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Hair loss in women can occur for various reasons, from sensitivity to androgen hormones (a form of hair loss referred to as female pattern hair loss) to severe stress, autoimmune disorders and even overly tight hairstyles.
If you’ve noticed your hair thinning, you may have spent time looking into options for preventing further hair loss and stimulating hair growth.
One remedy that’s attracted lots of headlines recently is red light therapy for hair loss. This non-medication treatment involves exposing your scalp and hair follicles to red light to increase your hair count and promote thicker, healthier hair.
Light therapy definitely shows some degree of promise when it comes to promoting healthy hair follicles, and there’s real science to support some of its benefits.
However, it’s not yet clear if the red light devices you might have seen on Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere are effective for treating female hair loss.
Ahead, we’ll explain what red light therapy for hair loss is, as well as how the low-level laser technology behind these light therapy devices works.
We’ll also go over a few more evidence-based options for treating hair loss, such as medications backed up by clinical trials and approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
Red light therapy is a term used to refer to low-level light therapy (LLLT) or laser therapy for hair. It involves exposing your scalp to bright light, typically from red and infrared laser light.
LLLT is usually performed using a helmet, hat, comb or another device that directly exposes the scalp to laser light. It works through a process called photobiomodulation, which might stimulate tissue regeneration and repair at the cellular level.
You can find red light low-level laser therapy devices online, usually marketed as treatments for androgenetic alopecia or female pattern baldness. These devices often vary in price and can range from $100 to $200 to several thousand dollars.
Medical devices are advertised all over social media, often with questionable claims about their effectiveness. If you’ve ever seen a comb, helmet or other hair regrowth gadget that appears to work by emitting red light, you may have questions about whether or not it actually works.
Right now, when it comes to light therapy as a medical treatment for hair loss, the answer is — at least for the most part — that it depends.
Several forms of hair loss can affect women. One of the most common is pattern hair loss, or androgenic alopecia, a type of hair loss that occurs when your hair follicles slowly miniaturize and stop producing new hairs due to exposure to androgen hormones.
In men, this form of hair loss causes the classic receding hairline and horseshoe-like pattern of hair loss that many guys first notice in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
In women, it can cause a different pattern of hair loss, with diffuse thinning around your part line being a common symptom.
Several studies have looked into the effectiveness of light therapy treatment for this type of hair loss, with studies involving both men and women who display patterns of hair loss.
In one study published in the journal Medicine in 2020, researchers looked at the effects of light treatment on men and women with hair loss due to androgenic alopecia. Sixty people with hair thinning were divided into two groups, with one group using a 655-nanometer (nm) red light device and the other a sham (placebo) device.
After 16 weeks of treatment, the participants who used the 655-nm red light treatment displayed an increase in hair density of 41.9 hairs per square centimeter, compared to just 0.72 hairs per square centimeter in the control group.
In other words, the 650-nm light device was significantly more effective at producing an increase in hair growth than the sham treatment.
Other research has produced similar findings, although experts have noted that the quality of the scientific evidence for light therapy for hair growth is mixed.
For example, a scientific review published in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery in 2021 noted that numerous studies have shown that light therapy “stimulated hair growth in both men and women” and that randomized trials produced statistically significant results.
Put simply, studies that compared light therapy with no treatment or a sham treatment showed a real increase in hair growth, suggesting that the technology does work.
The experts noted that LLLT represents a “non-invasive, safe, and potentially effective treatment option” for people with hair loss due to androgenic alopecia, especially those who may not respond to other forms of therapy for hair growth.
However, they also noted that the overall quality of evidence for laser therapy is still low overall and that more controlled, large-scale studies are needed to understand how effective it could be as a treatment for improving human hair growth.
In other words, the research is promising, and there are real signs that red light therapy devices do work. However, we don’t yet have the highest-quality evidence, nor do we know exactly how these devices compare to existing treatments for hair loss.
This can be a big deal seeing as many laser devices cost several hundred dollars. While they might work, there’s no guarantee they’ll stop your hair loss or produce hair growth comparable to what you might be able to achieve with medication.
Currently, the most widely used option for the treatment of hair loss in women is the medication minoxidil.
Available over the counter, minoxidil is a topical liquid, foam or spray you can apply directly to the areas of your scalp affected by hair loss. Experts believe it promotes growth by moving your hair follicles into an active growth state.
It may also stimulate blood flow to your scalp, providing your hair follicles with a stronger supply of nutrients for healthy growth.
Clinical studies show real improvements from minoxidil. In one study, women with hair loss who used 5% topical minoxidil for 48 weeks displayed a significant increase in hair count, all without any evidence of systemic side effects.
In addition to minoxidil, other medications are used to treat hair loss and promote hair growth in women with hair loss. These treatments are often used “off-label,” including:
Spironolactone. This medication works by reducing the effects of androgen hormones that can damage human scalp hair follicles. It’s used off-label as a hair loss treatment for women who’ve yet to go through menopause.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe spironolactone if you have hormonal hair loss that doesn’t improve with minoxidil.
Topical finasteride. This medication works by blocking DHT (dihydrotestosterone), the hormone that harms your hair follicles and causes pattern hair loss. It’s primarily used by men but might be prescribed off-label to slow the rate of hair loss and promote growth in women.
Finasteride isn’t safe for use before menopause and shouldn’t be used if you plan to become pregnant or breastfeed. Read more in our Finasteride for women safety guide. We offer a topical finasteride and minoxidil hair growth spray for postmenopausal women affected by female pattern hair loss.
In addition to medication, hair loss can be treated through surgery. If you have severe hair loss, a procedure called hair transplant surgery can add volume to your hair by moving follicles from the back and sides of your scalp to the thinning area around your part line.
Our full guide to hair transplants for women goes into more detail about this type of procedure, from its potential benefits to its costs, risks and more.
Red light therapy for hair loss, or low-level light therapy, shows serious promise as an option for slowing down hair loss and producing improvements in hair thickness.
However, while the studies we currently have are promising, we don’t yet know exactly how well red light laser therapy compares to existing treatments for hair loss in women. There’s also huge variation when it comes to the quality of red light devices, many of which are marketed online.
It seems best to put red light therapy for hair loss in the “maybe” category right now. It’s supported by actual science and might help to bring back lost hairs. Having said that, there aren’t any real standards for red light devices, meaning what you see on Instagram might not match reality.
If you’re starting to notice hair thinning, extra shedding or just changes in your hair that concern you, the best thing to do is to talk to a healthcare provider.
You can do this by scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider or taking part in a hair loss consultation online using our telehealth platform. If appropriate, you may receive a prescription for medication to help you maintain your hair and promote growth.
Interested in learning more before you get started? Our guide to the best treatments for female hair loss goes into greater detail about your treatment options, including treatments for specific types of hair loss in women to lifestyle changes and healthy habits to explore.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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