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Best SAD light therapy lamps for 2020

Best SAD light therapy lamps for 2020

I love winter, but I feel a sense of dread when it arrives each year. As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, so does my mood and energy level. And now that daylight saving time has ended and the sun is setting around 5 p.m., I know I’m in for several more months of feeling sluggish and down. That’s all to say that I deal with seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD or seasonal depression).

As the days get shorter and darker and winter causes overcast weather, we get less exposure to natural sunlight. Doctors believe that the lack of sunlight can trigger a chemical change in the brain, which can make you feel sad, unmotivated, sluggish and, essentially, depressed. When my psychiatrist diagnosed me with SAD, she recommended light therapy, one of the most popular treatments that’s backed up with a ton of documented research.

Light therapy lamps try to mimic the extra hours of sunlight from spring and summer that we don’t get in fall and winter. To do this, you need a lamp that emits about 10,000 lux of light, which is higher than the artificial light from your home’s fixtures and other lamps. A bright sunny day exposes you to about 100,000 lux or more, while you might only get about 2,000 lux of light exposure on an overcast day.

I’ve tested and evaluated some of the most popular light therapy lamps on the market. Because I’m not a physician or psychiatrist, I can’t tell you if these lamps will be effective for treating your depression or SAD symptoms. However, as someone who experiences both and has used light therapy as a treatment, I can recommend which lights are worth your money.

Light therapy isn’t for everyone, so it’s important to check with your doctor before trying it. Only they can diagnose you with SAD, a mood disorder or depression and prescribe the correct treatment for you. This list was published in October and is updated periodically.

Read more: The 7 best blue light blocking glasses to prevent eye fatigue  

Light therapy lamps

Price Extra features Size of light panel
Verilux HappyLight Luxe VT43 $70 4 brightness and 3 color temperature options, 1-hour timer with 5-minute intervals 6 x 9 inches
Verilux HappyLight Lumi VT31 $40 3 brightness options 4.5 x 7 inches
Circadian Optics Lumos $40 3 brightness options, adjustable stand 1.37 x 6.25 inches
Northern Light Technologies Boxelite $180 Lightbulbs you can change 12.25 x 15.25 inches
Circadian Optics Lattis $70 3 brightness options 2.75 x 8 inches
Verilux HappyLight Alba $50 4 brightness and 3 color temperature options, 1-hour timer with 10-minute intervals 5.5 x 6.5 inches
Theralite $57 Built-in cover/stand 5 x 8 inches
Carex Day-Light Classic Plus $104 Adjustable stand and two brightness options 13.5 x 15.5 inches

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Verilux is one of the biggest names in light therapy lamps — you’ll find them all over Amazon and the company has a large catalog of models. The HappyLight Luxe has a simple design with a large light panel that takes up nearly the entire lamp. Simple is not meant as an insult here — the Luxe light therapy lamp has everything you need at a fair price.

Most experts recommend using a lamp with a large light panel — ideally 12 by 15 or 12 by 18 inches — to get the full benefits of light therapy. A smaller light therapy lamp can provide the same benefits, but you might need to move it closer to your eyes and leave it on for longer than you would with a large panel. At 6 by 9 inches, the Luxe’s light panel gets close to the recommended size without taking up too much space.

It offers four brightness settings and three color temperature settings, which allow you to make the light warm, neutral or mimic daylight. There’s also a built-in timer you can set at 5-minute intervals, up to 1 hour. You can mount the light panel on the wall, or use the included stand, which tilts the lamp at an angle. You can also remove the stand and conveniently hook it to the back of the light panel for travel.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

If you’re not sure if light therapy is right for you, start with a smaller and less expensive lamp. This is the light therapy device I bought in 2019 and I’ve used it for several months. It’s just like the Luxe light therapy lamp, but more compact and with fewer features.

There are three brightness settings, each delivering slightly different amounts of lux — 5,000, 7,000 and 10,000. Like the Lux, it comes with a stand that sets the light panel at an angle. The simple design takes the guesswork out of using a therapy lamp. Just set it on a surface close to your face and turn it on.

The VT31’s light panel is around 4.5 by 7 inches, so you may need to use it longer than the Luxe to get the same effects. At only $50, it’s a good introduction to light therapy.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

I liked this lamp out of the box. It’s slim enough to fit in any tight space or crowded desk, and it feels solid. It has a modern look to it that doesn’t scream “I am a therapy light,” and it folds down when you’re not using it. It has a simple power button that cycles through three light levels: low, medium and high.

What makes this lamp different from the rest is that you can fold and rotate the light many different ways to get the perfect angle. You want the light to be at eye level and this lamp makes that easy to accomplish.

The only knock I have against the Lumos is that it has the smallest light panel out of all the lamps I tested, at just 1.37 by 6.25 inches. Again, consult with your doctor on how long you should use a therapy lamp each day — with the smaller panel on this light, you might need to use it longer.

Can’t decide between the Lumos and HappyLight VT31? If you want a therapy lamp that you can keep out all the time that you can position perfectly, get the Lumos. If you want a lamp that you don’t have to fuss with, get the VT31.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Depending on where you live, how many hours of sunlight you get each day and your individual mental health needs, your doctor might recommend you get a large light panel. In that case, get the Boxelite. 

