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Light Therapy

The power of LED facials.

New York–based artist Duke Riley’s most recent work involved releasing thousands of pigeons into the night sky. With remote-controlled LED lights wrapped around their legs, the soaring birds turned the airspace above Brooklyn into an illuminated Etch A Sketch drawing. For many, LED (light-emitting diode) evokes noble-but-boring energy-efficient light bulbs, not a breathtaking public art installation, but the technology has a life far beyond hardware store shelves.

NASA is currently using LEDs to grow vegetables in space and experimenting with its reparative powers for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The science behind light therapy has also fuelled fervour around the cosmetic benefits of LED facials, a beauty trend gaining momentum thanks in part to some high profile followers. Celebrities including Katy Perry and Jessica Alba have been singing their praises on social media, snapping selfies mid-treatment while wearing what looks like a high tech goalie mask. In fact, the glowing face contraption generating all the buzz wouldn’t have seemed out of place at this year’s Met Gala, themed Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.

During a facial, the LED face mask delivers long wavelengths of light energy into the deeper layers of the skin to target everything from acne and sensitivity to wrinkles and age spots. Each colour of light it emits is said to provide different benefits: blue, for instance, is antibacterial, zapping blemishes to reveal a clearer complexion, while red boosts collagen and elastin production, tightening skin and smoothing fine lines. Red light is also thought to quell inflammation and is one of the reasons Clarins introduced light therapy at its Spa My Blend by Clarins at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto earlier this year. The brand’s signature My Blend Facial Treatment now includes five minutes of light mask time to counter irritation caused by the exfoliating glycolic acid used during the treatment. “It calms down the skin and continues the anti-aging effects,” says spa development director Régine Perron.

For those who want to take matters into their own hands, there is an at-home version too. Manhattan-based facialist Georgia Louise’s VIP clients—including makeup artist Gucci Westman and model Linda Evangelista—have their own Deesse Spectrum Mask, which hails from South Korea, the birthplace of every major skin care trend right now, such as sheet masks and 12-step routines. Louise says that using the Deesse Spectrum Mask for 20 minutes, three to four times a week will yield results, and she sells the gadget on her website for $2,900 U.S. ($3,795 Canadian), a price tag that far surpasses first-wave personal LED tools like the handheld LightStim and Baby Quasar.

During a facial, the LED face mask delivers long wavelengths of light energy into the deeper layers of the skin to target everything from acne and sensitivity to wrinkles and age spots.

The growing popularity of LED therapy as a skin saviour is welcome news to Kate Somerville, who was an early adopter. When she brought it into her clinic, Kate Somerville Skin Health Experts, more than a decade ago, “Nobody was doing it,” recalls the Los Angeles–based facialist who counts Anna Kendrick and Felicity Huffman as clients. “To a lot of my dermatologist friends, I was like, ‘This is the future! You have to get on board with this.’ ” Somerville was introduced to the technology back in 2004 when she stumbled upon a booth at a trade show. The data on anti-aging impressed her, but the results she saw first-hand with her clients who were struggling with severe acne made her a believer. “Before, I would say, ‘I can get you 50 or 70 per cent clear with topicals, but you’re going to fight with this indefinitely,’ ” says Somerville. With LED treatments, “I saw a shift in many of my clients, where I could get them 100 per cent clear and they were staying clear. We’re talking really tough cases where I tried everything—Accutane, everything.”

A handful of medi spas and dermatologist offices across Canada offer different variations on the LED mask. In Vancouver, the White Orchid Rejuvenation Centre’s HydraFacial machine features an LED mode which is used at the end of a procedure to amplify the complexion-enhancing results. On the menu at both Victoria Park in Montreal and Toronto’s Gidon Aesthetics & MediSpa is LumiBel, a free-standing unit with three panels of LED lights that work in tandem with a topical gel. “The application of a gel helps absorb more of the LED light,” explains cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Martie Gidon who recommends four monthly treatments to help with photo-aging, which is the damage caused by sun exposure.

On the subject of photorejuvenation, Dr. Nowell Solish isn’t so sure that LED therapy lives up to the hype, especially when compared to what can be achieved with cosmetic fillers, lasers, and IPL (intense pulsed light) treatments. “People’s expectations have gone up, and I don’t think this gives the same satisfaction,” says the Toronto-based cosmetic dermatologist. According to Solish, there isn’t overwhelming evidence that light treatments can boost collagen dramatically. Rather, he likens the results to those of topical anti-aging products. “They help, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as some of the other things I do.” Dramatic often means invasive procedures and downtime, things that aren’t an issue with light therapy.

If a pain-free path to glowing skin doesn’t make you happy, there is an off-label benefit that might. Red light also helps with serotonin, says Somerville. “You walk out of having this treatment and you feel almost euphoric.”