Red light therapy (RLT) is a particular type of light therapy that can be used to treat psoriasis. But what is it, and how is it different from other kinds of phototherapy?
Many MyPsoriasisTeam members have asked about RLT and if it might relieve psoriasis symptoms. “Has anyone tried red light therapy for their psoriasis? If so, did it help any?” a team member asked.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease in which an overactive part of the immune system causes skin cells to reproduce too quickly. In plaque psoriasis, the most common type of psoriasis, the skin develops thick, scaly lesions that can be itchy and painful. Although there is no cure for psoriasis, symptoms are typically treated with topical remedies, including:
There are several types of phototherapy, which is also called light therapy. Psoriasis is typically treated with ultraviolet B (UVB) or psoralen plus ultraviolet A (PUVA). PUVA is a type of photochemotherapy in which psoralens — compounds derived from plants — activate UVA light. The two types of UVB phototherapy, broadband and narrowband, are usually delivered with an excimer laser, which is a type of ultraviolet (UV) laser.
Less common types of phototherapy for psoriasis include blue light therapy, balneo-phototherapy (includes salt water bathing), pulsed dye laser, intense pulsed light, and photodynamic therapy. Commercial tanning beds are not the same as phototherapy and can expose you to high levels of UV light, which increases the risk of skin cancer. It’s a good idea to get medical advice before using a tanning bed for therapeutic purposes.
NASA developed red light therapy half a century ago to help cultivate plants in space. Clinical studies (research that tests treatments in people) then discovered that RLT might help heal the wounds of astronauts. Later findings revealed more precisely how RLT works and how it might be used in various medical applications.
RLT, which is also known as low-level light therapy, uses red or near-infrared light through a low-power LED light source. RLT is also called low-power laser therapy, soft laser or cold laser therapy, and biostimulation or photonic stimulation.
RLT improves skin’s appearance and has been used cosmetically to reduce scars, wrinkles, redness, and signs of aging. It has also been used to treat acne, alopecia (hair loss), eczema, and psoriasis. Research from the journal Frontiers in Oncology has shown that RLT may be an effective treatment for melanoma (skin cancer).
There are some key differences between red light therapy and other types of phototherapy that are more commonly used as psoriasis treatment options. Here are a few ways that RLT is distinctive from other types of phototherapy.
Although dermatology research on red light therapy is still limited, RLT is believed to stimulate cell growth and rejuvenation in a process called photobiomodulation. Photobiomodulation changes cell behavior and stimulates genes that signal cell regeneration and healing. This type of tissue repair through light therapy is unique to red light/near-infrared light therapy. Its effects and mechanism of action for psoriasis continue to be studied.
Although UVB and PUVA therapies can reduce psoriasis symptoms, the underlying mechanisms of UV light therapy are generally not well understood. UVB light seems to suppress the immune system, making it less effective at fighting off infections, while PUVA is believed to help regulate inflammation and calms an overactive immune system.
Red light therapy has been found to penetrate the layers of skin to a depth of about a quarter inch (6 millimeters). This allows the treatment to reach different types of skin cells. It does not harm these cells or lead to skin cancer.
UV light, on the other hand, penetrates only the outer surface of the skin to a depth of less than two-hundredths of an inch (less than half a millimeter).
Red light therapy is still considered a relatively new type of light therapy. One small study showed that treatment with RLT over the course of one month led to 60 percent to 100 percent clearance among participants with plaque psoriasis. Although results like these are promising, researchers and doctors generally believe there is more to learn about RLT. Additional data can help health care providers better understand how best to use RLT to treat psoriasis and other conditions. Ongoing studies will give more information about the safety and effectiveness of this emerging treatment.
UV phototherapy, on the other hand, has been used for more than a century. Numerous studies on UVB (both broadband and narrowband), PUVA, and other types of light therapy have helped doctors determine that these treatments can safely and effectively reduce psoriasis symptoms. Extensive research has also helped clinicians develop appropriate treatment regimens.
Nonetheless, many MyPsoriasisTeam members have reported positive results from using RLT for psoriasis. Members have shared comments like these:
UV light is also emitted from the sun, and researchers have extensively studied the potential risks of sunlight and UV radiation to establish safety standards for using UVB and PUVA therapies for psoriasis. For example, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this type of treatment. In addition, people with conditions considered incompatible with phototherapy may be more likely to experience side effects from UV radiation. These conditions include:
RLT is considered safe in general, but health care providers are still determining protocols (treatment plans) that can provide a more precise understanding of its side effects. Side effects have been reported primarily with RLT for cosmetic applications and include:
If you’re interested in learning more about red light therapy and if it might be appropriate for your psoriasis, talk to your doctor. RLT is typically given as a laser treatment in a clinical setting.
The RLT devices available for home use should be used with caution. It’s essential to understand which commercial options may be safe and effective and to have a clear grasp on how to use a device properly. Your doctor may advise against performing RLT at home and suggest in-office treatment instead if RLT seems right for you.
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Have you tried red light therapy for your psoriasis? Did you and your doctor discuss using RLT versus phototherapy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.