If you’re one of the 35 million men or 21 million women in the United States who are losing their hair, you know how hard it can be to slow down getting bald. Creams, pills, and other treatments are often touted as solutions, but even if they do work, they come with side effects. Meanwhile, hair loss takes a tremendous mental toll. Among the most common effects are diminished self-esteem and confidence, as you notice others wearing hairstyles you couldn’t possibly pull off. And while some people rock the bald look, it’s not for every guy suffering from male pattern baldness and it’s rarely an option for women.
If this sounds like you, red light therapy is worth a look. Red light therapy for hair loss is backed by research, is completely natural, and can slow–or in some cases, reverse–hair loss without disruptive side effects. If you’re curious how this is possible, what the most relevant studies say, and–more importantly–if it will work, this article is for you. From cellular growth to the proper how-to steps, read on to uncover how red light can help you get your hair back.
Why Do We Lose Hair?
According to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, almost half of men show noticeable hair loss by reading middle age. Surprisingly, the numbers are even higher among women: by the age of 60, nearly 80 percent of women show noticeable hair loss.
So, why do we lose hair? Briefly, losing hair helps us making room for new growth. A typical human will have up to 100,000 hairs on their head, and it’s only normal to lose 50–100 every day. After that, that causes get more complicated.
A few of the most common causes include:
The most common cause of hair loss is hereditary hair loss or androgenetic alopecia. Male pattern baldness is characterized by M-shaped hair loss that begins at the temples and a bald spot in the back. It can begin as early as puberty or later in life. Female pattern baldness generally manifests as thinning on the head's top and crown, widening the center part but not affecting the front hairline.
Both acute and chronic stress contribute to hair loss in men and women. In acute stress, hair loss is often tied to a specific cause such as a sudden loss of a loved one, an accident, illness, or surgery; this hair loss may be temporary. Chronic stress, including job stress, relationship stress, and financial stress, also appears to accelerate hair loss.
Specifically, inadequate protein intake affects hair follicles and contributes to hair loss. While over 40 million Americans are malnourished due to poverty, easy accessibility of junk food means that while many Americans get enough calories in their diets, they do not necessarily get the nutrition they need.
Red Light Therapy for Hair Loss
Given the side effects, cost, limited success, and ongoing hassles of these common hair restoration treatments, it makes sense to look at an alternative that is painless, non-invasive, has no side effects, and can actually enhance your health in a variety of different ways at the same time. Red light therapy is that option. Also red light therapy can help improve various other conditions, including joint pain from arthritis, sun damage, and nerve damage, to name a few. In fact, it can even treat one of the root causes of hair loss: thyroid problems.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy is a phototherapy that uses specific wavelengths of light to reduce inflammation, accelerate healing, and promote a healthy skin tone. Red light is part of the visible light spectrum (not to be confused with infrared light or ultraviolet light, invisible to the human eye) and is bioactive in humans. This means that our bodies respond to it beneficially in much the same way that plants respond to sunlight: by creating more energy at the cellular level.
Red light (also called low-level light therapy or LLLT) for hair loss was discovered somewhat by accident in the 1960s when mice were given chemotherapy. The chemotherapy-induced hair loss, but when the mice were irradiated with red light, the fur grew back thicker than before. Modern red light therapy works similarly, using high-power LEDs to saturate your body with wavelengths of therapeutic light. It typically uses visible light in various colors, but the red and infrared ranges are best for a wide variety of conditions, including hair loss. While sunlight provides a complete spectrum of wavelengths (including red light), it also contains harmful UVA and UVB wavelengths. Using the red light frequency alone has no side effects, such as burning or skin damage.
How Red Light Therapy Restores Hair
Red light is especially effective at treating hair loss; specifically, light in the 620nm (nanometer) to 660nm wavelengths work best. It works by increasing blood flow in the scalp; this stimulates the metabolism in hair follicles, resulting in more hair production.
You lose hair during hair loss but not the follicles–the tube-like formations that anchor hair to the skin. At the base of each follicle is the hair bulb (the whole thing looks somewhat like a tall vase). At the bulbous part of the vase are the papilla and the matrix; this is where hair begins to grow. We see as “hair” mostly a protein called keratin that makes up the hair shaft. When the hair follicles and the papilla and matrix cells are not functioning properly, they cannot support hair growth,, causing it to slow or cease altogether.
Red light penetrates the skin to the base of the hair follicles, stimulating the cells, papilla,, and matrix to produce more energy, which results in these cells replicating more successfully. This replication leads to new hair growth from these previously-dormant follicles. Red light also:
Stimulates Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) production, a coenzyme responsible for fueling cellular structures. Increases in ATP cause individual cells within the hair follicle to increase their activity, including the rate at which they replicate. Restoring the energy of the hair follicles' cellular structures means the papilla creates more keratin, which results in hair growth.
Increases collagen production. Hair is primarily made up of a protein called keratin. While collagen — another type of protein — isn’t present in hair, it acts as an antioxidant to fight damage caused by free radicals (compounds that develop in the body during stress, environmental pollutants, poor nutrition, etc.). Free radicals damage hair follicles, which contributes to their inability to grow hair. Increased collagen means less oxidative damage, which can lead to increased hair growth.
Increases the creation of new capillaries, which improves blood flow to the scalp and brings oxygen and nutrients to hair follicles,, and removes waste that can lead to hair follicle damage. One study linked improved blood flow to the growth of thicker, healthier hair. Barbers have long encouraged men to massage their scalps to increase blood flow, but increasing blood flow using red light is generally more effective.
Cases Where Red Light Does NOT Work
It’s important to note that while red light therapy is effective for many types of hair loss (especially alopecia or temporary hair loss due to hormonal imbalances or illness), it’s not effective 100% of the time. For example, hair loss due to chemotherapy will continue until the treatment is stopped. The same applies to hair loss due to the side effects of other medications. Also, any hair follicles that have been destroyed due to injury, surgery, burns, or other permanent injuries will not grow back. And remember, please see your doctor if you experience sudden or dramatic hair loss, which can signal a serious underlying condition. Red and Near-Infrared Light: a Potent Combination