Photobiomodulation: Should You Choose LED's or Incandescent Lamps?

As photobiomodulation (PBM) becomes more popular, and more information becomes available, it has become the case where a lot of confusion exists as to what the best source of it is for home use.  There are many options now for home use of PBM and, like a good many things, there are pros and cons to each of them.  This article will lay out exactly what those pros and cons are so you can make the choice that best suits your circumstances and needs.

Some of the points to consider are EMF’s, what you are treating, why you are treating it, irradiance level, wavelengths, how often, what space you have and more.

A quick bit of history first.  Believe it or not, the first recorded use of PBM was all the way back in 1400BC in India where mention of it is found in the sacred Hindu text Atharva Veda.  Similarly, in the 18th and 19th century there are a few mentions of using sunlight to treat various illnesses, but they had no idea HOW it worked.  Fast forwarding, it was in 1965 that Endre Mester, using a red laser, accidentally discovered PBM.  He was hoping to use the laser to kill implanted cancer cells in rats but accidentally used a low power laser and found that while it didn’t kill the implanted cancer cells it did speed the healing of the wounds and hair growth around them.  PBM has now been researched for almost 55 years.

The history is important to understand as PBM can be applied in several ways such as LED’s, laser, plasma quartz lamps and incandescent heat lamps.  While some like to debate the efficacy of various methods the science and physics is clear.  A photon is a photon and it doesn’t matter how it’s applied.  Yes, there are going to be a few differences in power, coherence, irradiance, beam angles etc but the ultimate result we are looking for is applying light to the tissues and a photon is a photon regardless of how it’s applied.

Lasers and plasma quartz lamps are expensive which effectively prevents them from being used in most homes. Just look at how much your local beauty salon or physio/chiro will charge you per session.  LED’s and incandescent heat lamps are not, which makes them the ideal candidates for home PBM.  There are some differences and both LED’s and heat lamps have pros and cons that need to be understood.


  • Thousands of clinical studies use LED’s. 
  • Tuned to a single wavelength (+/- 5nm)
  • Easy to measure the irradiance level which you need to properly dose PBM
  • Simple to use and can be used in panels or hand held devices


  • Very few studies on PBM
  • Full spectrum
  • Difficult, but not impossible, to measure irradiance
  • Simple to use but hot and sweaty.

So, LED’s would appear to be the hands down winner at first glance.  This is simply not the case, and we need to investigate the lamps and saunas a little bit closer to fully understand how both applications bring the maximum health benefits we are looking for. 

Let’s look at the bullet points now and put them in context.

Very few studies on PBM.  While this is true, with respect to incandescent heat lamps, there are reasons for this.  The big one is that you have heat associated with the lamps and you can’t get the lamps close enough to some areas to target with high irradiance levels.  This does make it difficult as you don’t want the heat if you are shining it at the brain for example.  So, does this mean that the lamps won’t work?  Not at all. 

The mechanisms of how PBM works are complex and there are many cellular communication systems involved.  Keeping it simple, there are direct and indirect applications of PBM.  They did a study where they shone the light on the brain of a mouse and got the result they were looking for.  They then covered the head with aluminium foil, preventing any direct brain exposure, and only shone the light on the body of the mouse.  Virtually identical results.  Indirect stimulation, aka remote photobiomodulation, is a critical factor and is one of the main ways that the incandescent lamps in a near infrared sauna really helps.  So, while you may not be able to target certain areas with the sauna, when you are looking for the overall PBM benefits, as most people are, it’s a great way to apply it.

Another reason for few studies with the incandescent lamps is that they don’t have ONE wavelength.  They have multiple full spectrum wavelengths, and this makes the scientific method difficult to apply when you have more than one variable (the wavelength).  Researchers much prefer to look at just one variable and this is difficult with the way the heat lamps are built.  A flaw?  Perhaps. It is also possible to argue, as you’ll see next, that this very flaw might be the single best benefit to the lamps.

Full spectrum.  In science we like to isolate variables, so we can try and see what effect a single intervention has on a particular tissue.  This is what LED lights do, and it makes sense, but there are problems with this approach.  The primary argument here is best posed with a question.  How did nature intend for us to get PBM? 

Sunlight gives us all wavelengths, not just a single one.  PBM occurs when we absorb this light and make use of it.  The studies have been done that show there are various wavelengths that appear to be more active than others, specifically 630-670nm and 810-880nm.  This is why we use 660nm and 850nm in our LED’s.  However, when you look at the actual research it clearly states “many wavelengths in the red (600–700 nm) and near-infrared (NIR, 770–1200 nm) spectral regions have shown positive results (1).  PBM is occurring across the full range of red and near infrared light and there are just peaks of increased action.

