Vampire facials, microcurrent treatments, infrared saunas — just like every other popular skin-care breakthrough of the recent past, you probably saw LED therapy first on Instagram, either in the form of that serial killer-looking mask that Jessica Alba and half the Kardashians love (see what we mean here, here and here) or a hand-held device that, on first glance, looks a bit like a sex toy. Let's dive right in.
Even though LED, or Light Emitting Diode therapy, has been around for decades — NASA used the technology in plant growth experiments on board the Space Shuttle in the '80s — it recently found its way into the zeitgeist as an Insta-worthy skin treatment for everything from severe acne to fine lines and dullness. And it's no wonder: As with most things involving NASA, it's equal parts intriguing and effective. But how can a futuristic-looking mask that simply shines a light on your face be such an all-star skin savior?
"When used consistently, over time, LED lights are thought to penetrate your skin at different depths and cause various reactions in your skin, such as fighting acne-causing bacteria, plumping skin and reducing wrinkles," says Los Angeles-based dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu, who tells me that the most common LED lights for skin care are blue and red, though pink and white exist as well. "Blue light kills bacteria that causes acne and red stimulates collagen production and helps speed skin's natural healing process," she explains. This makes it a great option for anyone who wants to brighten up dark spots. White light, which is often found only in in-office treatments, is thought to penetrate the deepest to tighten and reduce inflammation. Sounds like voodoo magic, sure, but there are myriad studies that back it up, too.
Popularized by celebrity facialists like Shani Darden (she counts Alba, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Chrissy Teigen as clients) and Joanna Vargas, who works out of her two namesake beauty meccas in NYC and LA, LED treatments have evolved from an in-office skin-perfecting treatment to an essential add-on to cap off any facial.
"We really use it for everything," says Vargas, who works with names like Sofia Coppola, Karlie Kloss and Naomi Watts. "It works for acne, acne scars, building collagen and making the skin healthier in general. However, it's also handy when we do peels in the office because it calms inflammation and makes the skin look perfect quickly."
This, of course, makes it an ideal treatment for clients who are in front of the camera on the regular, or anyone who wants to stick with non-invasive skin-tightening tricks. As for how it feels? Think: more relaxing than stifling, and though the LED light may feel warm on the face, it won't cause burns to the skin (though eye damage is possible if proper protection isn't used).
What took so long for LED skin treatments to go mainstream? Besides the lack of consumer knowledge — some see the treatment on Instagram and think it's the same UV-emitting light that comes from tanning beds, or as Vargas calls them, "public enemy number one" — it's generally still cost-prohibitive. For example, some of Vargas's clients come in just to use her oft-Instagramed full-body LED light bed, which costs $150 for 20 minutes. She also has a few other treatments that incorporate the LED light bed, such as the $175 Power Peel (which she says is a "detoxifying, resurfacing peel followed by LED therapy and oxygen to make [clients] look like they have spent the last month in a health spa"), the Vitalight treatment, which costs $225 for an hour of exfoliation, LED light therapy and oxygen; and the Sleeping Beauty facial, which rings in at $225 for 30 minutes.
Darden's facials are similarly priced: A custom facial that ends with 20 minutes of her famed LED light mask will cost you upwards of $350. To some, it's a bargain in comparison to, say, a facelift or series of powerful lasers with exhaustive downtimes.
Though there are myriad at-home devices on the market — both the Deesse Premium LED Mask, which retails for $2,000 and gets Darden's stamp of approval, as well as the Tria Acne Clearing Blue Light, which is more of a blue light spot-treatment and retails for $169 — they aren't as powerful as the LED lights used by doctors and are more susceptible to user error, though they're great for daily maintenance. More recently, Neutrogena debuted a $40 Instagram-friendly iteration (it's a Cyborg-like mask, albeit much less expensive) in 2016, and there are dozens of similarly priced masks on Amazon, most with mixed reviews. In this sense, they're similar to most at-home peel and microcurrent treatments.
"Home treatment [masks] aren't as strong as what you might get from a dermatologist, but if used daily, you'll see improvement in problem areas," says Dr. Chiu. But she cautions against the cheaper models: "Just any old bargain LED light isn't going to be reliable in terms of strength and true LED wavelength." Her favorites? Lightstim for Wrinkles and Dennis Gross SpectraLite LED are good at-home options, especially because they protect the eyes.
Though Vargas asserts there are minimal drawbacks to using LED light therapy on the skin, Dr. Chiu's got one: "It takes regular, consistent use with multiple treatments to see improvement," she says. "For optimal results, you need to use your at-home device daily or go to a dermatologist, who can provide a stronger version for at least four treatments to see a difference, and maintenance is usually yearly."
Sure, it's a pretty big commitment, but if our Instagram feeds are any indication, it's definitely worth it — if not for the glowing, clear skin, then at least for the selfie.
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