After reading dozens of academic studies, two weeks of research and eight hours of testing each lamp with a light meter, the Day-Light Sky is my pick for the best light therapy lamp overall. For light therapy to be effective, it needs to simulate the brightness of a clear sky, and the Day-Light Sky does so better than any of its competitors. This lamp measured 10,000 lux when I placed a light meter 12 inches away, which is further than any other light therapy lamp I tested. It also has the best coverage and is more adjustable than other lamps, so you can sit comfortably without losing the benefits of the light every time you move your head.
To be effective, light therapy requires a very bright lamp, and the Day-Light Sky is the brightest one we tested. Also, its coverage area makes it more comfortable to sit under.
NatureBright SunTouch Plus
The Sun Touch Plus had above-average brightness and coverage and costs nearly half as much as similarly performing light therapy lamps. This is why it's the best value.
Circadian Optics Lumine
The Circadian Optics Lumine is the best light therapy lamp for the office because the minimalist design resembles a picture frame and it's not too bright to annoy coworkers.
The Day-Light Sky is the best light therapy lamp overall because it was the brightest at the furthest distance during my tests.
Also, it has the best coverage and is the most adjustable light I reviewed. To be effective, a lamp needs to simulate the brightness of the sun on a clear day, and the Day-Light Sky did this better than any other light therapy lamp I tested. Combined, this bright light and great coverage mean you can sit comfortably and reap the full benefits of light therapy.
For light therapy to be effective, your eyes need to perceive a brightness of about 10,000 lux – the brightness of a standard day. In my tests, the Day-Light Sky measured 10,000 lux at 12 inches away, with a luminous intensity of 1,165. By comparison, most lamps dipped under 10,000 lux after just 6 inches, which means you have to sit really close to them to get the full benefits of the light. Since it is so bright 12 inches from this lamp, you can sit further from it.
In addition, since the lamp and its lightbulbs are significantly bigger than most I tested, the light coverage is superior. With smaller lamps, you can lose a lot of the brightness by moving your head just a little. For example, it only takes about an inch difference for a light's luminosity to decrease by 1,000 lux. This wide coverage also helps minimize discomfort from the heat output, which is particularly important for this lamp, as it gets hotter than others.
The Nature Bright Sun Touch Plus is my pick for best value because it has above-average brightness and good coverage, and it costs just $50. By comparison, most sun therapy lamps I reviewed cost over $100 and don't perform as well.
The Sun Touch Plus received a B for overall performance, with a B+ for light coverage. Its 10,000-lux reach is only about 7 inches, which means you have to sit very close to it to receive the full benefit of the light – at the recommended sitting distance of 16 inches, the light measured just 2,030 lux. Even so, it is still the fourth brightest lamp I tested. In addition, the lamp is among the larger models I reviewed and has good coverage.
You can’t adjust the Sun Touch Plus' angle, and it can't be angled downward. Because of the lamp’s shape, the light shines upward at 15 degrees. This allows the light to reach your eyes at a comfortable angle, but it also means you need to sit above it.
The lamp has four timer settings, so it’s easy to make sure you sit in the light for as long as you need to. Most research indicates you need at least 20 to 30 minutes of light per session, but everyone responds differently, so it’s great to have a few options. You can set it for 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes.
Best Lamp for the Office
The Circadian Optics Lumine is the best light therapy lamp for the office. Its minimalist design and the angle of the lamp makes it look more like a picture frame than a sun therapy light.
Light therapy sessions are typically most effective right after you wake up, but in case you don't have time to sit under a light before work, the Circadian Optics Lumine is the best light therapy lamp for the office. Its minimalist design and the angle of the lamp makes it look more like a picture frame than a sun therapy light. It's also small, so you don't have to sacrifice workspace, and it isn’t bright enough to bother co-workers. The Circadian Optics Lumine is especially good for graveyard-shift workers.
