Running a red light

Freckles, crow's feet, and wrinkles, oh my. Maybe it's just average aging, or it could be all that fun in the sun sans SPF. But regardless of why your skin looks less than its best, you've made your bed. Now lie in it.

As it turns out, there's a place where lying down might actually give your complexion a healthy beauty boost.

Beacon Hill tanning salon bosTAN (125 Charles Street, Boston, 617.391.0494) recently installed Boston's first full-body LED treatment bed. It looks like a regular tanning bed, but instead of UV bulbs that give an unhealthy glow, it's equipped with red-light LEDs that promise younger-looking skin.

The experience is similar to tanning. Grab some goggles and lie in the bed, as bare or as bathing-suit-clad as you please. You'll feel warm and relaxed; then in 15 minutes, your time is up. But instead of leaving with a surface tan (read: deep damage), you may be on your way to better skin.

It's claimed that red light helps address a problem we all face: the decline in skin's natural functions that begins around the time we turn 25. Cells become unable to replenish themselves properly, and collagen and elastin - the glues that hold skin cells together - begin to break down. The result? Wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, and dry patches.

Originally studied by NASA as a means of increasing plant growth, red light has been shown to gently stimulate skin cells to grow 150-200 percent faster than unexposed cells. The purported benefits read like a "yes please" anti-aging check list - minimizing of fine lines, improved skin tone, increased circulation, blemish healing, and sun-damage repair.

 "Red-light therapy has been vigorously studied in clinical trials and proven to be effective for skin rejuvenation," says Jacquelyn DiDiego, bosTAN's holistic-health counselor. "It builds better skin on the cellular level, stimulating collagen production and flushing the skin with freshly oxygenated blood." Skeptical at first, DiDiego has been using the bed for a few months; she says she's experienced noticeable softening of her crow's feet and deep forehead wrinkles.

"I consulted a cosmetic surgeon about my options. There really wasn't anything he could do [about my wrinkles]," she explains. "Surgery was out because of the downtime. So red-light therapy was perfect because it's inexpensive with no downtime. I see it as going to the gym for my skin."

Settling nicely between pricy laser treatments and less-expensive alternatives (say, anti-aging creams that claim the world but don't deliver), bosTAN's red-light therapy costs $21.99 per session. For budget-minded folks, the salon offers packages, like the six-month unlimited-usage option for $74.99 per month. The salon also carries all-natural products that work in conjunction with the LEDs. "Topical treatments will become more effective because the red-light wave allows them to travel deeper into the layers of the skin," says DiDiego.

But it's not an overnight fix. To see a real difference, bosTAN owner Tim Panagopoulos recommends two to three treatments per week for at least four months.

Of course, some believe you can wait as long as you want and you still won't see huge results. "Be aware that the benefits of treatment, if any, will be limited," says Dr. Mathew M. Avram, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Laser & Cosmetic Center, who studied the effects of LED lighting in 2005 at UCLA and found almost no benefits to patients.

"Low-level light therapy, including red light, has shown health benefits over a few decades of research," he says, citing improvements in wound healing, scalp hair regrowth, and sun-damage recovery. "It doesn't, however, approach the benefits of laser treatment or other cosmetic procedures such as Botox and soft-tissue fillers."

But the prospect of avoiding those other treatments is precisely why 27-year-old Boston resident Jenni McNeill is excited about red light's promise. "I've seen adverse reactions to plastic surgery and Botox and don't want to go that route or spend that kind of money," she says. "This is perfect for the price and with no recovery." McNeill, who has had two visits so far, hopes the bed will put her inherited dark circles and the damage from her sun-worshipping days to rest.

And if it does get rid of fine lines, she won't be the only one stripping down and hanging out in Boston's new red-light district.

Cheryl Fenton is a freelance writer who also blogs at EasyPeasyBlog.com.