Blue-Light Special: How LEDs Can Help Your Acne

We've all hopefully moved on from the "ew, gross, you have bacteria all over your face" phase, and transitioned into a more educated awareness of skin flora. Because, you know, science. Bacteria makes the world go 'round — and keeps our faces balanced and healthy. One such bacteria strain commonly found on the skin is propionibacterium acnes, a.k.a. p. acnes.
While the name makes you think it's what causes acne, it's not quite as simple as that. Firstly, p. acnes is found on almost everyone's skin. According to recent research, the presence of the bacteria alone is not enough to cause acne — oil production and blocked pores are the co-conspirators that brew up that inflammation.
"Normally sebum is made in the sebaceous gland, and then it goes to the top of the skin by way of a duct; there’s a structure that’s like a pipe that lets the sebum go to the surface," explains dermatologist Melanie Grossman, MD. When you have an overproduction of sebum, she says, it's basically too much stuff trying to exit one tiny hole. "That p. acnes bacteria in the sebaceous gland likes the fat that the sebum is creating. When there’s an overproduction or a blockage and there’s a collection of the sebum, the bacteria multiplies and there’s this inflammatory reaction."
So for those with acneic skin, decreasing that bacteria ensures there is less of it to interact with that oil and pore "sludge." One novel way to do this is with blue LED-light treatments, also called photodynamic therapy (PDT). Here's how it works: There is a blue-light wavelength that has been identified to reduce p. acnes, and with it acne lesions. This wavelength has been incorporated into treatments to kill that p. acnes.
"Blue LEDs eradicate the bacteria that cause inflammation during breakouts, reduce pore size, stabilize oil production, and promote healthy cell growth," raves celebrity aesthetician Kate Somerville, who's been using IPL treatments at her famous skin clinic since 2004. "Blue lights penetrate deep into the skin, stimulating your acne-causing bacteria, making them work against each other and self-destruct."

Don’t expect anything to happen in [one] 20-minute [session]; it’s not just going to go away because you put a machine on there.

Melanie Grossman, MD
Adds Dr. Grossman, "The p. acnes will produce a [byproduct] which is called porphyrin. When we shine blue light on the surface of the skin, it's absorbed by this compound and it absorbs the blue light, which basically destroys it."
Unfortunately, you can't just hold your phone in front of your face for 20 minutes and expect it to blast away your bacteria. The blue light being emitted needs to be within a certain wavelength in order to have that effect. Fortunately, there are options available at your derm's or aesthetician's office and for at-home use that hit this particular blue hue. Here's what you need to know about each.
When you receive a professional blue-light session, the first thing you'll notice is that the "light" is actually multiple diodes attached to a flat-panel apparatus that looks similar to the metallic sun shades that were popular in the '80s (think Magda in There's Something About Mary). You'll be fitted with a pair of protective goggles, the panels will be placed on top of your face, and then you'll percolate for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Professional treatments — Somerville uses the LightStim device at her clinic — are more powerful and can cover a much larger surface area than handheld gadgets. One of the major differences between in-office and handhelds (besides the panels) is the power source. As Dr. Grossman notes, in-office machines have a stronger battery, which makes them able to work much faster than their at-home counterparts. Because of this, in-office treatments are ideal for those with moderate to severe acne — the type that covers large patches or the entirety of the face.
Somerville says another benefit of in-office visits is that, depending on the machine used, you can attack your acne on multiple fronts. "The LightStim combo light is phenomenal for treating acne, as it has five wavelengths," she explains. Different wavelengths have different benefits: blue light, to kill bacteria; amber light, to build collagen and strengthen the skin; two variations of red light, to reduce inflammation and promote circulation; and infrared light, to accelerate healing. "Five lights in one treatment [makes it] stronger [and] more effective," she says.
Like any professional treatment, this is going to cost you. Somerville recommends those with mild to moderate acne to do LED facials twice a week for eight weeks, followed by once-a-month upkeep sessions. Those with moderate to severe acne are looking at double that time period. And at $190 to $290 a session, that's a huge time and money commitment. However, if you're not into the prescription meds or topicals, blue-light therapy works all by itself to clear skin — without any drugs.
At-home blue lights aren't as strong, but they certainly have their place. Today's devices — which include standouts like the Me Clear Anti-Blemish Device and the FDA-approved Tria Acne Clearing Blue Light — can be used on milder, localized acne. For those with cystic acne, in-office treatments are best because they can be combined with prescription topicals and antibiotics. But if you're the type of person who gets minor breakouts around your period or during times of stress, at-home devices could be a good option.
Says Bobae Kim, chief technology officer for Iluminage Beauty, "If you compare [at-home treatments] to the professional world, there’s how often you’re doing the treatment that differs. With our Me Clear device, let’s say you use it two to three times on your blemish when you get it; at the [dermatologist's] office you would usually come back every week or every two weeks for that treatment. But in terms of clinical results, they’re just as effective; it just depends on your grade of acne."
According to Dave Youngquist, VP of engineering for Tria Beauty, another benefit of at-home devices is that they are smaller, portable, can be used more frequently, and — compared to in-office visits — more affordable. "The tradeoff is that to cover more than a small area of skin, multiple treatments are needed per session," he says. "However, frequent daily use provides a cumulative effect that offsets the limited time available for most consumers."

If you want to see results, you've got to be ready to commit to using blue lights with the same frequency as you would any other type of skin treatment in your routine.

Dr. Grossman, Somerville, and Youngquist all agree that the effectiveness and success of these handheld devices depend on the user. "In order to get enough energy out of the device, either you have to use a machine for a really long time or you have to do it repeatedly and patients get bored — they don’t like sitting 20 minutes a day," says Dr. Grossman. But if you want to see results, you've got to commit to using these with the same frequency as you would any other skin treatment in your routine.
Speaking of results, remember that blue light of any sort is not a cure — it's a management tool. Treatments help kill off bacteria, allowing the pimples to heal quicker. "One thing that’s very important to realize is that the pimple doesn’t start the day you see it, it’s kind of brewing," says Dr. Grossman. "The bacteria is in there, the sebum is starting, and it’s not going to go away in one day either. So don’t expect anything to happen in [one] 20-minute [session]; it’s not just going to go away because you put a machine on there. It really takes about a month for the acne to completely go away."
Blue lights are not for everyone. If you have lupus, albinism, epilepsy, or if you're pregnant, you can't use LED. And, notes Somerville, if you are on a photosensitizing medicine like retinol or antibiotics, you need to be able to stop using those treatments at least a week prior in order to safely undergo a blue-light session. You also need to be aware of the products in your skin-care routine — don't use an over-the-counter acne medication if you don't know whether it's LED-compatible.
Every dermatologist and aesthetician we've spoken to could not stop gushing about the benefits of incorporating blue-light therapy into your acne-fighting regimen. So if you're looking for something to help fight the period pimples or "Do we legit need to have 15 meetings a day about TPS reports?" stress breakouts, look into blue-light therapy. We haven't been this excited about a light since we started spelling PG-13 words on our Lite-Brites.
The grown-up guide to dealing with acne. Read more from The Acne Diaries here.

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