It’s no great secret that the Australian sun is dangerous, thanks in part to our proximity to the hole in the earth’s ozone layer. National advertising campaigns are devoted to its fatal side-effects, as parents work to instil early on in their children personal suncare protection practices.
Our sun-fearing upbringing makes the beauty industry’s current embrace of light all the more jarring. We’re supposed to shield ourselves from naturally occurring light yet add on an LED light treatment post-facial? In short, yes. Sunlight and LED (light emitting diode) have completely different effects on the skin.
LED is no fleeting trend. Humans have been reaping the benefits of light therapy for years. In the 1800s, a Danish physician named Dr Niels Ryberg Finsen turned his professional focus to the powers of light, specifically its effect on living organisms. He developed the first form of light therapy in 1896 as a way to treat a type of tuberculosis and was later awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology. Einstein too applied his mind to the concept, theorising the foundational properties of the laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) in 1917. His theory wasn’t tested in earnest until 1960, when physicist and engineer Theodore H. Maiman demonstrated the world’s first functioning laser — a handheld device emitting light at a constant wavelength, allowing it to be focused into a tight beam.
NASA started experimenting with LED in the 1980s, exploring its potential to promote plant growth in space. It found red light to be highly effective for boosting energy production in plant cells, with the added bonus of accelerating skin repair in humans. Technological advancements in the ’90s soon allowed LED bulbs to be produced more efficiently (and cost-effectively), making it a popular noninvasive beauty treatment for the masses. One that shows no signs of slowing down.
Melbourne-based dermatologist and the founder of ODE Dermatology, Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, believes we need more light in our lives. “Our skin is really built to absorb light,” she says. Gunatheesan explains that our skin has different chromophores — the part of molecules responsible for their colour — that each absorb light of a different wavelength. When we refer to light from the sun (the kind that, when overdone, has us wincing in pain and racing for the aloe vera), we’re referring to UVA and UVB wavelengths.
“You’re not meant to have too much UVA and UVB exposure, because that will give you skin cancer, and UVA damages your dermis and ages you,” she says. LED lights, on the other hand, don’t emit significant levels of UV, which means they’re safe for cosmetic use, including aiding the healing of scars and burns.
LED lights come in a range of colours, each with its own associated skin repairing benefits. Red (“Probably one of my favourite lights,” says Gunatheesan) is best for rejuvenation, working to stimulate collagen production, prompt cellular reparation and increase circulation for a more vibrant, youthful-looking complexion. Green is said to have a calming effect on the skin, helping to lighten the appearance of hyperpigmentation spots and reveal a brighter complexion, while blue has antibacterial properties that can treat and prevent acne as well as purify the skin, stabilise oil glands and soothe inflammation. Infrared, a colourless light, is the all-rounder — particularly healing for injuries, eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis.
Leelah Linke, the co-founder of Melbourne skin wellness centre St. Skin, says the popularity of light and laser skincare treatments is rising. “We have noticed clients are more interested in looking after the health of their skin and seeking treatments to restore their skin barrier, rather than just wanting to strip it with peels, microdermabrasion and needling,” she says. At-home LED products are also becoming more widespread. As lockdowns continue to disrupt our regular way of life, coupled with cost-effective improvements to LED technology, more and more consumers are seeking out DIY options.
The head of brand for UK-based beauty tech retailer CurrentBody, Emily Buckwell, says the global situation has led to “significant growth” in the popularity of LED light in the past 18 months. “[Not only] while clinics were closed but once reopened, reports were that customers preferred non-contact options. LED allows for just this,” Buckwell says.
CurrentBody’s latest Australian launch caters directly to this market. Flex MD (created by LED phototherapy brand Dermalux) is described as the “world’s most powerful home-use LED device”. Retailing for $3,899, it boasts medical-grade light for clinic-level technology at home. “Unlike most LED devices, its use isn’t just limited to one part of the body,” says Buckwell. “The Flex MD offers seven different 30-minute treatment modes to treat a variety of skin and body issues.”
The device takes advantage of another development in light therapy. Full-body LED light immersion is more popular than ever, a trend Neil O’Sullivan (alongside his wife and business partner, Su Tuttle) has embraced. “We came across infrared as a preventative form of healthcare,” he explains. “It was relatively unknown in Australia at the time and was better known in the US, where we took some early inspiration.”
Encouraged by their findings, O’Sullivan and Tuttle wanted to create a space where Australians could experience the practice’s many benefits. They opened Nimbus Co, an infrared sauna studio concept. By harnessing the power of infrared light, Nimbus Co clients experience a dry radiant heat, which is absorbed by the surface of the skin. This is different to traditional saunas, which heat the body through conduction and convection. “Regular visits to an infrared sauna work just like any other preventative practice or routine,” says O’Sullivan. “You reap the short- and long-term benefits by attending these practices regularly.”
What began as Australia’s first exclusive infrared sauna studio in 2016 has grown into its own empire of light. Three Nimbus Co studios, in Bondi, Byron Bay and Melbourne (a Neutral Bay, Sydney, outpost will open later this year), include a menu of services to complement the sauna experience, including massage and acupuncture, as well as a fastidiously curated retail offering of products from likeminded health and wellness brands.
As for why the concept has taken off so rapidly? “People are far more conscious than they ever were before. I suppose it’s one of the pros of being so connected,” muses O’Sullivan. In other words, perhaps we’re all just starting to see the light. “It’s made people more aware of what they read, what they eat, what brands they want to consume. And, ultimately, how they want to treat themselves and their bodies.”