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:


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.



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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54 thoughts on “Red Light Therapy vs Sunlight

    • John says:

      If you mean in terms of light therapy doses, then kind of, but not really. There is something known as a biphasic dose response – where low levels are beneficial but higher levels not. This doesn’t really apply to whole animal organisms though – it is more to do with tissue and cell warming in studies on small animals / single cells. With most light therapy products you only need 1-20 minutes exposure. More is not better, but won’t cause harm.

        • Jen M says:

          Hi, I stopped using all creams and topical steroid creams to treat my eczema and used only aloe vera on my skin. I spent 20 minutes twice a day on my whole body and ended up losing all movement in my face and hands because my skin was so swollen and burnt. It is definitely possible to over-expose your skin. I fixed this by using cucumber in my skin which immediately had a dramatic effect on bringing back the elasticity and got rid if most of the swelling.

  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.

      • Jan75 says:

        Hi there – great blog. However I am confused by this exchange and wanted to butt in if that’s ok. Also, apologies – I know this is from a few years ago. I have a red light (with some blue lights dotted through) which can be used for sore muscles, healing etc but I mainly use it as part of a skin care regime to actually improve my skin.. so to see your comment above scares me a little as I do use it everyday. I know the science for red light usage is more solid in regards to things like pain and arthritis rather than collagen production but do you think this could actually be harming my skin instead? I use a proper medical grade lamp from the company celluma.

        • Joe says:

          What I was talking about is using a light source that is also a heat source. If your light makes your skin very hot, it has potential to accelerate aging. Such as the heat lamps discussed in the original comment. If your light is the more energy efficient LEDs, you should be fine.
          Blue light can harm the skin, however. Blue light actually kills bacteria and harms our own cells, specifically the mitochondria. It is especially harmful for the eyes.
          Blue light harming us makes sense when you consider that our mitochondria used to be bacteria themselves (search for: Mitochondria: An Organelle of Bacterial Origin).

  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.

      • Clarence says:

        What hour range of early morning and evening would be for red light? I had heard for vitamin D that 10 minutes around noon was enough. If trying to receive red light for my hypothyroidism, would also going out at noon for 10 minutes lessen the thyroid benefit?

  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:

    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 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.

  15. Clarence says:

    I just rechecked the internet which confirmed my memory that nitric oxide is being talked about as a good result from the sun.

  16. Erwin says:

    What do you have to say about getting morning sun on your testicles at 47 latitude (Seattle) in the summer?

  17. Lee says:

    Hey Joe, I am a bit confused over the value of LED red lighting. Does the wavelength of light of the LED come from the color of the bulb or from a frequency modulator?

    • Joe says:

      The wavelength comes from the LED itself. LEDs are made of specific elements and when electricity passes through them, it causes the electrons to change orbit levels, releasing a photon of light. Different elements/materials emit different wavelengths of light/photons.

  18. Paul says:

    Perhaps you could lend your experience as I just got a red light/NIR panel recently and I’m getting some tingling sensations on my skin sometimes. Can you please elaborate on what’s happening so I can understand this phenomena?

    • Joe says:

      Hi Rosa, no, none at all. There’s no alpha, beta or gamma radiation from LED devices like ours. EMF / RF radiation is also negligible

      • Rosa says:

        Thank you so much for your reply. I’ve been trying to get my mum to use red light therapy for arthritis and a torn ligament in her thumb but she thinks it’s like a solarium and in a few years there will be research on its negative effects but I can’t seem to find any negative effects from the research I have done.
        Do you think if someone gets enough sunlight during the day the need a red light therapy device?

        • Laura says:

          I’ve heard people express similar concerns before. Red light therapy has been around long enough now to see those effects, and there are no clear long term negatives. I understand being cautious, but when you’ve got proven benefits, and no proven long term negatives, it makes sense to use it. It is just light.
          Red light will help to balance out the strong daytime sunlight exposure – it helps to prevent sunburn and aging from the UV light, in addition to preventing eye damage and more.
          Using a red light device in the morning and evening, with sun exposure during the day, is a great way to optimise your circadian rhythm.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I remember for outdoor red light dawn, dusk were good times to go outside. Do you know what hour is best?

  20. Cindi says:

    Since red light helps when I have a sun burn, I wonder if it would help with radiation burns and skin damage.

    • Joe says:

      There are studies on this type of thing and red light can help prevent or heal damage from various types of radiation.

  21. Adrian says:

    Sunlight is broad spectrum light. If you filter out all harmful UV+IR, why is it not just as beneficial as a fixed bandwidth LED/laser treatment? Scientific papers discuss photobiomodulation
    of cytochrome c oxidase [CCO], a key protein in cellular metabolism, when exposed to certain of its absorption peak wavelengths: 660nm, 670nm, 830nm, benefits tissue repair. Multiple wavelengths are therefore better than one or two from single wavelength LEDs/lasers. Surely just lying in the sun under a bandpass filter that only admits 660nm to 830nm (or whatever the CCO absorption bandwidth is) will have the same benefits?.

    • Laura says:

      The light intensities used for photobiomodulation are higher than the light intensity of sunlight in its entirety. Even summer midday sun.
      If you did filter down sunlight into the photobiomodulation wavelengths, the light intensity remaining would be too low for photobiomodulation.
      Not to mention most of the day, sunlight isn’t available. Some places like the UK barely have sun for half of the year.
      It is not a reasonable source of light therapy for these reasons.

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