Is Red Light Therapy For Weight Loss Legit? Everything To Know About The Trend

You may have heard about red light therapy for skin conditions and inflammation. And while there’s some promising data there, lately people have been taking to TikTok claiming red light therapy can help get rid of stubborn fat. Of course, this is TikTok we’re talking about, making it tough to know if red light therapy for weight loss is legit.

Red light therapy for weight loss is purportedly a non-invasive form of fat removal that’s getting plenty of attention. But it’s controversial given that there isn’t a ton of data to support its use.So what is red light therapy for weight loss and, more importantly, does it actually do anything meaningful to impact body fat? Here’s what you need to know before giving this a try.

Meet the experts: Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, MPA, is an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Joshua Zeichner, MD, is the director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Jessica Cording, RD, is a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.

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What is red light therapy for weight loss?

Red light therapy, a.k.a. low-level laser therapy (LLLT), isn’t a new thing—one 2009 study talks about it, for example—but it’s getting plenty of buzz lately. LLLT uses lasers to send red light into your skin, explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. The goal with this treatment is to target fat that sits under the surface of your skin and, hopefully, get rid of it.

Red light therapy treatments are usually done in a doctor’s office with lasers aimed at areas where you want to try to lose fat. But there are at-home devices (including wearable “belts”) on the market as well. There’s just really no good data to support their use for weight loss either. But, derms do sometimes recommend them for skin conditions.

Research into red light therapy is ongoing and there isn’t a ton to go on with how, exactly, this works. “The theory is that the low level light energy can help break down the cell membranes around fat cells,” Dr. Zeichner says.

“There is some data that red light can help strengthen the skin to improve wrinkling,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Stronger skin may help reduce the appearance of fat by keeping it in place and acting like a compression garment,” he adds. So, red light therapy may play a role in overall body contouring, but it does not take the place of traditional diet and exercise.

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What does the research say?

It’s important to note that there are no large randomized clinical trials on this treatment, which are considered the gold standard in science. “Randomized controlled trials help us discern a therapy’s impact on a group of persons,” says Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, MPA, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “One group is in the treatment group and one group is in the placebo group, so we can make comparisons. If this protocol is not followed, it is difficult to determine the efficacy of a given treatment.”

Since red light therapy doesn’t have any of these large studies for weight loss, it’s really tricky to draw any major conclusions about whether it actually works. That said, there are some studies on red light therapy and weight loss.

Sixty-seven people who received red light therapy three times a week over a two-week span lost 3.5 inches in their abs, hips, and thighs collectively, compared to than those in the control group who lost less than one inch, according to one older randomized double-blind study.

And red light therapy treatments twice weekly for six weeks “could be proposed as the optimal frequency and duration for the management of body weight,” according to another study of 60 people. (There was no control group, though, so it it can’t be said for sure if the patients would have lost weight during this time anyway.)

There are other studies that have linked red light therapy to weight loss, but they’re usually small or don’t have a control group.

“Despite the growing popularity and optimism that red light therapy can help with weight loss, it is unlikely that it will provide any significant benefits,” Dr. Zeichner says.

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Risks And Downsides To Red Light Therapy For Weight Loss

“Since we have no strong data to support the use of red light therapy, I would not recommend this for weight loss,” Dr. Stanford says.

Also, keep this in mind: Two people who had the treatment suffered from “severe” skin damage, one study on red light therapy found. But burns aren’t common. “Infrared light sits right next to red visible light in the electromagnetic spectrum,” Dr. Zeichner says. “It’s the infrared radiation that is commonly associated with thermal injuries to the skin, so it’s important to ensure that the [location] you are getting a treatment from uses a high-quality device that does not emit any infrared radiation.”

The cost may also be prohibitive: It’s hard to hammer down exactly how much these treatments cost and they do vary by location, but prices cited online range from $100 a session to more than $1,500 for six sessions.

Other Healthy Ways To Lose Weight

In general, the most effective ways to lose weight come down to burning more calories than you take in, says Jessica Cording, RD, a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.

She recommends having a mix of protein, fat, and complex carbs at every meal to help you feel fuller, longer. (When you feel full, you’re less likely to overeat or engage in mindless snacking, Cording explains.)

And of course, the basics bear repeating: “Being active is also important,” Cording reiterates. Drinking more water, getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, and doing your best to lower your stress levels can also help, she says.