Scott Nelson

Where Did Red Light Therapy Come From?

The history of red light therapy

Red light therapy (RLT) has become a popular natural health intervention, with everyone from elite pro athletes, Hollywood celebrities, leading skincare professionals, world-class fitness trainers, and natural health leaders using
Joovv devices every day. 

But where did red light therapy come from? And why is it becoming such a widely-used natural, noninvasive treatment modality? In this post, we’ll answer those questions and provide a handy timeline of the history of the emerging field of photomedicine/light therapy. 

An Intro to the History of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy is also called photobiomodulation, low level light therapy, or low-level laser therapy (LLLT). People have been using natural light to address medical concerns for centuries, and modern light therapy devices and techniques have been in use for decades. But red light therapy has really taken off in the last 10-15 years. Why? A combination of 3 major factors:

1. Impressive, peer-reviewed clinical research on natural light treatments has significantly increased over the last 2 decades, with over 1,000 published studies and trials showing a wide range of extremely positive findings for skin health, collagen production, joint pain relief, physical performance, hormone health, hair growth, weight loss, and a lot more. And all with very few side effects or risks. 

This research has expanded the clinical frontiers of light therapy and encouraged many physicians and health practitioners to adopt natural light treatments for their patients. Learn more here about how RLT works by stimulating ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy production in your mitochondria and cells. You can dig deeper into the base of clinical research on light therapy in our Learn Library

2. LED lighting technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the new millennium, making affordable and clinically-effective light therapy devices a possibility for the first time. Expensive laser technology has given way to more affordable LEDs. For example, Joovv’s medical-grade red light therapy devices deliver concentrated wavelengths of light directly to your skin and cells, with no UV rays and very little heat. All in the comfort of your own home! 

3. Consumer interest in natural health has also spiked in the last 10-15 years. More than ever, people are looking for effective, natural treatments that don’t rely solely on prescription drugs, chemicals, and invasive procedures. Consumers have never been more interested in preventive medicine and lifestyle factors. Natural light treatment options fit this growing sensibility by addressing the root causes of health and illness.

This is a timeline of some of the most important developments in light therapy history. Keep reading for details on the major advances in the science and medicine of natural light.

SHOW DETAILS Red light therapy history timeline

The First 2,000 Years of Light Technology (Pre-1800s)

From Ancient Greek philosophers like Euclid and Ptolemy, to Scientific Revolution figures like Sir Isaac Newton, mankind’s brightest minds have been studying the properties of light for centuries. Gas and oil-based lighting dominated until the 1800s, when for the first time, people were able to use light more deliberately, in modern technologies like electricity.

1870s: Thomas Edison and Electricity

American inventor Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, and demonstrated his incandescent light prototype a year later, in 1879. Edison said: "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” By 1925, half of all homes in the US had electric power. [1] The modern era of light technology had begun. 

1903: Niels Ryberg Finsen wins Nobel Prize for Early Light Therapy Treatments

Scandinavian scientist Niels Ryberg Finsen suffered from Niemann-Pick disease, a metabolic disorder that affected his quality of life. Seeking to treat himself, Dr. Finsen sunbathed and investigated the effects of natural light on living organisms. He developed a theory of phototherapy that showed how specific wavelengths of natural light can have beneficial medical effects. Dr. Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1903, "in recognition of his contribution to the treatment of diseases, especially lupus vulgaris, with concentrated light radiation, whereby he has opened a new avenue for medical science." [2] Medical light therapy was born. 

1917: Albert Einstein Develops Modern Laser Principles

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see the health benefits of natural light, but it did take Einstein himself to establish the theoretical foundations of laser technology, in a 1917 paper on the quantum theory of radiation.

1960: The First Laser

After decades of scientific discovery building off Einstein’s formulations, a team led by Theodore H. Maiman operated the first functioning laser in Malibu, California, in 1960. This would lead to numerous clinical and scientific applications (plus a cool toy for James Bond villains). 

