Red Light Therapy for Sleep: Does It Work?

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What Is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy is a non-invasive treatment that involves exposing the skin to low-level red light wavelengths. The therapy was initially developed by NASA to help grow plants in space, but researchers soon discovered that it had therapeutic effects on the human body.

The therapy works by penetrating the skin’s surface and stimulating the cells’ mitochondria. This then increases the energy available to cells, which can have a range of health benefits.

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Red Light Therapy vs Infrared

Red light therapy and infrared therapy are often confused, but they are not the same thing. Infrared light has longer wavelengths and can penetrate deeper into the body. Red light has shorter wavelengths and penetrates shallower. Both therapies use light to stimulate cells and promote healing, but they do so in different ways.

Red Light Therapy vs Sunlight

Sunlight is the most natural source of light, and plays a crucial role in regulating our circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight in the morning helps reset our internal clocks and promote wakefulness. Exposure to darkness at night signals our bodies to produce melatonin and prepare for sleep.

Red light therapy does not replicate sunlight, but it does have some similar effects. Red light stimulates the production of serotonin, which is important for regulating mood and sleep. It also helps to reduce the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with sleep. So while red light therapy does not provide the same benefits as natural sunlight, it can still be beneficial for sleep.

Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy is still in the early stages of research.  However, there are already several benefits the scientific community is aware of.

Can Improve Some Sleep Disorders

Red light therapy can improve some sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea. A 2020 study in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology Research and Practice found that light therapy had a notable impact on cancer survivors who suffered from moderate to severe insomnia. 

No Impact on Circadian Rhythms

A 2020 study found that most people who were exposed to red light showed little to no circadian response, which means that red light doesn’t interrupt this cycle like blue light does.

Support Natural Melatonin Secretion

Red light may help sleep by supporting the natural secretion of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain and regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

Studies have shown that exposure to red light wavelengths does not suppress the production of melatonin like blue light does. This can help to promote a more natural sleep pattern and improve sleep quality.

Pain Relief

Another potential benefit of red light therapy for sleep is its ability to reduce pain. Chronic pain can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Red light therapy has analgesic properties, which help reduce pain and inflammation. This can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, especially if you suffer from back, neck, or shoulder pain.

Combats Jet Lag

Jet lag is a common condition that occurs when your body’s internal clock is disrupted after traveling across different time zones. Symptoms of jet lag can include fatigue, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

Red light therapy may be an effective way to combat jet lag by helping to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Studies have shown that exposure to red light wavelengths can help to reset the body’s internal clock and reduce the symptoms of jet lag. Taking melatonin as well can amplify this effect.

Improves Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Red light therapy can also be effective in treating depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the winter months when there is less natural sunlight. Red light therapy can help to mimic some of the benefits of sunlight, such as increasing serotonin levels and reducing cortisol levels. These chemical changes can help reduce the symptoms of SAD.

In a study published in the Journal of Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, participants who received near-infrared (NIR) light therapy also demonstrated a large improvement in major depressive disorder.

Safe to Use at Night

One of the benefits of red light therapy is that it is safe to use at night. Blue light can interfere with melatonin production and disrupt sleep. Red light may help promote sleep by increasing serotonin and reducing cortisol.

Red Light Therapy Risks

Red light therapy is generally considered safe, but there are some precautions you should take. For example, you should avoid looking directly at the light source, as this can damage your eyes.

Red light therapy can also interact with certain medications. These include lithium, some antipsychotics, and some antibiotics. Therefore, it’s essential to talk to your doctor before trying it if you’re taking any medication.

Some people may experience side effects from red light therapy like mild skin irritation or headaches. If you experience any side effects, stop using the device and talk to your doctor.

How Does Light Affect Sleep?

Our circadian rhythm is a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle in which our body produces certain hormones, like melatonin, that tell us when to be alert and when to sleep. Exposure to blue light can suppress the production of melatonin and interfere with our circadian rhythms.

This is because the blue light spectrum has a short wavelength and high energy. This makes it more likely to activate photoreceptors in the eyes that are responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

Does Red Light Therapy Work for Sleep?

While the research on red light therapy and sleep is still in its early stages, there is some evidence to suggest it can help improve sleep quality. However, more research is needed to determine the optimal dosage and duration of treatment.

Best Red Light Therapy Devices

If you’re interested in trying red light therapy for sleep, there are several devices on the market to choose from. Two popular devices on the market are the Joovv Go and the Red Light Man Mini. Both are portable, and the Red Light Man Mini is one of the more affordable options.

How to Use Red Light Therapy for Sleep

If you’re interested in trying red light therapy to improve your sleep, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to choose a high-quality red light therapy device that emits the correct wavelengths of light. Look for a device that emits red light in the range of 600-700 nanometers.

Next, it’s important to use the device at the right time. One great time to use it is at night, about 20-30 minutes before bedtime. This will help promote relaxation and prepare your body for sleep. You can also use it in the morning to help wake you up and promote alertness.


Is red light therapy safe?

Red light therapy is generally considered safe when administered correctly. The treatment is non-invasive and does not involve the use of UV light, which can be harmful to the skin with prolonged exposure.

However, it’s important to use caution when using red light therapy devices at home. Overexposure to red light wavelengths can cause skin irritation and burns. It’s essential to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use protective eyewear when necessary.

How much does red light therapy cost?

The cost of red light therapy can vary depending on the type of device you choose and where you buy it from. Some devices can cost several hundred dollars, while others are more affordable. It’s important to do your research and choose a device that is safe, effective, and fits within your budget.

Can you do too much red light therapy?

While red light therapy is generally considered safe, it is possible to do too much. Overexposure to red light can cause skin damage and may increase the risk of skin cancer. Therefore, it’s important to use the device only as directed.

Can red light therapy cause cancer?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that red light therapy, if done correctly, causes cancer. Some studies have suggested that it may have a protective effect against skin cancer. Yet, it’s still important to use the device safely and avoid overexposure.

Jessie Gellings

Jessie Gellings is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and student of the American Medical Writers Association.  She specializes in supporting women-led, health-focused organizations. When she's not writing, you'll find Jessie wandering in wild places, singing, and cooking.