7 Common Light Therapy Mistakes and Misuses

If you're new to therapy lamps or find yourself saying "light therapy does not work" then this article is for you.

In this article, we highlight the seven most common light therapy mistakes made by users. These mistakes, more often than not, reduce this treatments effectiveness.

If you're trying to learn how to properly use your lamp, keep reading.


A special thank you to these contributing mental health professionals:

Ellie Borden, BA, RP, PCC

Ellie Borden

Heather Wilson LCSW, LCADC, CCTP

Heather Wilson

Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho  LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP

Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho

Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho  LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP

Ryan Sheridan
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, MSN, PMHNP, BC

Related ARticles

  • The Ultimate Guide to Bright Light Therapy
  • 13 Benefits of Light Therapy
  • Buyer's Guide: Selecting the Right Light Therapy Lamp
  • How to Make the Most of Light Therapy
  • Common Light Therapy Mistakes and Misuses

Bright light therapy can be highly effective...when used properly.

If you struggle with low energy levels, the winter blues, or sleep problems, then chances are you've been recommended to get a light therapy lamp.

These science-backed lamps produce enough light to mimic the benefits of sunlight exposure, which is key to maintaining health and wellness.

Like most, it's natural to be skeptical of light therapy since it sounds too good to be true. While it may not help all conditions, it can serve as a critical piece to improving one's health and wellness.

When I was first introduced to light therapy, it didn't work.

However, I later realized that I was using my therapy like a standard lamp. Unsurprisingly, this produced no results.

Therapy lamps have a tiny learning curve when it comes to proper use, but once used correctly you can recognize the benefits almost immediately.

To ensure you don't run into the same mistakes I did, I've compiled common light therapy lamp mistakes and misuses so you can get the most out of your bright light therapy lamp.

What Studies Say

When comparing light therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-SAD) for seasonal depression:

"CBT-SAD and light therapy are comparably effective for SAD during an acute episode, and both may be considered as treatment options."

- 2015 Study of 117 adults with SAD

If you've tried light therapy and it didn't work, keep reading. These common mistakes can hinder effectiveness.

The ideal sitting distance for light therapy treatment is 16

1. Not Sitting Close Enough to Your Therapy Lamp

What makes light therapy an effective form of treatment is the strength of the light.

Recommended light therapy lamps are 10,000 LUX, which is the needed light intensity for an effective treatment. The ideal sitting distance is 16" to 24" but will vary based on the size and strength of the lamp.

Most people make the mistake of sitting too far away from their light therapy box. Sitting further away reduces the strength of the light that gets to your eyes.

If sitting close to the lamp is uncomfortable for you, try sitting at a comfortable distance for more extended periods. This additional time will make up for the reduced LUX reaching your eyes.

  • The strength (10,000 LUX) is what makes light therapy effective
  • The ideal sitting distance is 16" to 24"
  • Sitting too far reduces the strength and effectiveness
  • If you can't sit that close, increase your treatment time
Having your therapy lamp pointed to far up or down does not allow the light to reach your eyes.

2. Wrong Angle: Not Letting the Light Hit Your Eyes

In many product photos and photos of people using their therapy lamp, you'll see them sitting away from their lamp at an angle.

Don't do this.

For treatment to be most effective, you need to be sitting in front of your lamp with the light positioned over your eye-level at an angle. This angle lets the light shine directly in your eyes' cornea.

Ryan Sheridan, a psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner, explains further: "When light hits the cornea it is then refracted back through the lens into the retina and ultimately through the optic nerve to the brain for processing."

When light hits your eyes in the morning, it signals to the brain to stop producing sleep hormones (melatonin) and start producing wakefulness hormones (serotonin). If your lamp does not shine into your eyes' cornea, it can mimic the effect of sunlight for those essential hormones. 

  • Many lamp product images show incorrect usage
  • To be effective, the light needs to shine directly into your eyes
  • Light positioned over your eye-level at an angle is most effective
Use light therapy every morning for 20-30 minutes

3. Timing: Not Incorporating the Light Enough into Your Daily Routine

It is not uncommon for therapy lamps to take a few treatment sessions to see results; consistency is key.

"Sometimes people quit light therapy too soon. Some people will continue to feel sad or lethargic despite using their light box therapy as prescribed, so they believe it's not working. However, it's important to remind yourself that this isn't necessarily mean it's ineffective. It takes time for the effects of bright light therapy to become fully apparent." - Heather Wilson LCSW, LCADC, CCTP

To feel the benefits, you need to continuously use it (we recommend 20 to 30 minutes each day within one hour of waking up). It's always a great practice to incorporate your therapy lamp treatment sessions into your daily routine (such as while you're getting ready for work, eating breakfast, at your desk, etc.).

Another aspect of timing is the time of year you start treatment.

Many make the mistake of starting treatment when their symptoms are at their worst. To prevent worsening symptoms, we recommend starting treatments in the early fall months, when days shorten. Doing so allows your body to maintain its serotonin and melatonin levels.

