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What Is Acne Phototherapy?

A boy with acne.
Blue light therapy can help clear up acne.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2014
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Acne is a very common problem among adolescents and adults, though most people are able to manage outbreaks with simple home remedies and topical medications. Some people, however, have painful, widespread acne that persists despite regular treatment efforts. Acne phototherapy is a clinical procedure that helps many patients overcome persistent acne in a matter of weeks. Phototherapy involves exposing affected skin to pulses of visible blue light. The light induces a chemical reaction that stops inflammation and kills bacteria on the skin, thereby treating existing blemishes and preventing new ones from forming.

Sebaceous glands just underneath the skin are populated by millions of the bacteria Propionobacterium acnes (P. acnes). When skin pores are clogged with dirt, oils cannot escape the glands and bacteria thrive. Acne phototherapy takes advantage of a natural process of bacterial metabolism to destroy P. acnes in the sebaceous glands. The bacteria secrete a chemical called porphyrin that, when exposed to light, breaks down and releases peroxide. Peroxide kills existing bacteria and helps to exfoliate clogged pores, helping to relieve inflammation and reduce the chances of a new outbreak.

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Acne phototherapy usually takes place inside a dermatologist's office or skin care clinic. A patient is allowed to sit in a comfortable chair and given tinted eyeglasses. A small machine emits low frequency pulses of blue or violet light several times a second for about 15 minutes. Most doctors suggest that patients undergo two 15 minute sessions a week for about four weeks, though special arrangements may be made based on the severity of a person's acne and his or her personal schedule. The procedure is entirely painless and many people see positive results in as few as three or four treatments.

Ongoing clinical studies suggest that acne phototherapy may be even more effective when a topical cream called aminolevulinic acid is applied before a session. Aminolevulinic acid is highly sensitive to light, and it can increase the effects of blue light on porphyrins. Since acid can cause irritation to the skin, treatments are usually scheduled every two weeks.

Phototherapy is becoming a very common treatment option in dermatologist offices worldwide. In most cases, doctors suggest either over-the-counter or prescription medications along with consistent cleaning as a first treatment attempt. They may consider chemical peels or acne phototherapy to combat the problem when outbreaks do not get better after a few months. Acne phototherapy is preferred over peels by a growing majority of doctors because it is comparatively low-risk and has a high success rate.

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