1980s: NASA Experiments with Light Therapy in Space

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NASA tested how red light therapy works for plant growth in space with red light stimulation. It worked! Plants responded to red light therapy in the absence of sunlight, and this led researchers and doctors in many fields to start conducting their own experiments with natural light and health. [3]

1990s: LED Technology Ushers in the Modern Age of Light Therapy

LED technology had been around since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when advances started to significantly reduce lighting costs and improve efficiency. Practically, this made personal light therapy a possibility. [4] The efficacy of red and near-infrared light treatments with LEDs has been well-established in clinical studies; artificial blue light has also become more efficient with LEDs, but comes with health risks for eyes and sleep. 

2013: Researchers Demonstrate Cognitive Benefits from Light Therapy

In 2013, researchers conduct the first placebo-controlled study demonstrating cognitive performance benefits in people who received light therapy treatments directed at the brain. The results were eye-opening: red light therapy improved reaction times, memory, and positive emotional states. These findings encouraged optimism in the medical research community about the possibility of a natural and noninvasive treatment that could aid brain cell regeneration and improve prefrontal cortex executive function, without risky drugs or surgeries. [5]

Pre-2016: Red Light Therapy is a Luxury Treatment in Salons and Spas

Red light therapy treatments were available before 2016, but you wouldn’t have known it without going to luxury spas and clinics in Europe and the United States, where it was first offered as a natural skin treatment. The problem was, there wasn’t red light therapy for the public in an affordable or convenient way, so it was only used by a small handful of people who could afford it. 

2016: Joovv Makes the First Affordable, In-Home, Full-Body Light Therapy Devices

Joovv's red light therapy devices

In early 2016, Joovv introduced the first consumer light therapy devices that delivered affordable, full-body, medical-grade treatments in the comfort of your own home. No longer did you have to go to a spa or salon for expensive light therapy to get positive results. This ushered in an era of convenient, personal light therapy options for the public, and led to rapid adoption of light therapy among
elite pro athletes, world-class trainers, skincare pros, and natural health leaders.

2016: Studies Show Red Light Therapy Helps Heal Injuries

South Korean researchers conduct a 15-month study treating 395 sports-related injuries with red light therapy. The results are extremely encouraging, showing significantly shortened recovery times with red light treatments. [6] A few years later, in 2018, the National Association of Sports Medicine endorses red light therapy for treating injuries, pain, and strain. 

2017: Elite Pro Athletes are Joovvin’ for Performance and Recovery

As personal red light therapy becomes more established, some of the biggest names in pro sports start using Joovv devices for performance and recovery. Everyone from NFL stars like Patrick Peterson, to gold medal-winning Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers, to UFC champ Anthony Pettis, and the best golfers on earth, who use Joovv for its anti-inflammatory effects.

2017: Nobel Prize Awarded to Scientists Studying Circadian Rhythm 

Also in 2017, a group of American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery of the molecular mechanisms controlling the body’s circadian rhythm. The scientists, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, identified that circadian rhythms affect all living organisms at a cellular level. The importance of a regulated circadian rhythm can’t be overstated, and the impact of natural light on our sleep cycle is made clear through their work. [7]

2018: Pioneering Elated-2 Trial Shows Potential for Light Therapy as a Depression Treatment 

In 2018, leading mental health researchers published a double-blind, sham-controlled study on the effectiveness of near infrared light therapy on people suffering from major depressive disorder, the Elated-2 Trial. Researchers concluded that transcranial light therapy “demonstrated antidepressant properties with a medium to large effect size in patients with major depressive disorder.” These positive findings have encouraged optimism about wider use of natural light treatments for people with depression. [8] You can read more about red light therapy for seasonal affective disorder here

2019: Red Light Therapy is the Go-To Skin Treatment for Hollywood Celebrities

In recent years, red light therapy (often called LED light therapy for skin treatments) has become a go-to beauty solution for Hollywood celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Emma Stone, and the Kardashians. And top Hollywood estheticians and facialists like Shani Darden use it for their clients, like Jessica Alba. Research on RLT and skin rejuvenation has also shown positive results for anti-aging effects like the reduction of fine lines, improved skin roughness, and reduced stretch marks.

