Red Light Therapy vs Sunlight


Red light therapy is a powerful and versatile tool, but is it better than simply going outside into the sun?

If you live in a cloudy, northern environment without consistent access to the sun, then red light therapy is a no-brainer – red light therapy can make up for the low amount of natural light available. For those that live in tropical or other environments with almost daily access to strong sunlight, the answer is more complicated.

 

Key differences between sunlight and red light

Sunlight contains a broad spectrum of light, all the way from ultraviolet light to near-infrared:

sun-spectrum

Contained within the sunlight spectrum are the healthy wavelengths of red and infrared (which enhance energy production) and also UVb light (which stimulates vitamin D production). However there are wavelengths within sunlight that are harmful in excess, such as blue and violet (which reduce energy production and damage eyes) and UVa (which causes sun burn/sun tan and photoaging/cancer). This broad spectrum may be necessary for plant growth, photosynthesis and various effects on pigments in different species, but is not all beneficial for humans and mammals in general. This is the reason why sunblock and SPF sunscreens are necessary in strong sunlight.

Red light is a narrower, isolated spectrum, roughly ranging from 600-700nm – a tiny proportion of sunlight’s. Biologically active infrared ranges from 700-1000nm. So the wavelengths of light that stimulate energy production are between 600 and 1000nm. These specific wavelengths of red and infrared have exclusively beneficial effects with no known side effects or harmful components – making red light therapy a worry free type of therapy compared to sunlight exposure. No SPF creams or protective clothing are required.

 

Summary

The optimal situation would be to have access to both natural sunlight and some form of red light therapy. Get some sun exposure if you can, then use red light after.

Red light is studied is regards to sunburn and speeding up healing of UV radiation damage. Meaning that red light has a protective effect on the potential harm of sunlight. However, red light alone won’t stimulate vitamin D production in the skin, which you need sunlight for.

Receiving moderate skin exposure to sunlight for vitamin D production, combined with red light therapy in the same day for cellular energy production is perhaps the most protective approach.

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32 thoughts on “Red Light Therapy vs Sunlight

    • John says:

      If you mean in terms of light therapy doses, then yes. This is known as a biphasic dose response – where low levels are beneficial but higher levels not. With most light therapy products you only need 1-20 minutes exposure. More is not better.

  1. Darcie says:

    I’d like to see some mats or flexible pads made with red lights, is that possible? My aging parents spend a lot of time using heating pads for hip pain and diabetic neuropathy in the feet…I was thinking pads with infrared lights to wrap around inflamed areas might be good.

    • John says:

      Hi Darcie, not a bad idea. I think this sort of thing already exists, mainly used for animal (dogs/horses etc.) light therapy.

  2. Joshua Forter says:

    Can redlight cause photaging in the face skin? I currently keep 2 250W bulbrite infrared heatlamps pointed at my desk all day and night and was worried about it aging my face. Thank you.

    • Joe says:

      There is some evidence that longer infrared wavelengths can contribute to photoaging in the context of sunlight and other heat sources. If you are using a broad spectrum infrared light source regularly, I would suggest keeping the wavelengths below 900nm, or stop using it before the skin gets too heated.
      Red light (600-700nm) is considered better for the skin, and probably less likely to contribute to photoaging, even in excess.

  3. ste199 says:

    Do you think excess sunlight could suppress sleep?
    if i take light in the morning i sleep better but with too many light no.
    also light around sunset and sunrise have a better spectrum,right?

    • Joe says:

      Potentially, it depends on a lot of things. For example the vitamin D produced from sunlight could cause changes in calcium or magnesium metabolism. The excess ultraviolet could raise inflammatory markers and stress hormones like cortisol/adrenaline. The blue light can affect melatonin, and so on.
      It depends on your previous physical state and how the sunlight modifies that, but yes excess will harm sleep. Yes the light at sunset and sunrise has less harmful wavelengths.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The study that you referred to was done in 1939 by two doctors. Are you saying that UV light exposure is not beneficial to testosterone levels? If I am not mistaken you have contradicted yourself.

    • Joe says:

      UV is one of the more *potentially* harmful wavelength ranges, but in low doses can have benefits. The most obvious of which being vitamin D production, which would help with testosterone levels.
      It’s not as simple as ‘UV is beneficial/harmful’ though, it depends on specific wavelengths, doses and other factors.

  5. roryhmills28 says:

    one question i would like to put to you is would you ever think about producing a light with both the blue and red light spectrum’s so to copy sun light for vitamin D production.

    • Joe says:

      Blue light does not help vitamin D production, either alone or in combination with red. You need UVB light for that, in the range of 280nm-310nm. This is an invisible type of light. 295nm seems to be the best wavelength. Unfortunately the technology available for a narrow source of those wavelengths is very limited at the moment. There are some types of light around 311nm called ‘UVB narrowband’ bulbs but they are not ideal. We have thought about combining red light with 295nm UVB, but there is no technology available for it yet.

