Once restricted to the four walls of a facialist’s clinic, LED masks have now fully broken into the mainstream, with an increasing array of skin-tech brands offering at-home light therapy devices that promise transformative results with consistent use.
A quick scroll on Instagram confirms the A-list appeal of these smart devices: in fact, pretty much everyone has been spotted posing in an illuminated mask, from Victoria Beckham to Kate Hudson. But are the latest LED devices really efficacious, and, more importantly, safe in untrained hands? Here, the experts reveal everything you need to know about LED light therapy.
Do LED face masks work?
So, are LED masks simply celeb catnip, or is there solid science underpinning their appeal? Actually, clinical research has shown that certain light devices can effectively treat a multitude of skin concerns, with particular success when it comes to increasing collagen production and management of (mild to moderate) acne. One small study has even found green light therapy to show promise when it comes to fading melasma and hyperpigmentation: conditions that are famously tricky to tackle with topical products alone.
However, the results of light-therapy treatments are cumulative, meaning you won’t see long-term benefits from that single salon facial you treat yourself to once a year. If regular appointments aren’t an option, investing in an at-home LED mask could be the answer.
“At-home LED masks are an excellent way to bring a normally in-office treatment to the comfort of your home," says Dr. Maryam Zamani, oculoplastic surgeon and founder of MZ Skin. “These at-home devices will not be as strong as the LED used in a clinic setting, but they do have similar benefits."
What is LED light therapy?
As aesthetician Angela Caglia explains, the benefits of LED for skin were discovered by happy accident. "Light therapy was originally developed by NASA for healing wounds in space. US Navy Seals in the 1990s began using it, and shortly thereafter aestheticians brought it to their treatment rooms, inspired by the clinical data that proved LED to help with not just skin repair, but to stimulate collagen, fade age spots, and decrease inflammation and acne too."
According to dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross, the benefits of LED light therapy are manifold. They include treating acne, regulating natural oil production, stimulating collagen and elastin and minimising redness and wrinkles. Certain wavelengths have even been shown to reduce dark spots and uneven skin tone.
As the spectrum of light used does not include UV, there's no risk of damage (and no, you won't get a tan).
How do LED face masks work?
“LED therapy uses light in the visible spectrum – including blue, yellow, amber and red – as well as light beyond the visible spectrum to penetrate different depths of skin. As the light wavelength increases, so does the depth of penetration,” explains Dr. Gross. This light is absorbed by receptors in the skin, just like topical skincare, and each colour of light stimulates a different response within the cells.
Dr. Zamani adds that one of the primary benefits of LED therapy is the absence of downtime and discomfort – in fact, skin often looks positively glowing as soon as you slip out from behind the mask. What’s more, the healing properties of LED also make it ideal for use after in-office procedures, such as peels, lasers and microneedling. It's also suitable for all skin types and tones.
How to use an LED face mask at home
There's now a small but growing list of options when it comes to at-home light therapy devices. For a complete facial treatment, an LED mask is the most obvious investment, but the emergence of targeted 'wands' and smaller (more portable) treatment lights is especially interesting for combatting areas of acne-prone skin (not to mention how effortless they are to use).
As LED treatments deliver cumulative results, commitment is key. As Debbie Thomas, laser aesthetician and celebrity facialist says, "just owning a device won’t give you any results."
While instructions will vary depending on the device you choose, LED treatments are usually light on labour. "The good thing about LED masks is they are pretty simple to use and generally only need around 10 minutes of dedicated time," explains Thomas. While a mask offers more 'slip on and relax' appeal, "wand devices are designed to be held over your skin for 20-30 mins, so it's normally a toss-up between an aching arm or boredom that leads a dedicated skin warrior to fall out of love with their new skin gadget."
What colour LED do I need?
For calming and plumping: Red
The majority of at-home LED masks offer a red light setting. At the lighter end of the spectrum, red light works to soothe inflammation and redness, while deeper shades penetrate the skin further to prompt cellular repair and circulation, resulting in a plumper, more vibrant complexion.
For acne and breakouts: Blue
This antibacterial light is used to kill the bacteria that leads to breakouts, making it ideal for treating acne-prone skin. Blue light also helps purify the pores and regulate oil glands. It's commonly combined with red light in at-home devices, but can also be found in single-spectrum targeted pens, which are ideal for bringing down specific breakouts.
For bringing down swelling: Amber
Less common in at-home devices, this colour works to revitalise the skin, reducing any swelling and increasing radiance.
For a collagen and elastin boost: Infrared
Invisible to the naked eye, this light penetrates deeper than any other colour in the spectrum. It combats the signs of ageing by replenishing dermal and epidermal cells, stimulates the natural production of collagen and elastin, and speeds up the recovery process. You'll find near-infrared light in the most advanced at-home LED masks.
Are LED face masks safe?
Like many beauty innovations, at-home LED masks have been subject to controversy, sparked by concerns over their potential impact on eye health. However, a 2018 study found "no adverse events associated with the use of these devices and little to no downtime for the patient." While most experts agree that a correctly used LED mask is a safe and efficacious tool, it’s vital to invest in one that has been FDA-approved and purchased from a reputable brand.
"At-home LED devices are a fraction of the strength of devices that are used in professional settings,” says Dr. Gross. “The testing for at-home devices is actually more rigorous than professional ones because the device is being cleared to use without the presence of a professional – there's a higher-level burden of proof to show efficacy and safety because a consumer is in charge of their treatment. For this reason, we focus on specifics like safe optical output and recommended treatment times.” The best at-home LED masks will also be developed with in-build safety mechanisms: look for auto shut-offs, heat regulators and timers.
Led face masks: the contraindications
According to Thomas, the most important consideration to make is that, when wearing a mask that covers your entire face, your eyes should be kept closed – so no slumping in-front of the TV. "The lights are not strictly dangerous, but as they can be very bright you could get irritation. I would say using them for a few minutes daily would be fine as long as you do not have a pre-existing medical condition that sensitises you to light."
Indeed, Dr. Zamani recommends avoiding light therapy if you suffer from seizures or epilepsy. She also does not recommend LED for anyone with migraines, eye conditions, or taking certain types of antibiotics. Of course, a professional should be your first port of call if you are at all unsure.
LED face masks: the supporting skincare routine
As with most things in skincare, your LED mask will work best when used in conjunction with the right topical products. Before you fire up your device, cleanse your skin thoroughly to remove make-up and oil. It's fine to apply skincare before using your mask, but most experts advise to apply products after your treatment, as the boost in circulation will enhance absorption.
Caglia strongly recommends using your LED mask over bare skin, as "the shine from skincare (especially sheet masks) will cause a reflection, meaning the wavelengths of the light won’t penetrate as deeply."
When it comes to specific skincare formulas, you have plenty of options: most things play well with LED. Perhaps you're trialling a vitamin C serum for brightening, or maybe a hydrating hyaluronic acid is your booster of choice. If you're aiming to tackle breakouts, salicylic acid is ideal. As always, seal with a moisturiser and don't forget the SPF by day.
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