It’s a 12.25 by 15.25-inch light therapy box that’s one giant light panel. Despite its size, it manages to be sleek with a design I don’t feel compelled to hide in a closet when it’s not in use. The Boxelite light box doesn’t have any frills — there’s just an on-off switch — and I don’t mind that at all. What’s unique about this light therapy box is that you can change the bulbs when they burn out.

I see this as a good buy for someone who lives far north of the equator in winter, where you get 8 hours of daylight or less, and needs to use a light therapy box daily during fall and winter, year after year.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Let’s be real, you buy the Lattice because you want a light therapy lamp that’s stylish, not utilitarian. The Frank Lloyd Wright-esqe design is meant to blend into your decor — even up close, it doesn’t look like a light therapy lamp. The light panel is on the smaller side of the options on this list, but I do like that it’s up a bit higher to better align with eye level.

Like the Lumos, this has three lighting settings, but that’s it for extra features. The light panel measures at 2.75 by 8 inches, so it’s on the smaller end. The design is pleasing to look at, but otherwise the lamp feels a bit plasticy for the price. 

Unless you really want a therapy lamp with extra style, you’re better off buying the HappyLight Luxe, which has a bigger light panel and more features for the same price.

Also tested

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

HappyLight Alba is the latest therapy lamp from Verilux, and it offers the same features as the HappyLight Luxe in a smaller size and for less money. It has four brightness settings, three color temperature settings and a timer that you can set in 10-minute intervals up to an hour.

The round shape is a departure for Verilux, which traditionally makes rectangle panels. At just 5.5 by 6.5 inches, Alba has a smaller light panel than the VT31. Given that bigger light panels are considered better for delivering as much light as possible in the least amount of time, I’m inclined to pick a bigger lamp, such as the HappyLight Luxe or VT31, over this.

However, you can’t beat this lamp for features and price. For $10 more than the VT31 and Lumos, you get the color temperature settings and a timer that neither of those lamps have. Plus, you get a larger light panel than the Lumos. If those settings really call to you, then this lamp is a good buy. Personally, I get by just fine without them.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

The Theralite has a clever design, but not enough features to blow me away. This lightweight and compact light box has a 5- by 8-inch light panel, plus a built-in cover and stand, which makes it good for traveling. However, it is considerably thicker than the other lamps on this list. It has one brightness setting — 10,000 lux — and a simple on-off switch. I like that you can adjust the angle of the stand, change the height of the light and rotate the light between portrait and landscape orientations.

It’s not the best compact therapy light in my book, and I’m not convinced that this is the best travel light either. I’d rather make room in my bag for the Verilux HappyLight or the Lumos, since it can be folded and rotated to make it thin and compact. Both are $5 less than the Theralite. 

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

The Carex Day-light Classic Plus lamp is by far the largest lamp on this list, with a light panel that’s 13.5 by 15.5 inches. While that’s just barely bigger than the Boxelite, the lamp’s larger stand makes it take up far more space, measuring 31.1 inches tall, 15.75 inches wide and a full foot deep.

There’s an adjustable stand that positions the light panel at eye level or above with the light shining down, which, according to some sources, is important. Still, this lamp is a behemoth and something you’ll likely need to make room for in your home. Because it’s big and heavy, stashing it away when you’re done using it each day isn’t practical. 

This bright light therapy lamp doesn’t get any accolades for style — it looks like a 2001 flat screen TV. I could get past the dated design if the lamp felt sturdy, but the fit and finish is sloppy, with gaps between the plastic pieces and buttons to adjust the stand that are hard to press. 

It comes with two light modes: Task (5,000 lux) and Therapy (10,000 lux). Like the Northern Light Boxelite, the Carex Day-light Classic Plus is better suited for someone who gets very little natural daylight, such as someone who works in a windowless office or lives in areas that get limited natural light in the winter. If you don’t mind unwieldy size and dated design, and want to save a few dollars from the Boxelite, this will serve you well.

How to buy

The most important features you should be looking at when buying a light therapy lamp are the light intensity and the type of light that’s emitted. Research supports using a SAD lamp with up to 10,000 lux as a therapy for depression.

Another key is that you don’t want a sun lamp that emits UV rays (or at least filters them out), as that can cause damage to your eyes and skin. While you’re not supposed to stare directly into a light therapy lamp, you still don’t want to expose yourself to daily UV radiation while trying to treat your seasonal depression.

Size is important, to a point. A bigger light panel allows you to position the light farther away while you’re using it, so keep that in mind when shopping. A smaller lamp needs to be closer to your face, and set so it’s at your eye level. You might need to spend up to an hour each day using a small SAD light, but just half that with a larger lamp.

As the Mayo Clinic notes, “The effectiveness of a light box depends on daily use, so buy one that’s convenient for you.” 

How to use a light therapy lamp

As far as how to use a light therapy lamp, you’ll need to consult with your doctor or psychiatrist for their guidance on light treatment. Light therapy isn’t suited for all kinds of mental health issues — for instance, many doctors recommend that people with bipolar disorder avoid it. Light therapy can also irritate your eyes or skin if you have certain medical conditions or are taking some prescription medications.

There are, however, some general guidelines you can follow:

  • Position a light therapy lamp about 12 to 18 inches from your face.
  • Use the lamp for 30 minutes in the early morning, ideally shortly after you wake up.
  • Don’t stare directly at the light.
  • Go about other activities while using it, as long as your eyes stay within 12 to 18 inches of the lamp.

Some people experience headaches, jitters or insomnia with light therapy, so that’s something to look out for.

Read more: The best bed sheets for every type of sleeper

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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