Red Light Therapy for Rosacea: Is Red Light the Key to Fighting Redness?
Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that affects more than 400 million people worldwide. It’s most often characterized by redness, visible blood vessels, and small pus-filled bumps, usually on the face. It can also cause thickening and swelling of the skin, particularly around the nose.
Not only does rosacea cause both social and physical discomfort in those suffering from it, it’s also notoriously difficult to treat. In fact, there is no cure for the condition, and patients must learn to manage their symptoms through lifestyle changes, medication trial and error, and expensive procedures.
Fortunately for rosacea sufferers, red light therapy is increasingly being recognized by doctors and skin health experts as a safe and natural way to treat a number of skin conditions, including rosacea. What’s more, the treatment is becoming more affordable and accessible by the day. So how can red light therapy help with rosacea? Let’s take a look.
What Are The Different Types of Rosacea?
Rosacea can present in a few different ways. There are 4 subtypes of rosacea, each with its own set of distinct symptoms. It’s not uncommon to have more than one subtype at a time.
- Erythematotelangiectatic rosacea is characterized by facial redness, flushing, and visible blood vessels. This is the most common subtype.
- Papulopustular rosacea is also called inflammatory rosacea. It’s main features are papules (red bumps not filled with any fluid) and pustules (red pus-filled bumps). These bumps are distinct from acne (though the two are often conflated) as they are not caused by excess oil on the skin.
- Phymatous rosacea refers to thickening of the skin. While it most commonly occurs on the nose, it can also be seen on the chin, forehead, cheeks, and ears.
- Ocular rosacea affects the eyes. Symptoms include a dry, gritty feeling, constantly watering eyes, redness, stinging or burning, itching, sensitivity to light, and blurry vision.
What Are the Causes and Triggers of Rosacea?
There is no single cause for rosacea. In fact, experts aren’t even sure what causes it. This makes treating it all the more difficult. Some suspected causes of rosacea include:
- Genetics: Rosacea is known to run in families, indicating that there may be a genetic factor. However, environmental factors may influence the expression of the condition.
- Allergy to skin mites: Demodex is a mite that lives on everyone’s skin (yep, even yours). While it’s not generally harmful, because it likes to live on the cheeks and nose, some experts believe people with rosacea may be allergic to it.
- Blood vessel abnormality: People with rosacea may have a condition in which blood vessels dilate too easily, causing flushing and redness.
- H. pylori: This bacteria can cause infection in the digestive tract. While H. pylori is common in people with rosacea, it’s difficult to pin down as a cause, as many people have the bacteria but don’t have rosacea symptoms.
- Immune system disorder: People with rosacea tend to react to a certain type of bacteria called bacillus oleronius. Once the immune system detects its presence, it goes into overdrive. It’s still unclear, however, whether it causes rosacea.
- Cathelicidin: This protein is what is known as an antimicrobial peptide, whose role is to protect against infection. People with rosacea may not process cathelicidin properly.
Rosacea is cyclical, meaning that it tends to come and go in waves. It can also be triggered by certain things, including:
- Sun exposure
- Spicy food
- Extreme temperatures
What Are Some Current Treatments for Rosacea?
As we’ve seen, there is no cure for rosacea, and often patients must go through a lengthy trial-and-error process with the help of their doctor to find the best course of action to manage flare-ups. Here are some of the most common ways to treat rosacea.
Lifestyle changes: Avoiding some of the triggers mentioned above can help reduce the frequency and severity of flare-ups.
Medicated topical creams: Doctors may prescribe antibiotic creams such as metronidazole or anti-parasitic creams such as ivermectin to reduce inflammation and fight demodex.
Oral medications: More severe cases may require a stronger oral antibiotic such as doxycycline. Because they through the bloodstream, oral meds generally have more side effects than topical meds.
Avoiding certain irritating skin products: Many cleansers and lotions are too harsh for people with rosacea. It’s best to stick to products that have no added perfumes or irritants. Cetaphil, for instance, is the number one recommended cleanser for rosacea.
Pulsed dye laser (PDL): This is the application of a laser beam colored with a dyed solution onto the skin. It’s used to break down visible blood vessels and reduce redness.
Intense pulsed light (IPL): IPL diffuses a spectrum of light, generally between 500 and 1,200nm. Various filters allow to block certain ranges of wavelengths, such as harmful UV rays. Depending on the range of light applied, certain structures in the skin are heated to destruction and reabsorbed by the body. On top of treating rosacea symptoms, IPL can be used to treat melasma, birthmarks, and age spots, among other issues.
How Does Red Light Therapy for Rosacea Work?
