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LED Face Masks Dazzle With Skin-Brightening Claims, but Do They Work?

Here's what dermatologists say about them and whether they're worth the high price tag.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
Expertise Public health, new wellness technology and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
6 min read
Someone putting a red light therapy on
Warodom Changyencham/Moment/Getty Images

They look a little robotic, but light-emitting diode masks are the new face of skincare, giving a salon experience to a product anyone can use at home. 

Mask-makers say they can improve people's acne, reduce fine lines that come with aging, even skin tone and give it an all-around glow. This is done by simply sitting with a mask on for a few minutes, letting the light beam its magic into your face. Are LED masks worth the hype? 

"It depends how much hype you're seeing," Dr. Steven Daveluy, board-certified dermatologist and program director at Wayne State University Department of Dermatology, said in an email. "There is some early evidence that they can be helpful, but the evidence is limited."

Larger studies that directly compare LED masks to traditional treatments are needed, Daveluy said, although it can be normal to have only smaller studies to go off when something is new. 

It's important to clear your plans for a new skincare device or LED mask with a dermatologist if you have skin sensitivities or a skin condition. But LED face masks generally have a pretty good safety profile when used as directed because LED light is safe for the skin, unlike UV light. They may be a good option for people who want to avoid taking medications or those more traditional skin-care treatments in the first place, according to Dr. Danilo Del Campo, board-certified dermatologist with the Chicago Skin Clinic. 

"It's something that's a little more on the natural side, but it is founded in actual evidence," Del Campo said. 

The catch? A steep price tag. A mask with adequate power starts around $350.  

"In my opinion, the biggest risk is the money," Del Campo said. 

Here's everything we know about LED face masks so far. 

An Omnilux LED face mask

Omnilux is a popular brand of LED face masks with FDA-cleared products. The pictured Omnilux Contour Face has 633nm of red and 830nm near-infrared wavelengths. The Omnilux Men is similar to the Contour but has an additional wavelength the company says is designed to penetrate deeper into thicker skin.

The company also makes a different product called the Clear mask, which uses blue light as well as red and is marketed to reduce the appearance of acne. 

Omnilux/Screen shot by CNET

How do LED face masks work? 

LED face masks use different wavelengths and types of light to get beneath the skin and target different concerns, such as acne or collagen production. Different types of light are used to target different concerns. 

Red light 

Red light is what you want to look for if your goal is fine-line reduction or a more glowy look. 

At a certain level, red light can penetrate the epidermis to get deep into the skin, according to Del Campo, which activates certain enzymes and "promotes mitochondrial activation." 

"The skin's able to generate more energy," Del Campo said. "The idea is hopefully were able to stimulate more collagen and elastic tissue," he said, which may give skin a more youthful appearance some people are after.

There's not as much evidence supporting infrared as opposed to red light, according to Del Campo. Mask-makers claim it may give a firming or glowing effect and help stimulate collagen production. 

Blue light 

Blue light is added to some masks and may be the preferred option for people whose main concern is treating acne.

"Blue light stays in the upper layers of the skin," Daveluy explained. "It can be helpful to reduce pimples seen in acne, since they are near the surface."

Some masks on the market combine multiple types of light, though more research is needed on whether this is more effective or how it compares, according to Dr. Jeanette M. Black, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. 

"It is unclear if using a combination of blue and red light is more effective than blue light alone," Black said in an email. "Further studies need to be conducted to compare these treatments."

Nasha wearing a HigherDOSE LED face mask

Nasha Addarich Martínez, managing editor of CNET's Wellness and Sleep teams, has the HigherDOSE LED face mask and loves it. 

HigherDOSE says this mask has 630nm of red light, 830nm of near-infrared light and an irradiance of 50 mW/cm2. 

Nasha Addarich Martínez/CNET

LED face masks and FDA clearance 

Some LED face masks on the market have clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration, which means you get some extra assurance that these devices are safe to use and that the company may be more transparent. However, the fact an LED face mask has FDA clearance won't necessarily speak to how much it will improve your skin. 

