Everything You Didn't Think You Needed to Know About LED Masks But Kinda Do

Futuristic as it may seem, LED technology is the secret to unlocking your best skin ever — right now.

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Here's a fact that sounds straight out of Mad Libs: The first light-emitting LED was created in 1962, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that NASA first tested whether or not it could promote photosynthesis in potatoes living in space shuttles that they discovered LED also helped speed up wound recovery. NASA then began to test the effects of LED on the skin, and in 2003, they created the first handheld LED device in collaboration with the FDA. 

Since then, researchers have continued to find more and better ways to use LED light therapy to reduce inflammation, speed up healing, fight off bacteria, and increase collagen production. And while this type of low light therapy has been popularly used under the practiced hands of dermatologists and aestheticians for almost two decades, it wasn’t until a few years ago that this technology was adapted into tools safe, small, and effective enough for at-home use. And since then, they've only gotten better.

We have to admit, when we think about what the future of skincare looks like, at-home LED masks do look straight-up futuristic. The light-up devices contour to your face and shine bright red, blue, and near infrared lights on your skin — they look like they could have been taken straight out of an Ex Machina and Star Wars mashup. 

Let’s scale it back for a moment to lay out the groundwork. LED goes through a process called photobiomodulation on the skin — the change of your skin biology through light. Every color has a different wavelength, and every wavelength can target a different level of the epidermis, dermis, and subcutis and, as such, has a different effect on the skin. Furthermore, LED is a single-colored light that emits in an omni-direction (versus a laser, which is hyper-specific) and it’s this light itself that’s colored — it can’t be replicated by adding a tinted casing over a lightbulb, for example.

Currently, there are five colors used in LED therapy: red, blue, yellow, green, and infrared. Blue light has a wavelength of roughly 415 nanometers (nm) and reaches the top layer of the dermis. It’s antibacterial and decreases inflammation, so it’s widely used to prevent and treat acne. 

There isn’t as much research surrounding yellow and green lights as there are for the rest, but what we’ve seen so far is promising. Green light has a wavelength of approximately 500nm while yellow light has one of 550nm. Both London-based aesthetics practitioner and cosmetic dentist, Dr. Ayah Siddiq, and Dr. Shereene Idriss, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of PillowtalkDerm, say they work to reduce inflammation and promote collagen, but aren't used as much because, while penetrating the skin farther than blue light, they don't go as far as red or infrared do. 

Red is one of the most popular for LED skin treatments, as its wavelength reaches the subcutis and promotes collagen production, making it a stellar anti-ager. It has a wavelength of approximately 630nm, and since it plumps the skin and increases skin thickness, fine lines and wrinkles are reduced. Skin benefits aside, red light therapy is also used to promote hair growth, which is why brands such as iRestore and HairMax have come to market with red light caps and bands that fight hair loss and thinning. “It works by turning on your fibroblasts and growth factors,” explains Dr. Diane Madfes, M.D., a Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist. 

Lastly, infrared has the greatest wavelength of them all, reaching roughly 830nm. “It basically does the same as red, it just goes on a deeper level,” explains Hollywood’s go-to aesthetician, Shani Darden, who treats celebrities such as Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Jessica Alba.

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She shares that in her clinic they use an LED professional panel that has a strength of roughly a 65 power-density, and that her cult-beloved limited edition $2,000 at-home mask is not as powerful. However, at-home light therapy is still a very effective way to improve your skin. Compare it to fitness: You’ll get good results by working out on your own, but under the supervision of a professional trainer in a state of the art gym? That'll be more a more efficient workout, for sure.  

In addition to being safer now, these devices are also more affordable, more effective, and even more targeted — so, if you've been sleeping on them for this long, now's the time to start paying attention.

Even in the few years since at-home LED skin care first became buzzy, the technology has gotten safer. In 2019, a popular drugstore brand had to recall its at-home LED device after reports of eye injury were recorded (LED lights are very bright). “If you have underlying eye issues, make sure your eyes are covered,” says Dr. Idriss, who adds that now there are several brands that offer eye shields with their devices. In addition to being safer now, these devices are also more affordable, more effective, and even more targeted — so, if you've been sleeping on them for this long, now's the time to start paying attention.

