Phototherapy for Acne

Woman getting phototherapy treatment
Photo: Leezsnow / Getty Images

Phototherapy is a broad term used to describe a multitude of treatment procedures that utilize ultraviolet (UV) light. Phototherapy is used to treat acne, eczema, psoriasis, and other conditions.  Phototherapy is also called light therapy.

There are many different types of phototherapy procedures.  Blue light, red light, or green light, Intense Pulsed Light (IPL), and photodynamic therapy are light treatments that are often used to treat acne.

Some light treatments are offered at day spas and medical spas.  Others can be done at your dermatologist's office.

How does phototherapy work to treat acne?

During a phototherapy treatment, the affected areas of the skin are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light for a specific length of time, depending on your skin and the type of treatment being done.  In the case of photodynamic therapy, a photosensitizing agent is applied to the skin first to enhance the effects of the treatment.

Phototherapy works to treat acne in a few different ways.  First, they can help reduce the amount of acne-causing bacteria (Propionibacteria acnes) on the skin.  Some light treatments also work on the sebaceous glands, shrinking them and reducing the amount of oil they ultimately produce. 

Light treatments also can have anti-inflammatory effects, so they can help reduce redness and swelling of those inflamed breakouts.

You'll need a series of treatments to get results.  Most people will need one or two sessions a week for a period of time. 

Phototherapy isn't used as a first line treatment for acne.

Phototherapy isn't considered a go-to treatment for acne.  There just haven't been large scale studies done on the effectiveness of light therapies, especially comparing their effectiveness to topical medications.

  And there are no standards to treatment -- like how often treatments should be done, and for how long. 

So, phototherapy isn't used as a first line treatment for acne.  It's best used alongside topical acne medications or oral acne medications.

Light therapies work best for mild to moderate inflammatory acne.  It has a modest effect on non-inflamed breakouts (comedonal acne, for example).

In select cases, your dermatologist may use phototherapy alone to treat acne.  For example, phototherapy may be good for pregnant women with inflammatory acne who aren't able to use more traditional acne treatments like topical retinoids and isotretinoin

And light therapy is a good option for who have decided not to use traditional acne medications because of worries about the side effects, or people who are committed to using more natural therapies.

Phototherapy has its drawbacks.

Besides needing to be studied more, phototherapy does have some drawbacks you should consider before jumping into treatment.

Light treatments are very expensive when compared to traditional acne medications.  And, in the vast majority of cases, you're on the hook for the entire cost.  Insurance doesn't cover phototherapy for acne, because it's not considered a proven treatment.

Also, it's time consuming.  You'll need to commit to a few treatments a week for several weeks.

It isn't a cure for acne.  Just like with acne medications, phototherapy helps short-term but it might not keep acne away for the long haul.  To maintain your clear skin you'll have to keep treating your acne either with a topical acne medication or by continuing your phototherapy treatments.  

And, just like with any acne treatment, phototherapy can cause side effects.  Some side effects you might experience are discomfort, dryness, minor peeling, redness, and photosensitivity (basically, you're more sensitive to sunlight for a period of time).

While phototherapy isn't the right treatment choice for everyone, it can have a place in acne treatment routine.  If you're interested in having phototherapy for your acne, talk with your dermatologist.

Sources:

Bowe W, Kober M.  "Therapeutic update: acne."  J Drugs Dermatol.  2014 Mar;13(3):235-8.

Das S, Reynolds RV.  "Recent advances in acne pathogenesis: implications for therapy."  2014 Dec;15(6):479-88.

Pugashetti R, Shinkai K.  "Treatment of acne vulgaris in pregnant patients."  Dermatol Ther. 2013 Jul-Aug;26(4):302-11.

Titus S, Hodge J.  "Diagnosis and treatment of acne."  Am Fam Physician.  2012 Oct 15;86(8):734-40.

Wan MT, Lin JY.  "Current evidence and applications of photodynamic therapy in dermatology."  Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol.  2014 May 21;7:145-63.

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