"FDA-cleared masks are designed with clinically proven light wavelengths and have studies demonstrating some level of safety and efficacy," Black said. She added that clearance "does not necessarily mean that the device is the best modality for treating a certain skin condition." 

Some of the LED masks with FDA clearance (which will vary in specs, types of light and power) include: 

A woman folding clothes in her Therabody LED face mask

Therabody's TheraFace mask is FDA-cleared, powerful and comes with different light modes you can switch between. It also has a vibration therapy feature for a facial massage effect. 

Therabody

How LED face masks compare to retinol and acne treatments 

We don't know yet, because no one has published those studies. But certain home skin care treatments, like using an over-the-counter retinol, have a "long history of proven efficacy," Black said. LED face masks don't.

"Over-the counter retinol treatments have been used for fine-line reduction for decades and have more data supporting their effectiveness," Black said, adding that using a retinol or retinoid is more simple for some patients than wearing an LED face mask, which some may find awkward. 

"On the other hand, I do have a few patients that are keen on using LED face masks and find it to be a relaxing part of their skin care routine," she said.

In terms of acne treatments, the best treatment depends on the type of acne or what's causing it, according to Black. Hormonal acne is sometimes treated with birth control pills or oral spironolactone; more severe acne can be treated with a medication like Accutane (oral tretinoin) and rosacea acne with a different medication still, Black said. All of these have more research behind them than blue light for acne treatment. 

"What I am getting at is that I don't want patients that really need medical help with acne wasting time and money trying to treat acne with at home LED masks if there are options that would be more appropriate for them," Black said. 

"Acne patients really should seek consultation with a board certified dermatologist." 

How to choose a light therapy or LED mask 

So, you're interested in an LED face mask. The first thing to do, according to Del Campo, is to make sure you're doing the preventive skin care things that have been proven effective. This includes wearing sunscreen and otherwise protecting your skin from too much sunlight, staying hydrated and using a retinol or retinoid product. 

"If someone isn't able to do part one, it doesn't make sense to do part two, in my opinion," Del Campo said. 

Then, look for a few key features and specs. 

Wavelength 

For red light in masks, the wavelength range is between 630-660nm, and most devices are around 633nm, Daveluy said. 

Irradiance

Daveluy says it should be between 40-150 mW/cm2. 

"If you buy a device without adequate power, you'll be wasting your time and money." 

Transparency 

Secrets aren't any fun, especially when you're shopping for a spendy face mask. 

"If you are having trouble finding these features for a device, stop wasting your time and look at a different one," Daveluy said. "Companies with the right settings are happy to share them, while devices with inadequate settings will avoid sharing that info."

Another qualification to look for, according to Del Campo, is that the mask has been cleared by the FDA, which means the company has done the proper paperwork. He added that it's best to avoid LED face masks at prices that seem too good to be true. 

Are LED face masks worth the money? 

It completely depends on what you want to spend your money on, to be frank -- legitimate LED face masks do not come cheap. As is true for anything in the health and wellness market space, make sure you check in with a dermatologist or medical expert if you have a persistent skin concern to make sure you're doing the right things for your health before you add on home treatments. 

If skincare isn't your top priority, or you haven't fallen into the investment trap of glow-boosting, anti-fine-line propaganda (I am guilty of this) or you don't like the idea of wearing a transformer-looking mask every other night in the name of self-care, this product may not be worth it.  

As someone who spends the majority of their wellness dollars on skin care products (second only to the high prices of food -- which I think is the best health investment of all time -- and the unfair upcharge for vegan meat), I am swayed enough based on the small amount of evidence and glowing reports to consider investing in a face mask with the right specs. I may have been wrong in my early cynical and non-believing take on red light therapy hype, and if I ever test the LED face masks, I'll update this article. 

If you check the prevention boxes that build a solid base for skin care, and you're ready to elevate your skincare to the next level, LED face masks may be worth checking out.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.