Seeing Infrared

Beauty

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Picture this: It’s one of those perfect, sun-filled days in late July that feel like 36 hours instead of 24. Low humidity and high temperatures. Your skin resembles a solar panel, soaking in energy and getting warmer to the touch. That heat you’re feeling? It’s actually infrared energy, which our bodies perceive as warmth. Though infrared is emitted everywhere, including the sun’s rays and our own bodies, it has only recently become something of a wellness buzzword. The craze started with infrared saunas, which celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow touted for their muscle-soothing benefits. Then it started spreading to workout studios, like Fierce Grace’s locations in New York and Cosmo Contour & Spa in Los Angeles and Miami, which use infrared panels to improve circulation during classes. Now it’s made its way to beauty tech, cropping up in at-home devices to boost collagen and aid hair growth.

Infrared, often confused with LED light, is a largely unexplored frontier in the beauty landscape. Since infrared wavelengths are a bit longer than those on the visible light spectrum, they’re able to sink in to skin more deeply than the light therapy (like red light) in LED products—potentially as far as subcutaneous tissue, the skin’s deepest layer. Azadeh Shirazi, MD, a dermatologist in California, says this means infrared “can have a more profound effect on skin.”

A 2006 study published in Yonsei Medical Journal showed that infrared may promote the skin’s healing process by stimulating fibroblasts, a type of cell that helps facilitate collagen formation. The study found that by boosting fibroblast activity, infrared raised collagen and elastin production between 25 and 50 percent, on average, over a six-month period.

The technology may hold potential for hair as well. A 2021 review of studies in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery indicated that red through near-infrared laser light may facilitate hair growth—a benefit that, as New York dermatologist Michelle Henry, MD, explains, could stem from its anti-inflammatory effects. “Inflammation plays a huge role in a lot of hair-loss conditions,” she says. “We think [it] may work by increasing the supply of energy to the hair follicles,” says Zoë Passam, a senior consultant trichologist at Philip Kingsley. In turn, Passam explains, this might increase the density or the thickness of hair. The 2021 review of studies also says red through near-infrared may work by reining in reactive chemicals that can damage cells or by improving cellular metabolism.

There are many at-home devices available to mix infrared into your routine. High-tech hair dryers, such as the Luxx X1 ($319; luxxstore.com), use the light wave as a heat source in lieu of traditional methods. HigherDose makes sauna blankets and a new hair growth hat. Infrared is also combined with LED light in some light therapy masks, like Riki Loves Riki Baby Face. Always follow the manufacturer’s suggested usage.

Powerful rays aren’t always a good thing. Since infrared translates as heat, experts warn that too much could be damaging. Though the light wave isn’t carcinogenic, like UVA and UVB, Shirazi says that some studies show infrared in large amounts or high intensities may damage collagen and elastin, and could even trigger melasma. “The poison is in the dose,” Henry says.

Skincare LED Mask

Riki Loves Riki Skincare LED Mask

Red Light Hat

HigherDOSE Red Light Hat

Infrared Sauna Blanket

HigherDOSE Infrared Sauna Blanket

A version of this story appears in the June/July 2024 issue of ELLE.

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