For at least a decade, doctors, physiotherapists, and chiropractors have used infrared light therapy to heal injured muscles and treat conditions like Parkinson disease, depression, and even cancer. Now, the benefits are not just for the lettered. You can buy at-home infrared light devices to help manage everything from injuries to blood pressure, hair loss to wrinkles. Question is, while infrared light devices promise to be a medical panacea, they cost thousands of dollars. Are they worth it?
The devices vary in size, shape, and function, but all use infrared LED lights, either invisible near infrared (NIR) or visible red infrared (RI). No one is entirely sure what these lights do in the human body, but scientists believe they penetrate our cells, activating the mitochondria, our cells’ power plant. Energizing these mitochondrion make cells healthier, encouraging repair processes.
NASA started studying artificial light therapy in the 1980s and the research has increased in recent years with improvements in LED light technology. Anecdotal and scientifically gathered data links NIR and RI to all kinds of health and healing benefits, but the research is limited in scale, says Brent Bauer, research director for the Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“We’re still waiting for reliable, large-scale studies to validate some of these claims,” he says. “Until we have some good-quality studies that evaluate both the efficacy and safety of these new devices, caution is prudent.”
He does acknowledge NIR and RI light are different than the kind of skin-damaging energy used in tanning beds or solar UV rays. Used moderately, there are few side effects or risks associated with infrared light devices.
Weighed against the growing list of benefits, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the options available. Here are the top options to consider.
Best Infrared Light Devices for Hair Loss, Workout Recovery, and More
Best for Overall Health: Medical Sauna Medical 5
What it targets: high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, dementia
How it works: The benefits of saunas are the most studied of all infrared devices, says Bauer. The theory is high temperature and humidity cause beneficial changes in the cardiovascular system—improving blood vessel function, exercise capacity, and lowering blood pressure in those suffering from hypertension. Some research even suggests daily sauna sweats can lessen the likelihood of death from heart attack, stroke, and other heart-related conditions. Unlike their wood-fired brethren, infrared saunas use light to warm the body. With no smoke or flames (they’re often called “dry saunas,” as there’s no ladling water on rocks), they’re indoor safe and come in a range of sizes, fitting anywhere from one to four people. While infrared saunas don’t get as hot, users still claim improvements in blood pressure, arthritis symptoms, and general better health, says Bauer.
Best for Hair Regrowth: Revian Red Hair Growth System
What it targets: hair loss
How it works: When men and women with adrogenetic alopecia, a fancy way of saying normal hair loss, used a red light therapy helmet for 24 weeks, they grew thicker hair, while those using a placebo did not, according to a randomized, double-blind, device-controlled trial. Revian purports wearing its helmet-like cap for 10 minutes a day encourages blood flow to the scalp, reducing inflammation and bringing more nutrients to hair follicles. All that leads to thicker hair. An app helps keep track of treatments and the change in hair growth over time. The FDA has cleared the device as effective for treating some forms of hair loss, and there are plenty of personal testimonials (but rigorous studies remain limited).
Best for Injury Recovery: Joovv The Solo 3.0
What it targets: inflammation, injuries, better sleep
How it works: U.S. Open tennis champ Sloane Stephens and the 49ers football team are among the many high-profile fans of Joovv’s devices. They use red and near infrared lights, which penetrate skin with varying intensities, stimulating cell activity. Red light stimulates cell regeneration because it gets absorbed by the superficial layer of the skin (big in dermatology), while near infrared light goes deeper, penetrating the muscles to stimulate recovery. Joovv offers portable and modular/full-body devices, which can boost cellular function, energy production, reduce inflammation, and improve blood flow. That means you can kickstart workout recovery, heal injuries faster, and see greater performance improvements. Getting too much blue light exposure? A separate ambient mode might encourage better sleep by reseting out-of-whack circadian rhythms. Founded by a couple of scientists, Joovv has plenty of studies to back up its health claims, though few of them control all the potential variables enough to satisfy Bauer.
Best for Younger Skin: Avologi Eneo Advanced
What it targets:wrinkles, blemishes, skin health
How it works: Hold this shower-head like wand up to your face and red and near infrared light penetrates the skin. It encourages cellular regeneration and blood flow, which in turn may reduce wrinkles, blemishes, and scars by energizing mitochondrion in skin cells. Avologi says an additional vibration function tightens puffy skin while blue light kills the bacteria that often leads to acne. It’s one of the few devices both certified by the FDA and recommended by dermatologists—but there are few robust scientific studies showing more than a correlation to smoother, healthier skin.