  • Consistancy is key with light therapy, be sure to use it everyday to see results
  • The recommended time is 20-30 minutes
  • Start each session in the morning, after waking to mimic the sun rising
  • Try to start treatments early in the fall when days become shorter
  • Incorporate it into your daily morning routine

4. Not changing the light therapy bulb

While light therapy lamps use high-intensity bulbs to emit 10,000 LUX, they share similar characteristics with regular light bulbs.

One being is their light intensity becomes weaker with use.

As you continue to use your therapy lamp, the bulb will become weaker, which means you won't get the same level of treatment.

It's always best practice to change your light therapy bulb after two years regardless if it's burnt out or not. This ensures that you receive the needed 10,000 LUX for an effective treatment.

While many therapy lamps have transitioned to LED technology, LEDs can still lose brightness over time. However, LEDs last much longer than conventional bulbs, often lasting up to 25,000 hours of use!

It's best to keep an eye on your lamp's brightness. If you notice it's starting to dim, it may be time to replace the bulb or lamp.  

  • Over time, the lights lose their LUX
  • This means they lose their intensity and their ability to mimic sunlight weakens
  • Most lamps use LED bulbs, which can last up to 25,000 hours of use
  • Keep an eye on your lamp's intensity. It it seems dim, it may be time to replace it.
Try implementing other treament methods with light therapy such as yoga, mindfulness, exercise, outdoor activities, and more.

5. Not Using Other Treatment Methods

Like most treatment methods, light therapy works best when accompanied by other health and wellness practices.

Failure to implement other lifestyle changes (such as eating well and getting a good night's sleep) often leads to ineffective light therapy treatments.

Try implementing other treatment methods such as yoga, meditation, exercise, and outdoor activities.

  • Light therapy is not a stand-alone treatment
  • It's important to incorporate other treatment methods into your regimine
  • Other complimentary methods include yoga, meditation, exercise, and outdoor activities

6. Not Keeping Track of Side Effects

While light therapy is relatively safe, it's not without potential side effects. It's important to keep track of any side effects that may occur. This is especially important if you have any existing conditions.

When asked about side effects, registered psychotherapist Ellie Borden points to a 2022 study which reports these common side effects:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Tired eyes
  • And hypomania in those with bipolar disorder

"These are certainly something to pay attention to. You don’t want to undergo a treatment that makes you feel worse instead of better," says Borden.

A great way of keeping track of side effects (and your progress) is by writing down how you feel before and after treatment. This can give you an idea if light therapy is working or if you need to make any adjustments. We've created a free-to-use treatment tracker to help. You can download it in excel or PDF format.

  • Keep track of any side effects you may feel after treatments
  • Don't continue treatment if adverse side effects occur
  • Be sure to track your before and after progress to adjust treatment settings

7. Using a Lamp That's Too Strong

One of the major things we always recommend when choosing a therapy lamp is to select a light that delivers 10,000 LUX. This is important to trigger serotonin and melatonin production. However, some users may not benefit from lamps classified as "clinical-grade." They may require wellness-grade lamps that deliver 10,000 LUX but are smaller and pack less of a punch.

If this is the case, licensed social worker Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho recommends "if you are sensitive to light, start with a lower-strength lamp and work your way up as you become adjusted. If the light feels too bright or harsh on your eyes, consider using a diffuser to soften the beam of light."

If you've purchased a medical-grade lamp, try using it on a lower setting, further away from your eyes, and for shorter periods.

  • Be wary if you are sensitive to light.
  • If you are, start light therapy at a lower strength and for shorter periods.
  • If you have a medical-grade lamp, set it to a lower intensity level, place it further from your eyes, and use it for shoter periods.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Use a SAD Light Too Much?

Bright light therapy is generally a safe treatment, but it's important to be mindful of the amount you use. Overuse can lead to insomnia, headaches, and hypomania. This therapy works by regulating your sleep-wake cycle, so overuse can actually disrupt that cycle instead.

Can You Use a SAD Lamp All Day?

It's common for light therapy users to use their lamps for extended periods. However, it's important to be aware of potential side effects that may occur from overuse. To avoid adverse side effects, it's recommended to reduce the lamp's intensity and point it away from your eyes after treatment sessions. Many people use light therapy lamps as desk lamps throughout the day.

Light therapy lamps are a great choice to boost the amount of sunlight you receive. Their ease of use makes them a simple solution to boosting energy, improving sleep, and increasing one's wellness. Like most treatments, they work only if used correctly. To get the most out of your therapy lamp, always remember to sit close, have it at the right angle, use it consistently with ample treatment times, incorporate other treatment methods, and keep track of any side effects. 

About the Author

Brandon Landgraf is the Digital Marketing Manager for Carex Health Brands. He finds passion and fulfillment in creating content that enhances, improves, and enlivens others' quality of life. All of his written work is formulated to not only offer essential advice and tips but back it with proven studies and experts. His mission is to connect with readers and provide steps to make their lives better.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

About Carex Health Brands

Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.

1 comment

  • Loren Piccione MalfitanoDec 01, 2020

    I have the Classic Plus that I purchased maybe 2015. The switch for off is in the middle. Do I switch it up or down for therapy?

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