It’s not just celebrities taking advantage of these treatments; research on skin conditions and wound healing has also made RLT popular in dermatology. 

2019: Red Light Therapy Recommended for Supportive Cancer Care

Oral mucositis (OM) is one of the most debilitating side effects of cancer treatment. In 2019, the Mucositis Study Group of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer/International Society for Oral Oncology (MASCC/ISOO) announced their recommendation of light therapy for the prevention of oral mucositis. [9] Hopefully, in the coming years, light therapy treatments can help those suffering from cancer experience less pain and fewer side effects from chemo and radiation.

Joovv interviewed Dr. Praveen Arany, an MASCC/ISOO member, about the guidelines and the future of clinical cancer care with red light therapy. 

2019: Joovv Conducts Independent Hormone Studies with Bristlecone Medical

In 2019, Joovv teamed up for a series of studies with Bristlecone Medical to evaluate how red light therapy treatments and a ketogenic diet affect men and women’s hormone health. We have preliminary results showing very positive gains for both men and women. More studies are in progress, (Joovv’s light therapy devices are not currently cleared by FDA for hormone treatments). Joovv is also in the process of setting up more independent studies with ProofPilot, a company that puts consumers and manufacturers together to further research. Check out this page if you’re interested in seeing what studies are happening and how you can get involved.

Conclusion: The Future of Red Light Therapy is Bright!

Light therapy history goes way back, but only in the last decade has it become an affordable option for everyday consumers. Huge advances in clinical research and light technology have made the widespread use of light therapy treatments possible.

Joovv’s personal, medical-grade light therapy systems has brought this natural health technology to the public over the last 5 years, and to top professionals across athletics, fitness & training, skincare, and natural health. And today, some of the world’s best medical researchers are discovering new and exciting clinical uses for light therapy.

The future of light therapy is bright!  

Sources and References:

[1] The Electric Light System. National Park Service.

[2] The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1903. The Nobel Prize.

[3] LED Lights Used in Plant Growth Experiments for Deep Space Missions. NASA.

[4] History of LEDs - Light Emitting Diodes. History of Lighting. 

[5] Barrett DW, et al. Transcranial infrared laser stimulation produces beneficial cognitive and emotional effects in humans. 2013 Jan.

[6] John Foley, David B Vasily, et al. 830 nm light-emitting diode (led) phototherapy significantly reduced return-to-play in injured university athletes: a pilot study. Laser Therapy. 2016 Mar.

[7] The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017. The Nobel Prize.

[8] Cassano P, Petrie SR, et al. Transcranial Photobiomodulation for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. The ELATED-2 Pilot Trial. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. 2018 Oct.

[9] Zadik Y, Arany PR, et al. Systematic review of photobiomodulation for the management of oral mucositis in cancer patients and clinical practice guidelines. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2019 Oct.

Joovv light therapy products are indicated for use in the relief of muscle and joint pain, including arthritis and muscle spasm pain, and increasing of blood circulation, and relaxation of muscles. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to support the safety or effectiveness of Joovv devices, or diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It's not a substitute for a face-to-face consultation with your healthcare provider, and should not be construed as medical advice.

Our Most Popular Light Therapy Articles

Take a closer look at Joovv and the world of light therapy.

Red Light Therapy and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Emerging research shows potential for light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other forms of depression.

Read More

The Definitive Guide to Choosing a Red Light Therapy Device

Newer to red light therapy? This post explains the key variables, and helps you choose the best device for your health goals.

Read More

Rejuvenated, Younger-Looking Skin with Red Light Therapy

Estheticians and Hollywood stars love red light therapy for natural LED skincare. See the research on collagen, wrinkles, acne, and more. 

Read More

Look young. Feel good. Be healthy. Stay connected.

Join thousands of others on their journey to better health.