  6. Vivan says:

    Hi! Joe, Is there a way to use redlight by replicating use of natural sunlight, asking this in context of a specific treatment for vitiligo – where the procedure involves application of a psolaren lotion (psorelia corliforia) to the affected skin , followed by Exposure to Direct Sunlight for 5-10 minutes.. this is also known as PUVA treatment which is proven to treat depigmentation in cases of vitiligo, psoriasis, and some other case of depigmentation. What is the right way to replicate the process of exposure to sunlight using Redlight(if it can be done). Your guidance will be of immense help to people/places where sunlight during the day is of irregular occurence.

    • Joe says:

      Red light therapy is similar in some ways to early morning sunlight and evening sunlight, however it is quite unsimilar to midday sunlight. The PUVA treatment uses UVA light – a wavelength band not present in red light therapy.

  7. Jelena says:

    Can we use your red light device mini early in the morning to set up our disrupted circadian rhythm (any distance and length of time suggestion) and what do you think about red light over our eyes (safe or not)?
    Kind regards, Jelena

  8. Mike says:

    Are there UVB LED’s or is there some technological reason they can’t be made? It seems like UVB lamps have been around for quite a while but they’re still using bulky flourescents.

    • Joe says:

      The minerals needed to make UVB LEDs are extremely expensive. They do exist though, and can be made to output the same strength of UVB light as the sun in summer. However it costs about $1000 per tiny UVB LED chip, which will cover only a few cm2 of skin. So $1000 to stimulate vitamin D production in a tiny area. It would cost $millions for a full body vitamin D LED lamp, one that would give the same effects as sunbathing.

  9. Ellen holt says:

    Hi
    I suffer with m.e and am so much better in the spring summer but bed bound in the winter months (UK). would I benefit from fir infrared sauna blanket to combat this
    and fight the fatigue and pain?Thanks

  10. patricai says:

    Hello, I’ve been housebound for almost a year…I do take vit D and last blood panel had me at a good level I’m just worried since I get little or not direct sunlight..how can I possibly get enough light to keep healthy as I can without resorting to a UVA/UVB sunlamp …..I’m researching red light therapy. If I could possibly have some of your input and knowledge around this subject. Thanks so much.

  11. Julian says:

    How much infrared light do we get in 20 minutes of exposure compared to sunlight? I mean, how much time do we need to spend on the sun to get aproximatelly the same amount of infrared light radiation like if we use infrared light at home? thank you.

    • Joe says:

      It is not comparable like that. You are also not being specific enough. What infrared light at home? What wavelength does it output? Sun at what time of day, at which latitude, etc.?
      The intensity of near infrared light (around 800nm wavelength) you see useful in studies is frequently higher than the total intensity of the full sunlight spectrum (UV light up through visible light to mid-infrared).
      Spending X amount of time in strong or weak sunlight won’t necessarily give the same effects as the equivalent dose from a narrow band infrared light anyway.

  12. B says:

    Man, bummer. But good to know. Thanks for the post. My sister just had gall bladder surgery and is laid up in bed for two weeks. I’m worried about how she is going to get vitamin d now, bc she’s on bed rest so getting vitamin D from sunshine is not really an option, and even if I did take her outside, it’s November here in Utah, so the angle of the sun is not sufficient enough to deliver enough uvb light to make all the vitamin she needs (I think? Am I wrong here?). Plus supplementing with vitamin D would be iffy because vitamin d supplements need to be taken with fats in order to be digested and absorbed, and with out her gall bladder, eating fats is kinda out of the question, at least for now until she heals and her digestive system stabilizes. So I was hoping far infared light therapy would be the answer to helping her get the vitamin D she needs. But I guess not ☹️. Any other ideas about how to get her vitamin D would be welcome.

  13. Lina says:

    I suffer from estrogen-driven edema, which I manage to get rid of only during summer holiday when I spend most of the day outside (but mostly no direct sun exposure). Do you think I could achieve the same effect with whole body red light therapy? If so, how long and often should I use it?

  14. Suzanne Warburton says:

    I am confused and I don’t know why I can’t get this link right. LED red light heals right? It has a positive effect on mitochondria that produces ATP? Doesn’t Vitamin D also have a positive effect on mitochondria and produces ATP? I believe I have heard that Red light helps us produce Nitric Oxide? Isn’t that the precurser to vitamin D? This may sound very wrong….. I am just an autism mummy that is just a little confused on what I am missing with this information. Also red light therapy is showing signs of reducing Alzheimers? …. Allowing also for lowering depression….. Aren’t these also things that Vitamin D3 is known to help with?

    • Joe says:

      It is a different thing to vitamin D, but it could have some of the same benefits, sure.
      Red light does not help us to produce Nitric Oxide…and that isn’t the precursor to Vit D. The precursor to vitamin D is 7-dehydrocholesterol.
      Red light helps you to produce carbon dioxide. A long term deficiency of carbon dioxide will lead to increased nitric oxide production. NO is basically a stress metabolism temporary replacement for the healthy carbon dioxide.
      There are researchers looking into red or near infrared light and Alzheimers, yes.

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