Most devices have a combination of light options to choose from, and brands such as QURE give users the option to customize the distribution of lights via an app so you can receive targeted treatments at once depending on where you need them. For example, you could choose to use blue light on your T-zone to prevent blemishes and set up the rest of the mask to emit red light to boost collagen and target both fine lines and wrinkles. Yes, friends, the future is here.

That’s not the only way to receive targeted treatment. While the first at-home LED skincare devices were just created for the face, more options have been made since. Should you want to boost collagen production on your hands, Omnilux’s Contour Glove and PRIORI’s UNVEILED Glove deliver red light therapy to boost collagen and reduce the appearance of sunspots, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. Plus, they look very cool.

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For those looking for a plumper pout sans filler, CurrentBody’s Skin LED Lip Perfector uses four wavelengths that, in addition to boosting the lip’s collagen production, also softens smile lines. Dr. Siddiq shares that roughly 90% of her lip filler patients request injectables to restore lost volume, not because they want to increase the size of their lips. “If you were to start using this lip LED at 24 — is there a chance you might delay your filler? Yes, for quite a while, because you'll have been building collagen that whole time,” she adds.

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The neck and décolletage are also being catered to now. These are two areas, along with the hands, where it’s difficult to reverse signs of aging due to the skin being thinner, more dynamic, and more exposed to elements like the sun, than others. The Light Salon, Omnilux, and CurrentBody all offer treatment options.

Being able to easily target different treatment areas is a major perk for those who don’t want to stand in front of a panel. (Let’s be honest, nobody does.) And while slapping on a device worthy of an Iron Man cameo may seem like a nuisance for some, the LED masks on the market today typically only require 10 minutes of use per treatment as opposed to the 20+ minutes they required even as recently as three years ago.

In addition to the reduced treatment time, Dr. Madfes says that another reason LED devices have become more popular is because with time, the lights themselves have become more affordable to produce which, therefore, makes it possible for brands to produce and sell at reasonable prices. Furthermore, Dr. Siddiqi, says that advancements in wavelength measurement and control have become much more targeted. 

Unfortunately, there still isn’t much regulation or transparency in the space. Certain brands, such as CurrentBody, won’t release a product without getting FDA clearance, but safety and efficacy, while both important, are different things. (Note: Unlike drugs, which are subject to FDA approval, devices like these can only be FDA cleared, which doesn't involve the same rigorous testing.)

As a consumer, Dr. Idriss says the lack of transparency makes comparing devices like comparing apples and potatoes. “There hasn't been a standardized system that people need to abide by in order to market the strength of their device — you're never going to know the actual full energy and power that each mask gives,” she adds. 

LED Light Beauty Products


Safety should still be top of mind, of course. Darden says that when creating her at-home mask in collaboration with leading LED brand Déesse, she worked tirelessly to get that FDA clearance while creating the strongest device she could. However, many brands sell knock-off devices that don’t actually use LED, but rather, masks that have colored light bulbs. “If someone buys a colored light that’s being marketed as an LED and it overheats, it can actually trigger inflammation — that’s not a real LED,” warns Dr. Idriss. 

When shopping for at-home LED devices, she says that if the price seems too good to be true, it’s because it probably is. True LED will be on the pricier side of things (approximately upwards of $300) as the actual LED bulbs, while certainly more affordable than before, are still by no means cheap. Dr. Idriss also says to look for devices that stay on the face — you don’t want a handheld device designed to be glided across the skin, as the skin needs time to absorb the light to have any sort of effect.

For the best results, all our experts say to use these at-home devices several times a week (at least three) for roughly 10 minutes each. Those who want to use it more certainly can, and the more you use LED the better results you’ll get — but there’s no need to keep your mask on over the suggested use.

Clear, tight, and glowing skin — it's the wave of the present.

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