The TheraBulb lamps that we exclusively use have been researched and tested and produce a full spectrum light with a wavelength emission curve that ranges from about 600nm to over 4000 nm.  There are likely many benefits to full spectrum natural light that we have yet to discover and the NIR sauna provides light as close to nature as you can get.

Irradiance.   You need an irradiance level (also called power density) if you are going to calculate dose.  When you look at the studies you can see that dose will vary depending on the tissue you are addressing.  Skin can be as low as 3J/cm2 while deeper tissues can be 60J/cm2 or more.

Let’s consider what this means with respect to the TIME the treatment is applied.  A high irradiance level of 100mW/cm2 will get the job done quicker than a lower one.  The key here though is that the lower irradiance will still get the job done… will just take longer.  This is a fundamental difference between the LED’s and the incandescent lamps.  LED’s will have an irradiance of 30-100mW/cm2 depending on how far away from the light you are, and incandescent lamps will have an irradiance of about 7-15mW/cm2.   Both will work but the LED’s will be faster.

Another factor to consider is that LED’s are very simple to calculate dose while incandescent lamps are not.  Some will tell you all you need is a light meter to measure irradiance level with the lamps but they are incorrect.   To properly assess irradiance levels of a multiple wavelength device you need to use a third-party lab as the measurements can be complex and misleading.  This is not a deal breaker, but it does mean you should invest in a company that is willing to do this testing and as of this article in (June 2019) TheraBulb is the only company I’m aware of that has done this.

Ease Of Use   Both are simple to use and can be used in any home and any space.   There are two points here that will likely determine which therapy you will use on any given day.  The first is do you want to get sweaty, and the second is are you targeting a specific tissue?

If you are looking for the PBM benefits alone, without wanting to sweat, you will have more trouble getting it from the sauna.  Sweating is part of the sauna experience.  So, on a day where you don’t have the time for a sauna or don’t want to get sweaty the LED lights will be a good option.  Of course, you won’t get all the benefits of the sauna which are impressive in their own “light”.

If you are targeting a specific tissue it can be difficult to use the sauna as well.  If you have a knee or shoulder injury you could use the sauna and calculate the dose you will need BUT the reality is that you will have to spend far more time with the heat lamp as the distance you need to keep it away from the tissue is so great that the irradiance level is lower than the LED.  So, if time is short you may wish to use the LED. 

Some of the LED lights can also be simpler to apply as you just need to place it in front of you or you can even hold smaller handheld devices while watching TV or working on your computer.

There are some other factors to consider as well.

Size of the area you wish to treat.  The larger the area, the more light sources you will need.  So, with this is mind what are you treating?  If it’s just one specific area, such as the knee or face then you might only need one light.  If it’s a larger area, in particular full body, which is recommended for maximum benefits you will need more lights.  The second option instead of more lights, is more time but for most of us we are looking to get the benefits in as short a period of time as possible.

The incandescent bulbs when used in a sauna are a good source of PBM.  This is because you are generally naked and in front of the lamps for 30 minutes per day.  This will get you a dose of at least 12J/cm2 and up to 20 plus.

The LED’s are probably a better choice if time is short and areas you wish to cover are large.  You will need to invest in larger panels though to cover as much area as possible.  This leads to the next factor….cost

How much do you wish to spend?  The cost of a single incandescent lamp is about $25 so for $100 you can purchase 4 lamps and have the sauna effect.  You can see these portable near infrared units at or you can purchase lamps at

LED lights are more expensive.  We have units that start at $150 and cover a surface area of about 30 to 40cm2 at a peak irradiance of 85nm and larger units are available from $799 that you can see at

As you look at the market you will find all sorts of LED units that might meet your needs.  They can be expensive but in general if you get a decent size unit that has wavelengths of 660nm and 850nm and irradiance levels of about 100mW/cm2 you will have a unit that should easily do the trick for you. 

EMF’s  If you are concerned about EMF’s there are some things you need to know.  First of all, the better choice here is the incandescent lamps.  At the recommended user distance they have NIL EMF’s.  The nature of the lamp and the wiring ensures that EMF’s are low.  In contrast the LED units will have a level of EMF’s present.  In general, if you are sensitive, most people can use them and are fine when you use it at a distance of about 15cm away from the body.  At this distance the EMF’s are a lot less than when applied at a cm or two.

So, what should you purchase?

A good solution if you can afford it is both!  Use your sauna as close to daily as you can and supplement this and/or target specific areas with LED lights.  Best of both when you look at it from this perspective.

We have packages at that address this need from as low as $1075.

Alternatively, weigh up the pros and cons of both approaches and select what will satisfy most of your needs.  There is no one size fits all and you simply need to take in all we have written about and make your decision from there.

Should you have further questions don’t hesitate to email us at email/info)(




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