Rather than eliminate the symptoms of rosacea by applying an external force to destroy certain skin structures, red light therapy works by increasing energy production within your cells to allow it to use its own natural defences to reduce symptoms and prevent flare-ups. How does it do this?
Red and NIR light penetrate the skin all the way to the mitochondrion, the cellular organelle responsible for producing the body’s energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Here, it produces a biochemical reaction allowing the mitochondrion to use oxygen more efficiently to produce ATP. It’s essentially like giving your cells a tune-up. This leads to a more optimal performance of the targeted organs and tissues.
Red light therapy also works by triggering hormesis, the process through which the body is slightly stressed in order to provoke a response that ultimately strengthens the structures involved, allowing them to respond better to future stress. A good example of hormesis is weightlifting. Your body responds to the stress by increasing your muscle mass, thereby making you more able to withstand the weight. In the case of rosacea, hormesis might mean strengthening your body’s defense against irritants.
The treatment also has well-documented anti-inflammatory effects. According to recent research, red light therapy appears to have an effect on macrophages, the cellular organelles responsible for detecting and destroying pathogens. Macrophages can be classified as M1 or M2 phenotype (a phenotype is a set of observable characteristics belonging to an organism). M1 macrophages are proinflammatory, meaning they are designed to produce an immune response. M2 macrophages, on the other hand, are designed to abate inflammation and promote healing by increasing collagen production. Red light therapy has been shown to convert macrophages from M1 to M2.
The Battle of the Lights: Is Red Light Therapy Better Than PDL or IPL at Treating Rosacea?
While PDL and IPL are known to have positive effects on rosacea, red light therapy is also showing similar promise. Red light therapy has an edge over these other treatments, however, one that’s threefold.
First, as we’ve seen, red light therapy works at the cellular level to improve the functioning of your organs and tissues, This means that the benefits are potentially much more far-reaching than simply treating the symptoms of rosacea. Not only can you treat several issues at once, even those that are completely unrelated, you may even end up treating issues you didn’t know you had! Here are some other issues red light therapy may help improve:
- Loose skin;
- Stretch marks;
- Wound and scar healing;
- Oral health;
- Pain and inflammation;
- Arthritis-related joint pain and stiffness;
- Immune health;
- Cognitive function;
- Mental health and depression;
- Vitamin D;
- Hair growth;
- Weight loss and body contouring;
- Muscle growth, athletic performance, and recovery;
- Hormone health and sex drive;
- Sleep disturbances;
- Eye health.
Second, as opposed to using lasers, which have a very narrow and focused beam, red light therapy involves a series of LEDs arranged in a panel. Each bulb emits a concentrated beam of light at a specific wavelength (usually red light at ~660nm and NIR light at ~850nm). This allows you to treat a larger surface area at one time.
Finally - and perhaps most importantly for many - red light therapy is a much more affordable option than other professional treatments. For starters, PDL and IPL treatment is quite costly. A single PDL session can cost between $300 and $500, while IPL sessions start at around $500. Both treatments generally require more than one session to be effective, as well. And these delicate procedures must be administered by a trained professional in a clinical setting (you can get an at-home IPL device, but it’s mainly used for hair removal and won’t necessarily be effective for treating rosacea. Plus, there is a high risk of burns and blisters if used improperly).
This is where red light therapy gets even more interesting. Thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that not only is red light therapy effective at treating a number of issues, it also has virtually no risks or side effects, and is completely safe to use every day. This means it doesn’t have to be administered by a trained technician in a clinic.
The unheard-of safety profile of the treatment has opened the door to affordable at-home red light therapy devices. What does this mean for the consumer? It’s simple math, really. Take the Rouge Tabletop device. It’s large enough to provide complete facial coverage, and it costs less than a single IPL session. And after your one-time investment, you’ll have access to unlimited treatment, not only for rosacea, but for a variety of other issues.
The Future of Red Light Therapy for Rosacea Is Looking Rosy
Given the wider accessibility of the treatment, research on the various benefits of red light therapy has been ramping up in recent years, with plenty more studies in the pipeline on its effectiveness in treating notoriously difficult skin conditions.
Current research suggests that red light therapy may be an effective alternative to current treatments for rosacea (see this study and this study for starters). While further clinical trials are needed to show the exact mechanisms as well as dosages, the sheer amount of research on the many benefits of red light therapy is certainly encouraging.
If you’ve been dealing with rosacea and are dissatisfied with your current treatments, it may be time to talk to your doctor about whether red light therapy is right for you.
Looking to get started? Check out the Rouge family of red light therapy devices - whether it’s to simply treat rosacea, or to improve your health from head to toe, we’ll help you find the right solution.
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