You've seen the gadgets on Instagram, at Sephora, and in the drugstore. Here, derms share everything you need to know if you want to give the technology a try.
If you suffer from acne, you've likely heard of blue light therapy before—it's been used in dermatologists offices for over a decade now to help zap acne-causing bacteria at its source. And for several years, at-home devices have used to same technology to deliver similar benefits for a fraction of the cost. But now, with the introduction of a device from Neutrogena that rings in at just $35, the technology has truly become accessible for the first time. So, beyond serving as a cool and futuristic addition to your next self-care Sunday (and making for some great Snapchats, BTW), how does the light mask—and other new blue light at-home devices on the market—actually work to give you a clear complexion? We talked to two derms to get the scoop.
Why blue light?
Blue light is a spectrum of light (wavelength of 415 nanometers to be exact) that's clinically proven to be effective in eradicating acne at the source and healing skin from within, explains New York City-based dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, M.D. How? "Blue light has been shown to penetrate the skin's hair follicles and pores which harbor bacteria and can cause inflammation, and therefore acne. Bacteria are very sensitive to the blue light spectrum—it shuts down their metabolism and kills them." Unlike topical treatments that work to decrease inflammation and bacteria on the surface of the skin, light treatment eliminates the acne-causing bacteria (otherwise known as P.acnes) within the skin before in can feed off the oil glands and cause that redness and inflammation, Dr. Nussbaum explains.
What about red light?
If you're wondering why some visible light devices (called 'visible light' because you can see the colors) seem to give off more of a purple glow, that's because some options on the market actually use a combination of red and blue light. "Red light has traditionally been used for anti-aging purposes because it helps stimulate collagen. At the same time it helps reduce inflammation, which is why it is useful alongside blue-light in treating acne," explains New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. (Here, we break down how lasers and light can be used to treat pretty much any skin problem.)
Who are blue light devices best for?
Experts agree that at-home blue light treatments are best for mild to moderate acne—not severe cystic or scarring acne. These devices are also not effective against blackheads, whiteheads, acne cysts, or nodules, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Read: They're best for your traditional red, non-pussy pimples, as long as they're not significantly deep or painful, Dr. Zeichner says. And although applying light to the skin might seem harsh, it's actually more gentle than traditional topical products. (Just stay away if you have a skin condition like rosacea, Dr. Nussbaum advises.)
How do the effects compare to visiting the derm, though?
While clinical results show that at-home devices can be just as effective at treating mild acne, they offer lower intensity than what can be achieved in an office, Dr. Zeichner explains. However, this also means that they can be used more frequently (most devices recommend they be used on a daily basis), and thanks to the small portable nature and affordable price point, are more convenient to incorporate into your routine. Not to mention, a typical treatment in a derm's office can range anywhere from $50-$100 per session and patients are typically advised to come in twice weekly for several months, making it an expensive endeavor, Dr. Zeichner says.
What are your options?
The FDA has cleared several at-home visible light LED devices (blue, red, and blue + red light devices) for mild to moderate acne. Some popular options? The Tria Positively Clear 3-Step Skincare Solution ($149; triabeauty.com) re-launched in the fall using the same technology they've had in their devices for years, but in a smaller package that's great for getting into hard to reach parts of your face, and is cartridge-free. (Mindy Kaling has been ranting—and posting selfies—about the 'miracle light wand' for years.) Then there's the relatively new Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Mask ($35; neutrogena.com) which uses both red and blue light and clocks in at less than the price of a SoulCycle class and already counts Lena Dunham as a fan. (Although, you will need to invest in a new activator after every 30 uses, which run $15.) Other options include the Me Clear Anti-Blemish Device ($39; mepower.com) that uses a combination of blue light, sonic vibration, and "gentle warming." The LightStim ($169; dermstore.com) is another red and blue light device that, in addition to reducing inflammation and destroying acne bacteria, also promises to increase circulation, along with collagen and elastin production.
While the length of time you'll need to use each device varies (so follow the instructions for proper use to make sure you actually reap the acne-fighting benefits!), the time investment for most at-home devices ranges from about 6 to 20 minutes *daily* to see results (depending on how many sections of the face you want to treat). So, while it certainly adds a step to your skin-care routine, it's definitely way less time than you spend in bed scrolling through Instagram on a daily basis, not to mention probably less time consuming than other at-home beauty processes you undergo on the reg, like a bikini wax.
Saw the ad for the light therapy acne mask and became obsessed so when we got home from our journey it was waiting on my side of the bed. Thank you @jackantonoff, even if you just did it to amuse yourself. #notanad #justapsycho UPDATE: for those thinking this is a fancy awards season prep tool to the stars, it's Neutrogena and it's $35.
How to choose
Always look for an FDA approved light device which was tested and approved for proper use, says Dr. Nussbaum, who recommends the Tria device since it's more powerful than other at-home blue light treatments. That said (just like with any acne cleanser you might buy) the price of the product doesn't necessarily correlate with effectiveness, Dr. Zeichner says, as the relatively low-priced light Neutrogena mask which has brought light technology to the masses has also shown to be effective in clinical studies, he points out. "Without head-to-head studies comparing the effectiveness between different light therapy products, we really just don't know which work better."
How to incorporate into your current skin care routine
While the Tria system comes with a cleanser and spot treatment that work complementary with the device (the spot treatment contains niacinamide and black tea rather than salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide which can irritate the skin, Dr. Nussbaum says), you can also simply add one of these devices to your normal skin-care routine. Dr. Zeichner recommends using light therapy to complement traditional acne products for an additive benefit. For mild acne, light therapy may be effective even by itself, he adds. (See also: The Best Skin Care Routine for Acne-Prone Skin)