What is phototherapy?

Light therapy—or phototherapy—consists of exposure to daylight or to specific wavelengths of light using polarized light, lasers, light-emitting diodes, fluorescent lamps, or very bright, full-spectrum light. The light is administered for a prescribed amount of time and, in some cases, at a specific time of day.

Many ancient cultures practiced various forms of light therapy, including people of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Rome. The Inca, Assyrian, and early German settlers also worshipped the sun as a health bringing deity. Indian medical literature dating to 1500 BCE describes a treatment combining herbs with natural sunlight to treat non-pigmented skin areas. Buddhist literature from about 200 CE and 10th-century Chinese documents make similar references.

The Faroese physician Niels Finsen is believed to be the father of modern phototherapy. He developed the first artificial light source for this purpose. Finsen used short wavelength light to treat lupus vulgaris, a skin infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. He thought that the beneficial effect was due to ultraviolet light killing the bacteria, but recent studies showed that his lens and filter system did not allow such short wavelengths to pass through, leading instead to the conclusion that light of approximately 400 nanometers generated reactive oxygen that would kill the bacteria. Finsen also used red light to treat smallpox lesions. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1903.

Since then a large array of treatments using controlled light have been developed. Though the popular consumer understanding of “light therapy” is associated with treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), circadian rhythm disorders and skin conditions like psoriasis, other applications include the use of low level laser, red light, near-infrared and ultraviolet lights for pain management, hair growth, skin treatments, and accelerated wound healing. (Wikipedia reference)

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