While it produces 10,000 lux of light, it’s only that bright up to about 6 inches from the lamp. The good news is that was the average reach of the lamps I tested, so it's not bad. The bad news is 6 inches is too close to allow you to sit a comfortable distance from the lamp. However, this just means your sessions may need to be longer for the therapy to be effective.
With light therapy, brightness is key, and the Sunbox Sunlight Jr was the brightest box in my tests, tied only with the Day-Light Sky for the longest 10,000-lux reach.
While the manufacturer claims its 10,000-lux reach is 14 inches, it reached 12 inches in my tests. Still, that was significantly further than most of the therapy lamps under $200. In fact, this lamp measured at close to 4,000 lux at the recommended distance of 16 inches, which was almost 1,000 lux brighter than the Day-Light Sky at the same distance.
The biggest downside to the Sunbox Sunlight Jr is the price. At about $190, it’s one of the most expensive lamps I reviewed and almost $100 more than the Day-Light Sky. And even though it has a better luminous intensity, giving it a slightly better brightness within its coverage area, the difference is not significant enough to make up for the price difference. In addition, you can’t easily adjust the angle of the light. It either rests on its side, giving it an upward angle, or vertically, which gives it broader, horizontal coverage.
Why Trust Us
I've been an expert reviewer since 2013, and Top Ten Reviews has covered light therapy lamps since 2015. I spent over 60 hours researching seasonal affective disorder, light therapy and how light affects our circadian rhythms with physical and mental health implications. In the process of this review, I've pored over 32 articles, academic research studies and interviews as well as talked to experts, including my own doctor. This all culminated in testing and comparing the 10 best light therapy lamps under $200.
But perhaps more importantly, you should trust me because I have seasonal affective disorder. Having grown up in America's finest city, San Diego, where it's famously sunny nearly every day of the year, my physiology literally wasn't designed to handle seasons. When I moved to Utah as a teenager, my friends noticed how I changed during the winter, jokingly referring to my alter-ego as "Winter Jeph." He was antisocial, always tired, depressed and always a bit fuller in face and softer in the belly. I knew the lack of sunlight was the issue because I could feel myself return to form in the spring.
How Much Do Light Therapy Lamps Cost?
Smaller sun therapy lamps cost between $10 and $75. However, as I found out during testing, just because a sun lamp is advertised as a 10,000 lux lamp doesn't mean it's 10,000 lux when sitting at a comfortable distance. If you find light therapy is effective for you, it's worth it to buy a larger lamp, as these provide better coverage and a brighter light at further distances. Large light therapy lamps start at $150 and can reach upward of $500. The only additional cost to consider is light bulb replacements, which can vary between $6 and $52 per bulb, depending on the lamp.
How We Tested
She also made a point to state light therapy is not a "one size fits all" type therapy. Every individual has different needs. You may need 45 minutes under the light instead of 20 minutes. You can also get the same benefits from a lower brightness. It just takes longer. So, if the light reaching your eyes is just 5,000 lux, you may need to double the amount of time you spend under the light.
Since the lamps are meant to simulate the brightness of sunlight, I tested each one using the Extech LT45 light meter. Every lamp in my test was advertised as a 10,000-lux lamp. And they are. However, the brightness of a light diminishes considerably as you move further from the source. An inch, for instance, can mean the difference of 1,000 lux. For example, at 16 inches, the brightest lamp in this test measured just 3,900 lux, but the same lamp measured 10,000 lux at 12 inches. You could move your head just 4 inches and lose nearly 6,000 lux.
Larger lamps are not necessarily better than smaller ones, but you should choose a lamp with enough coverage that you can sit by it for 30 minutes without having to stay still. This is a problem with small lamps since their coverage is not big enough. As mentioned, you could move your head a few inches and significantly reduce the benefits of the therapy.
