A Brief History of LED Light Therapy

From Science to Skincare: The Captivating History of LED Light Therapy

May 2023

There have been many studies on Light Therapy, also known as photobiomodulation, which demonstrate its advantages for both human skin and the body. Additionally, these benefits have been observed in different species beyond humans, this includes our beloved pets. Throughout the 20th Century, light has been researched extensively, originally with incandescent bulbs and more recently with LEDs and lasers. Nowadays, there are various colours of LEDs that serve different purposes.

Light Therapy before LEDs

As long as humans, plants and animals have existed, they have all benefited from light therapy – after all the sun is the provider of all life on earth. Vitamin D for example, which is necessary for regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body – the nutrients that keep teeth, bones and muscles healthy – is created when skin is exposed to direct sunlight.

Light therapy has been used since times of ancient civilisation, with evidence of its use dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Sunlight was often used to treat various ailments.

Light therapy has been around since the late 1800s, not long after electricity and home lighting became a thing, when Faroe Islands born Niels Ryberg Finsen experimented with light as a treatment for disease

Around the late 19th Century soon after electricity was invented, Light therapy was developed by Faroese-born Niels Finsen in the late 1800s, when he experimented with light as a treatment for disease. Later he found that also that ultraviolet light could be used to treat the bacteria caused by a form of tuberculosis that attacked the skin. 

Niels Ryberg Finsen used concentrated Light Therapy in order to successfully treat both smallpox, lupus and other skin conditions. As a result, in 1903 he won the Nobel prize for medicine a year before his death, read out its facts.



The invention of the LED in 1960s

LED technology was first invented in the 1961 but was microscopic and not useful for practical applications. It wasn’t until 1962 when Nick Holonyak Jr., created a visible LED, that it could be put to use. LEDs were seen as an alternative to traditional electric lightbulbs, as they could produce a single wavelength of light instead of the many wavelengths of light that the lightbulb produced. Initially, they only emitted red light, but they have since been developed with the ability to emit light in many different wavelengths. 

It’s been claimed that LED therapy was used to treat pain and arthritis in Eastern Europe soon after it was invented. However, it wasn’t until years later that medical research into this area began. Today, LED Light Therapy is now being used for a range of health and beauty benefits. It’s an effective way to encourage skin rejuvenation, reduce inflammation, and even treat mild depression and anxiety. Home users are increasingly interested in the potential of LED light therapy to improve their health and well-being.

How the benefits of Red Light Therapy was discovered.

NASA scientists experimenting with Red Light Therapy

It was during the 1980s that NASA scientists began exploring growing plants in space. With the exploration of deep space and other planets, it was deemed necessary to have plants be able to survive these missions, as well as grow and thrive in artificial gravity and light. 

The success of NASA’s missions would depend on the health of their astronauts especially during prolonged space missions. Whilst freeze dried packet food had its use, it did not contain the same level of nutrition as vegetables would provide. The ability to grow vegetables also gave the ability to explored deeper into space as there was no need to restock.

However, having a vision of what is required to actually implementing it wasn’t as straight forward. There were many challenges on the way which included finding a light source that didn’t use a lot of energy and did not generate heat with of course the ability to grow plants as not all light sources promoted plant growth. But with problems, came solutions, in the form of Light-emitting diode bulbs, more commonly known as LEDs.

The use of LEDs.

LEDs provide high-energy efficiency and virtually no heat, despite releasing waves of light 10 times brighter than the Sun.

Ronald W. Ignatius, founder, and chairman of Quantum Devices Inc. (QDI), was the first person to suggest using LED Therapy for growing plants. 

The focus of the research was studying different light sources for growing food; specifically, growing food in indoor environments such as the International Space Station (ISS) as well as space shuttles astronauts would be there for a long time. 

The NASA research team partnered with QDI to determine whether LEDs could provide the necessary light wavelengths and light intensity in order for plants to grow. These initial tests showed that the LED Therapy did in fact promote plant growth and photosynthesis. 

