What’s the difference between LED and Laser Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy devices are becoming more and more advanced, popular and accessible, thanks primarily to developments in light-emitting diode (LED) technology over the past few decades. However, red light therapy, otherwise known as photobiomodulation or low-level laser therapy, is not new. Therapeutic photobiomodulation using LEDs can be traced back to the 1990s, where it was first employed by NASA. But even before LEDs, photobiomodulation existed in laser form.

Despite the increasing popularity of LED devices for both in-home and clinical use, red light therapy treatment using lasers is still available in many spas and clinics. This may raise a few questions, namely, is one better than the other?

This article explores the difference between the two types of red light therapy treatments, as well as which might be more suitable for you.

The Origins of Red Light Therapy: A Rather Happy Discovery

Photobiomodulation was discovered quite accidentally by Hungarian physician Endre Mester in 1967. Mester was attempting to recreate a study conducted by American scientist Paul McGuff, who’d successfully used something called a ruby laser to cure malignant tumors in rats. The ruby laser used by Mester happened to emit power at a much lower level than the one in the original study, and thus the results could not be replicated. However, Mester noticed faster wound healing and hair growth among the rats that were exposed to his lower-powered laser. He surmised that there might be therapeutic benefits to this weaker type of laser. This was the first instance of what would become known as low-level laser therapy.

Meanwhile, the first LED was constructed by Russian inventor Oleg Lossev in 1927. However, it took another 35 years or so for the technology to reveal any practical applications. In 1962, the first infrared LED was invented, but given that infrared light is invisible to humans, it had little perceived practical use at the time. Later that same year, however, the first visible LED was developed, and the rest is history (which you can read about here). This visible light was - you guessed it - red.

This breakthrough made it possible to discover that the same benefits produced by Mester’s laser could also be produced by LEDs. Cheaper to construct and easier to use, they were adopted by NASA in 1993 as a way to speed up plant growth. While plant growth was indeed boosted, it also led to an even more interesting discovery: the scientists’ skin lesions were healing faster as well. NASA subsequently began studying the treatment as a means to reduce the loss of bone and muscle mass in astronauts. NASA’s adoption of the treatment also helped propel the study of the potential applications of red light therapy for the general public.

(Want to know more about how photobiomodulation works? This article on red light therapy for pain is a great primer.)

So, if LEDs are an effective and less costly medium for delivering therapeutic treatment, why do laser devices still exist? Is there a practical application that LEDs simply don’t possess? Let’s take a look.

Are There Benefits to Lasers Over LEDs?

Until the 21st century, the vast majority of clinical studies involving photobiomodulation used lasers. This led to a persistent belief within the scientific community that lasers were the superior medium for delivering red light therapy treatment, and in fact, the laser vs LED debate still exists today.

The perceived advantage of lasers has to do with the way they emit light compared to LEDs. Lasers have a pin-point focus, while LEDs emit light at an angle (called a beam angle), which causes the light to spread out and become weaker as it travels away from the source. Laser red light therapy thus allows you to get the full concentration of light right on the area of the body you’re treating. This means it works more effectively on the cells to produce an effect. Sounds like a pretty big advantage right? Well, the downside is pretty major.

A laser-focused treatment means that you can only treat a tiny area of the body at one time. This may be fine for treating smaller wounds and cosmetic issues, or pains that affect one small area (think arthritis in one finger). For anything larger, you’ll be spending a lot more time on the treatment table - and a lot more money, especially since laser devices are not commercially available for home use. LED devices, on the other hand, allow you to treat a much larger surface area at one time.

Another important factor in the laser vs LED debate (we’ve already touched upon it but it certainly bears repeating) is that lasers are a much more expensive technology (costing about 100x more per milliwatt!) and are thus much less accessible to the end user. Some spas and clinics may offer laser treatments simply because they already have a device in their possession. After all, it’s only very recently that LED red light therapy devices have become commercially available. Still, many professionals are making the switch from laser to LED, and it’s not hard to see why: besides being more cost-effective to purchase and run, LED devices don’t require a skilled technician to administer treatment (freeing up time and staff for other clients and procedures). Plus, their greater coverage allows for the treatment of a wider range of issues, in much less time.

What Does All This Mean For You?

When seeking red light therapy treatment, clinics and spas may try to tempt you with laser photobiomodulation by marketing it as a more exclusive, upmarket treatment. Don’t fall for the hype. First, the jury is still out on whether lasers are truly more effective, and more research needs to be done to settle the debate. Second, any advantage lasers may have over LED treatment is tempered by the major disadvantages mentioned above.

The great news is that you can get the same benefits of professional red light therapy treatments right in your own home, for a tiny fraction of the cost of clinic or spa sessions. And Rouge Red Light Therapy offers the best, most powerful in-home devices on the market today. How do we know? Science, of course! We had our Rouge Pro independently tested and compared the results to the leading competition. You can take a look at the results here.

The LEDs on the Rouge device, for instance, have a much narrower beam angle than those of the competition (30 degrees compared to 60 or even 90 degrees). This means that you’re getting a much more concentrated amount of light from each individual LED. Rouge devices also have a greater number of LEDs than the competition, so you’re not losing anything in terms of surface area of treatment - you’re simply gaining power.

Ready to incorporate this NASA-approved therapeutic treatment into your daily routine? Shop the Rouge collection of red light therapy devices today. And for more tips, tricks and helpful info on red light therapy, keep reading our blog!

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