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Blue light therapy

Narrow band blue light phototherapy is well known as a method of reducing jaundice in newborn babies. Now it is seen also as having a promising role in treating mild to moderate acne but from a medical and scientific viewpoint, blue light therapy remains an understudied, investigational acne treatment, ie - more research is required to demonstrate it has a proven safety track record and identify its long-term effects.

How it works

Blue light therapy involves directly exposing the entire skin area affected by acne to either a continuous or intense pulsed light which has been shown to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. A typical treatment requires two sessions per week over four to five weeks.

It is rare for blue light to be used in isolation and it is usually combined with either topical or oral medications. Some blue light devices also use a radiofrequency current which is thought to get a little deeper into the skin and have greater effects on the sebaceous (oil) glands.

Sometimes blue or other lights are used in conjunction with another topically applied medicine which increases the sensitivity of the acne lesions to the effects of the light. This is called photodynamic therapy (PDT). However, PDT makes the skin extremely sensitive to light for the following two days, so it means staying indoors away from bright lights for this time.

Study findings - risks and benefits

The limited studies conducted to date for blue light therapy suggest it is more likely to have a role for controlling an acne flare in an adult with mild to moderate acne. These studies observed that by four weeks into treatment, the majority of people with mild to moderate acne noticed some degree of improvement in their acne.

Inflammatory acne lesions (red raised and/or pustular pimples) are reduced more than blackheads and whiteheads. In some cases, acne was reported to completely clear.

However, about one in five people will see no benefit from four weeks of treatment and may even see their acne worsen in severity.

Blue light therapy does not appear to produce extended acne remissions. In one study, the benefits of a topical antibiotic treatment were greater than those for blue light therapy four weeks after stopping treatment.

There is very limited safety data regarding blue light. They come from a few controlled studies which followed only a very small number of patients over a relatively short treatment course (e.g. eight treatment sessions over four weeks).

The results of one study suggest blue light therapy should be avoided in severe forms of acne because it was observed to worsen patients' acne after starting treatment.

As with any therapy, there are risks involved. Unfortunately, there is only limited information about the short-term side effects and risks with even less known about blue light's longer-term safety.

Short-term side effects

During treatment and in the weeks following therapy, some people will be affected briefly by:

  • Redness and swelling of treated areas
  • Skin dryness
  • Skin pigment changes (uneven or blotchy increase in skin pigment)
  • Worsening of acne (possibly more likely to occur in people with severe acne)
  • Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light)

Long-term side effects

Sunlight is known to have a number of harmful effects on the skin which can be delayed for years or decades after excessive exposure.Although there is no data on the long-term skin effects of repeated exposure to intense blue light, potential concerns include:

  • It may contribute to skin cancer risk.
  • It may cause photo-ageing of the skin.
  • It may suppress the skin's immune system.

Points to consider

When choosing an acne treatment, look at what is known about the long-term safety and risks of each therapy. Acne affects 85 per cent of Australians aged 15-24 years and can continue for many years, with many females still affected in their 30s and 40s, so safety is paramount in the treatment of acne in an otherwise young and healthy individual who may need to continue treatment for many years.

 

Page updated: 29 Nov 2012

 

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