The progress of Red Light Therapy

As with all technological advances, LEDs have come a long way since the early days of LED Therapy. Today’s LED lights are more powerful, create less heat, and precise wavelengths can be isolated which means that it is now ideal for plant and human health.

Since 2012, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Habitation Projects at Kennedy Space Centre’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory have been studying the growth of red leaf lettuce and radish plants under different artificial light sources including a broad-spectrum fluorescent lighting, as well as blue and red LED lighting.

The lead researcher on the project was Dr. Matthew Mickens, a plant biologist with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and recipient of the NASA-sponsored Harriett G. Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship. 

Dr. Matthew Mickens studied the plants’ overall growth, including size and density, chlorophyll content, and the presence of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy stored in plant cells. Dr. Matthew Mickens found that radishes exposed to red and blue LED lights grew a darker red, which indicated higher levels of antioxidants.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, tomatoes, and red lettuce is important to human health. Boosting antioxidant properties in other plants not known for their antioxidant properties (but high in micro- and macro-nutrients) using red light could have tremendous benefits to astronauts on deep space missions.

Eventually the goal will be to have a complete sustainable environment in space, with LED light therapy that will grow plants that will in turn produce oxygen and even help with filtering the recycled water.

Additional Benefits Discovered

Whilst scientists were experimenting with LED light therapy and the use on growing plants, they discovered that there were side effects to humans that were exposed to the LEDs. There were some life changing implications to human health. They found that those scientists that worked with the red light therapy, who had cuts and lesions, found that they began to heal faster. So not only did it promote plant growth it also helped with wound healing within humans. 

How does Red Light Therapy Work?

Now for the Science bit!

Mitochondria exist in nearly every cell in the human body and are responsible for producing a type of energy called ATP. Think of them as tiny power stations, ensuring that our cells receive the energy they need to function. All tissues and organs in the body are made up of cells, therefore if our cells do not have enough energy, they cannot work properly. 

Red Light Therapy works by the specific wavelengths of light being absorbed through the body, through skin, tissues and muscles and into mitochondria, which are “power stations” inside cells. This stimulates mitochondria to produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), thereby increasing the cells’ ability to perform essential functions. 

Dr M Hamblin of Harvard Medical School, an associate professor of dermatology and expert in red light therapy has said that “Low level light therapy (LLLT – Low Level Laser Treatment) can stimulate healing, prevent tissue death and relieve pain and inflammation. The molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie this effect are under investigation…Stem cells are particularly susceptible to the effects of light and can be induced to differentiate and proliferate.” These findings have been confirmed by a number of other studies that have also found improvements in circulation, reduced oxidative stress, faster recovery from injury, improvements in quality of sleep and enhanced cognition.

Red Light Therapy for Cancer Treatment

One of the most exciting recent developments in the field of red light therapy is as a treatment for cancer, called Photodynamic Therapy (PDT). PDT uses photosensitising drugs along with high-intensity red light to target and kill cancer cells. A 2011 study published by the American Cancer Society found that while PDT is still in the developmental stage, it shows promise and offers several significant advantages over surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation including little or no side effects.

Red Light Therapy for other conditions

Other red light therapy for healing applications include the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, lymphedema, neuropathic pain, muscle recovery from intense exercise, and osteoarthritic joint pain.  

This technology although used for exploring space can now be used by everyone at home. LED Light Therapy / Red Light Therapy or LLLT (Low Level Laser Treatment) is a safe an effective form of treatment and has a vast array of benefits to humans and the full potential still hasn’t been realised.

Although the invention of the first light-emitting diode (LED) was in the early 20th century and that revolutionised the way we use light therapy, advancements in technology have made it possible to use LEDs to target specific areas of the body with light therapy. This gave rise to modern LED light therapy, which is used today to treat a wide range of health and beauty disorders. And now we use technology used by NASA scientists in our own homes. 

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Here you will learn about how scientist discovered the benefits of Red Light Therapy and from this discovery they would learn about the benefits of all LED wavelengths.