Finally, I evaluated how easy it is to adjust each lamp as well as how much you can adjust it. Getting the right amount of light and the proper amount of coverage likely means adjusting the angle of the lamp. Saenger recommends lamps be angled downward at 30 degrees, but it doesn't really matter what angle the light is aimed. You just need to be able to comfortably read or work on a computer while receiving the light without having to look directly into the lamp.
How Does Light Therapy Work?
While there is still some debate over the physiological causes of seasonal affective disorder, the scientific consensus is the lack of sunlight. The sun is literally an antidepressant because it helps regulate our circadian rhythm. It's also our primary source of vitamin D, which helps our brain's serotonin production. The light therapy industry, both from a manufacturer and a mental health practitioner perspective, focuses on therapy designed to alleviate the symptoms of a disrupted circadian rhythm rather than the conversion of UVB radiation to vitamin D.
In other words, these light therapy lamps aren’t going to give you a tan. They are all UV-free. In fact, you shouldn't visit a tanning salon to treat seasonal affective disorder, as it doesn't work. Those lights emit UV-A radiation – the cause of tans, sunburns and skin cancer. If you suspect you have a vitamin D deficiency, you should talk with your doctor about supplements instead of seeking UV lamps, as there are safer ways of getting vitamin D into your system.
Why Does Brightness Matter?
According to Columbia University, a therapeutic level of light illumination may reduce melatonin levels in the blood. Melatonin is a natural hormone created by the body to help regulate sleep and waking patterns. During winter months when the days are shorter, people tend to have excess melatonin in their system. This can make it difficult to wake up completely and leads to a type of hibernation-like state among people with seasonal affective disorder. While the light sensitivity of melatonin is understood, the Columbia University study admits the science is not clear on how light helps reduce melatonin in your bloodstream, as simply exposing your skin to the light doesn’t work.
However, Dr. Helle Madsen of the University of Copenhagen has studied the correlation between light exposure and the photosensitive cells of the retinas. She explains how studies in seasonal affective disorder patients suggest "their retinas are less sensitive to light. This sub-sensitivity has been shown for both rods and cones, and the intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells." She even points out that people with severely reduced eyesight are three times more likely to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
When to Use Light Therapy Lamps
You can use light therapy lamps whenever you feel you need to. However, there are specific times and situations when it’s especially beneficial to use a sun lamp. For example, they are particularly useful during certain seasons, and they are good for people living extremely far north or south of the equator. Doctors also recommend therapy lamps for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or spend much of their time indoors.
Winter is the most popular time of year to use light therapy lamps, as days are shorter and you are ultimately exposed to less sunlight. Getting extra light from a sun lamp can bolster your mood and regulate your sleep patterns. That’s because sunlight affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that dictates your circadian rhythm and moods. The hypothalamus is in charge of releasing melatonin and serotonin, and it depends on light to regulate and distribute these hormones. When you don’t have enough sunlight, this process gets disrupted, which may lead to depression and insomnia.
For the same reason, therapy lights are good for people who live really far north or south of the equator, especially during the winter months when their location is furthest from the sun. Countries like Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Iceland have vastly shorter days on average during the winter. As such, it’s common for sun lamps to help citizens in these regions get the recommended amount of light.
What Are the Risks of Light Therapy?
According to the CET, light therapy is not recommended for people with the following pre-existing conditions because of the way it affects the skin and eyes:
- Retinal dystrophy
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Lupus erythematodes
- Chronic actinic dermatitis
- Solar urticaria
You should also avoid light therapy if you're taking medications known to photosensitize skin:
- Psychiatric neuroleptic drugs
- Psoralen drugs
- Antiarrhythmic drugs
- Antimalarial and antirheumatic drugs
- Porphyrin drugs
- St. John's Wort
In addition, PsychEducation.org warns about using light therapy if you have bipolar disorder. While it can help people with bipolar, it can also induce manic episodes. If you have bipolar, you should talk with your therapist or psychiatrist to determine the course of your sunlight therapy.