Blue Light Therapy for Acne – Is It Worth It?


Everybody is talking about the blue light. It is the latest gadget for treating acne (and admit it, we LOVE gadgets).  But can you really treat acne by simply shining a blue light on your skin?

Acne is caused by bacteria that flourish in the pores of your skin. Clogged pores on your skin fill with oily sebaceous material. These warm, oily pits are breeding grounds for P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for acne. Overgrowth of the bacteria leads to inflammation and eventually (quite) noticeable pimples on your face.

Blue light therapy started as an office-based procedure only. Patients with acne would see their dermatologist for treatment. The physician would often apply a sensitizer to the skin called Levulan about 30 minutes before the procedure. Then the patient would sit in front of a blue light source called Blu-U for several minutes. This was repeated several times each week for about 6 weeks.

The therapy worked well. The sensitizing agent penetrated the skin. When treated with the blue light, it absorbed the energy from the light, killing the bacteria and frying the sebaceous glands, decreasing the oil production. It is, indeed, the ultimate dermatologist’s gadget.

So what’s the downside?

First of all, it is expensive. Each treatment costs about $200. A complete course of 8 treatments costs about $1,600. Although it is effective in improving acne, the results might not last, and you may need to continue treatments to keep your acne under control.

A second problem is that the Levulan sensitizes you not only to the blue light but to any light. As a result, you have to be extremely careful about sun exposure for 48 hours after your treatment. Failure to protect your skin after applying ALA can result in a serious sun burn.

A third problem is that the treatment hurts. The combination of the sensitizing agent plus the light treatment will give you a stinging sensation. For most people the treatment is tolerable, but some people find it too uncomfortable to stand.

We now know that light by itself actually kills bacteria; the bacteria produce a natural substance that is similar to the ALA. As a result, the bacteria absorb the blue light and are obliterated. Cool, huh?

Because the sensitizing agent is not necessary, you no longer have to go to the doctor’s office to get treated.  Several companies have developed hand-held blue light devices that you can use yourself at home (Woo-hoo, your own personal acne gadget!).

Recent studies have shown that blue light-only treatments are effective in treating acne. What’s the downside here? Again cost might be a factor. A hand-held blue light acne unit might cost about $250 to $300. 

The main problem is that you have to use it. In order for the light be be effective, you have to hold it against the skin for about 3 minutes everyday. That might not seem like much, but if you have several areas, like both cheeks and forehead to treat, then it could take about 10 minutes each day.

Considering that the average person brushes his or teeth teeth for just 46 seconds, 10 minutes is a long time. 

Photo: Freaksanon (flickr)

20 thoughts on “Blue Light Therapy for Acne – Is It Worth It?”

  1. I’ve been using the Tanda handheld blue light device for almost 4 weeks with tremendous results. The cystic acne bumps I had when I started using it are gone completely and I’ve had no new acne appear. I have to say that yes, I am using it religiously; I have no problem using it for 3 minutes on different areas twice per day. It takes me about 12 minutes each time I use it (4 different areas at 3 minutes each), so about 24 minutes total per day. I use it while I’m checking e-mail, watching tv, whatever. I’ve suffered from adult acne for about 9 years, so I am willing to do just about anything to keep my skin clear. And this little machine really works, so I couldn’t be happier!

  2. Thanks for your medical point of view – not an advertising point of view on blue light therapy. At 35, I still have cystic acne despite Accutane and the best topical treatments out there. This device is of great interest to me. I’ve recently quit Duac gel after it no longer was effective and oddly enough, I’ve been having incredible reduction in inflammation using topical milk of magnesia twice a day. My question is – is that safe or are there contraindications long term? I leave it on beneath make up & during sleep. Also, how safe is it during pregnancy?

  3. This might seem silly, but is it okay to use these on areas other then the face? I also happen to break out on my back, neck, and chest. I’ve even found pimples on occastion on my elbows. I just wondered since skin in different areas – didn’t know if it was safe to use on say breast skin.

  4. Hi! This may sound funny, but can I cover a light with blue cellophane and use it to treat my acne? Thank you do much!

  5. Ha! I love it! I’m afraid not though; it has to be from an LED.

  6. Can you recommend any of the at-home units? Are there minimum requirements that I should look for?

  7. Dr. Benabio, i have follculitis scars all over my body. dont have insurance, other than expensive laser treatments, is there anything i can do to get rid of my scars? please help.

  8. I had not heard of this new technique for treating acne..I’m curious to know see if it really works..It does seem pricey..

  9. Well, It is not approved to fight acne, but studies are currently under way.

  10. I have a Tanda light with both the red and blue heads. My fourteen year old son was using the light, and he seemed to be getting some results, but now the unit will not hold a charge anymore and stays on for about ten seconds at a time. I have started playing phone tag with the Tanda people, hopefully we will resolve this issue.

  11. Great post! Blue light therapy is no doubt expensive but it is indeed useful in eliminating the acne-causing bacteria. It has certain temporary side effects, which are manageable. Though the therapy is safe for people of all ages, it is not suitable for people suffering from nodulocystic acne.

  12. @Dr. Benabio
    It would be great if someone could determine the wavelength of light put out by one of these devices. It wouldn’t be hard to do with basic equipment. I have no doubt that these are cheap Chinese LEDs packaged in a nice little device and sold with tremendous markup. There is no secret to generating blue light. They probably have an optimal wavelength chosen but you can probably get similar blue LEDs from any major electronics distributor. Then, if you’re DIY-inclined, you could build a little light mask to put on your face or back, saving a lot of time in the process.

  13. @Matt
    Ah, silly me, it just occurred to me that the wavelength used should be publicly available, either in journals or, in fact, Wikipedia!

    I still have minor acne on my back, I might try to build something… An order of 5000 cheap ultrabright blue LEDs from a Chinese store on eBay is like, $30.

  14. Has anyone built their own? This should be pretty easy. There is a plethora of instructions for building LED arrays online for use in flashlights, and blue LEDs in the 400-420 nm range can be bought online. Just buy a few and use it for spot treatment.

  15. Actually now that I’m searching for LEDs, you can get a 400 nm flashlight on Amazon for 8 bucks. 😀 Would it work? I have no idea.

  16. @Joyce
    No, but a little sunbathing would do the trick. That’s how this effect was discovered. Don’t do too much or you’ll get cancer, of course. The sun puts out violet AND ultraviolet.

  17. This was an excellent post on the subject, blue light therapy to treat acne has come a long way and is moving into the home very quickly with a number of devices that have come out.

    One thing to really look out for when choosing a device is the power output. Even if you buy a device that has the correct wavelength (415-420nm), the intensity may be so low that it will not make much of an impact. Generally, hand held devices are going to be underpowered, and will also be difficult to use daily because they have to be held to the skin.

    Our company, Trophy Skin, makes a device called the BlueMD, which is a table top device that is high intensity (27 watts) and allows the user to get a hands free treatment.

  18. When it comes to acne there are a lot of different products on the market for all types of acne including scalp acne. However, most only give modest, at best, results. So is blue light therapy different. I believe that the answer is yes but it is only partially effective as their are other products that also help modestly that should be combined with blue light treatments for even the most stubborn acne.

  19. does the use of blue light similar to what is used by most dentist to harden laser pasta filling will work?

  20. Could blue light therapy also work for head bacteria that causes itchiness? Light therapy is really great. I’m really interested in the subject and would like to write an article about that.

    Thanks for the info!

Comments are closed.