Do LED masks work for acne, wrinkles? Dermatologists weigh in

As vaccinated Americans start to take off their face coverings in public, some are turning to a different type of mask at home in the hopes of achieving better-looking skin.

LED face masks are growing in popularity, boosted by celebrities touting their use on social media and the general quest to get a bit of extra glow after the stresses of the pandemic. The devices promise to make a difference in treating acne and improving fine lines through “light therapy.”

Many potential buyers have become interested after video conferencing all day, said Dr. Mathew Avram, director of dermatologic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and head of its Dermatology Laser & Cosmetic Center.

“People are seeing their faces on Zoom calls, FaceTime calls. They don’t like the way they look and they are being more active about getting devices than ever,” Avram told TODAY.

“It’s an easy way to feel that you’re addressing an issue. The problem with that is without having a perspective of the true efficacy of these devices, you can spend a lot of money and not get a lot of improvement.”

Here’s what to know before buying an LED mask:

How do the devices work?

LED stands for light-emitting diode — a technology that was developed for NASA’s plant growth experiments in space.

It uses much lower energy to create changes in the skin than a laser does, with studies showing LED light therapy can “greatly enhance the natural wound healing process” and is “beneficial for a range of medical and aesthetic conditions” in dermatology.

LED therapy is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for recurrent facial herpes simplex, or cold sores, and herpes zoster (shingles), said Dr. Pooja Sodha, director of the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology at The GW Medical Faculty Associates in Washington, D.C.

The masks sold for home use are less powerful than the ones at a dermatologist’s office, the American Academy of Dermatology noted. Still, the convenience, privacy of home use and affordability often makes them an attractive option, Sodha said.

They can irradiate the face with blue light, used to treat acne; or red light — which penetrates a bit more deeply — for anti-aging purposes; or both.

“Blue light actually can target the bacteria in the skin that creates acne,” said Dr. Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut.

With red light, “heat energy (is) being delivered to make changes in the skin. In this case, it’s increased collagen production,” she noted.

Do they achieve results?

Blue light can help improve acne, but many over-the-counter topical medications have far more evidence of efficacy than the LED devices do, Avram noted. Still, if somebody is looking for an alternative acne treatment, there’s nothing wrong with using an LED light, he added. Gohara considered the masks as adding “a little bit more power to the anti-acne punch that’s already in place.”

If you are looking purely for cosmetic improvements such as younger-looking skin, don’t expect dramatic results.

“In terms of preventative aging, the effects, if any, would be modest at best with usage over a great deal of time,” Avram said.

“If people see any improvement at all, what they might notice is maybe improved texture and tone of their skin, maybe a little bit of lessening of redness. But often the improvements, if any, are quite subtle and not always easy to detect.”

The LED mask is not going to be as good as Botox or a filler at smoothing wrinkles, but it could add a little extra radiance, Gohara noted.

How long does it take to see any results?

A minimum of four to six weeks, but probably longer, for both acne and any anti-aging skin changes, Gohara said. A person who has more established wrinkles may have to wait for a long time to see a difference, if they’re responsive to the LED mask at all, she added.

How often a person should use the device depends on the guidelines of the manufacturer. Many masks are recommended to be worn at least daily for several minutes a day.

For people looking for quick improvements or those who struggle with daily regimens, this may not be the best option, Sodha said.

Are LED masks safe?

Overall, they’re pretty safe, the experts said. Many are cleared by the FDA, though that speaks to their safety more than their efficacy.

People may confuse LED with ultraviolet light, but the two are very different. UV light can damage DNA, while there’s no evidence that could happen with LED light, Avram said.

But he and Gohara urged people to protect their eyes when using the devices. In 2019, Neutrogena recalled its Light Therapy Acne Mask “out of an abundance of caution” because of a “theoretical risk of eye injury” for people with certain eye conditions. Others reported visual effects when using the mask.

The verdict is out on how much human-made blue light is “too much blue light” for the eyes, said Dr. Barbara Horn, past president of the American Optometric Association.

“Most of these masks have the eyes cut out so that the light is not directed into the eye. However, for any type of light therapy treatment, eye protection is highly recommended,” she noted. “While at-home masks may have a lesser intensity, there may be some short-wavelength visible light that could spill over in close proximity to the eye.”

Any potential eye problems could also correlate to how long the masks are being worn, what intensity the LED light is and whether users have their eyes open while wearing them, the optometrist said.

Research the quality of the product and follow the safety instructions and manufacturer guidelines before using any of these devices, she advised. Gohara recommended wearing sunglasses or opaque glasses for extra eye protection.

Who shouldn’t use the devices?

People with a history of skin cancer and systemic lupus erythematosus should avoid this kind of treatment, Sodha said, as should those with diseases that involve the retina, such as diabetes or congenital retinal disorders. The list also includes people who take photosensitizing medications like lithium, certain antipsychotics and certain antibiotics.

People who have skin of color should be a little bit more cautious about using these devices because there can sometimes be coloration changes, Avram advised.

Bottom line:

For those seeking cosmetic improvements, the LED masks don’t take the place of in-office treatments, the dermatologists said.

The most effective tools are lasers, followed by topical treatments, whether by prescription or over-the-counter, with LEDs the least effective of these options, Avram said.

“I’d be worried about spending money for things that provide subtle, modest or no discernible benefit in most patients,” he noted.

If you’re still interested in buying an LED mask, select one that’s FDA cleared, Sodha advised. Have realistic expectations and don’t forget the important skin care habits of sleep, diet, hydration, sun protection and a daily protection/renewal regimen, she added.

Gohara considered the masks “icing on the cake” — something that could be a great extension to what happens at the doctor’s office.

“I analogize it to going to the gym and working out with a hardcore trainer — that’s going to be better than a couple dumbbells at home, right? But both can make a difference,” Gohara added.