therapy because the energy used in these devices are much lower compared to other forms of laser therapy which would be done in a dermatologist office. ... When used as directed, most popular red light devices are generally safe. However, if you have sensitive skin or are prone to hyperpigmentation, I would recommend consulting with your dermatologist first before getting a device. Also, be careful not to overuse the device beyond the length of time recommended by either your doctor or the company."

Marmur says some users may experience redness or irritation, but she usually finds this is only the case when a device is cheaply made or used improperly. Additionally, if you're taking any medications or using topical products that are photosensitizing, Green says it's best to consult your dermatologist before starting any type of red light therapy treatment.

The dermatologists we spoke with all emphasized that eye protection is critical during red light therapy to avoid damaging your corneas. You can wear protective glasses and keep your eyes closed while using an at-home device.

Red light therapy isn't a "quick fix." Whether it's done in a dermatologist's office or at home, it generally takes multiple treatments to see changes.

"In general, consistent use produces the best results," Uganabo says. "For at-home devices, I tell my patients to gauge results after at least six to eight weeks of consistent use. However, sometimes these results may be subtle."

Green reiterates that at-home devices are weaker than in-office treatments. "It may take months to see any improvement in the skin, even after consistent usage," she says.

First and foremost, look to see whether the red light mask is FDA-cleared. It should also come with eye protection — if not, you can purchase black-out goggles to keep your eyes safe.

Of course, at-home devices are typically cheaper than professional treatments. But Uganabo cautions that they're still expensive for most people and require consistent use, so choose one that fits into your routine — after all, if it ends up collecting dust, it's a waste of money. And, of course, consult your own dermatologist to get their input on whether red light therapy is suited for your skin-care routine.

This top-selling red light therapy mask is made with flexible silicone and has a strap on the back to hold it close to your face. The brand recommends using it for three to five 10-minute treatments a week over four to six weeks, "followed by maintenance as desired."

This mask is FDA-cleared, but it doesn't come with goggles or anything to shield your eyes, so you may want to purchase your own.

"I’ve been using the Omnilux Contour for five weeks now and I can definitely tell a difference," said one shopper. "My face is plumper and my skin just overall looks more youthful. You have to use it consistently, however!"

$395 at Omnilux

You probably know Solawave for its viral red-light wand, but the brand recently re-released its LED mask that combines red light therapy and near-infrared light therapy. It's FDA-cleared and comes with eye protection, though it's minimal (just some small silicone blockers around the eye holes). You may still want to invest in some blackout eye protection and keep your eyes closed during use. 

$349 at Solawave

This mask is particularly popular on social media. In addition to red light therapy, this FDA-cleared mask offers blue light therapy. This one also doesn't come with any eye protection, so keep your peepers closed and use your own eye protection.

"Has evened out my skin tone and helped with fine lines. Have used every night before bed since February and I am absolutely loving it. 41 years, feel it helps me look younger," said one shopper.

$455 at Sephora

Not sure what all the fuss is about? This Solawave wand is a more affordable way to try red light therapy. It requires you to massage your face for at least three minutes a day, rather than relax with a mask on. However, there are some benefits: It feels like a spa treatment, and you don't have to worry about eye protection.

$169 at Solawave

The reviews quoted above reflect the most recent versions at the time of publication.