If you’d like to let a little more sunshine in, there may be a lamp for you. Light therapy lamps and sunrise lamps both offer sunshine-style light with two very different purposes.
Light therapy lamps are pretty trendy right now. In fact, the light therapy market size was valued at more than $997 million last year and is expected to grow to over $1.5 billion by 2032.
How light therapy lamps work
Here's how they work: You sit in front of a light box that is designed with a certain level of brightness for a certain amount of time. During periods of time with less sunlight or in regions with less natural light, a light therapy session is said to help realign someone’s circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour internal clock. It controls when you feel sleepy or alert and is maintained by zeitgebers or cues, including exposure to light. If you don’t have access to natural sunlight, artificial light can help essentially trick your brain into feeling awake and tired at the appropriate times of day.
It’s important not to confuse a light therapy lamp with a sunrise lamp. Both light therapy lamps and sunrise lamps can help a user’s circadian rhythm since they depend on lighting cues from our environment, says Sleep.com Sleep Advisor and behavioral sleep medicine specialist Jade Wu. But light therapy lamps are designed to provide a mood boost, which is why they’re also called SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamps. There’s a lot of research that supports that these devices — which mimic natural sunlight — can help with symptoms of seasonal depression, particularly when someone spends around 20 minutes in front of the light box at 10,000 lux, which is about 100 times the brightness of typical office lighting.
Sunrise lamps, on the other hand, aren’t designed as a treatment for a mood disorder but instead mimic gradual sunrises and sunsets to support more gentle wake-up calls and wind downs.
“Not all therapy lamps are equal, and some of them may not be bright enough or have broad spectrum light,” Wu says, adding that light therapy can also be risky for some people, like those with bipolar disorder or a family history of it.
Choosing the right lamp for you
If you’re looking for a light therapy lamp to treat seasonal affective disorder, choose one that has the appropriate brightness level, and make sure to consult your doctor before trying.
On the sunrise-lamp front, a lot of cool ones have recently come onto the market. Brands like Hatch, Philips, and Loftie are just a few who have gotten into the space with more modern-looking device options.
In the mornings, sunrise lamps can get gradually brighter, cueing your circadian clock to know that it’s time to get up, which is helpful in regulating your sleep-wake rhythms, Wu explains.
For those who enjoy waking up to sunlight but don’t have access to it — whether your actual wake-up time is before the sun rises, you have blackout curtains to block light, or you don’t have an eastern-facing window in your bedroom — a sunrise lamp is a great way to wake up to “natural” light.
Wu says that about 10% of light in the environment passes through our closed eyelids. That explains why you don’t need a blaring alarm to cue your body into wake-up mode. Your brain can actually register a brightening room. So, sunrise lamps that mimic natural light can be especially helpful for people who have trouble getting up in the morning.
“A light that brightens the room in the morning as they wake up can help them wake up more easily and feel more energized,” she says.
“On the bedtime end, I’m not sure there’s really any ‘magic’ in these lamps other than a potentially pleasant user experience,” Wu says. “The real ‘magic’ is in having a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine, and if having a soothing bedside light makes this routine more enjoyable or helps remind you to begin your bedtime routine, then it could help regularize your sleep schedule.”
Both SAD lamps and sunrise lamps can help reset your circadian rhythm so that you feel energized in the morning and sleepy at bedtime. The key difference is that while sunrise lamps are a pleasing way to wake up and wind down, they aren’t all designed to treat seasonal depression like a light therapy lamp.