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The Best SAD Lamps, According to Experts

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

Getting a bit down when the days become shorter is totally normal, but if your change in mood is more pronounced, it’s possible you have seasonal affective disorder— which is experienced by an estimated 5 percent of Americans every year. It’s characterized as a mood disorder that usually happens “due to the shortening in day length and lower light intensity” of fall and winter, according to Hanne M. Hoffman, a Michigan State University assistant professor who studies how light affects our physiology.

The disorder comes with a long list of symptoms similar to those of depression, including feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, difficulty concentrating, and the loss of libido, to name a few, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NewYork–Presbyterian hospital. Norman E. Rosenthal, the clinician and researcher credited with discovering SAD, seconds this, saying that many may feel less energetic and have a greater need for sleep and an increased appetite — “especially for sweets and starches.”

The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy, a.k.a. “SAD lamps.” These lamps are specially “designed to mimic sunlight” — and “when used correctly, can ‘trick’ the body to believe it’s summer” so that it releases some much-needed serotonin, Hoffman adds. “All light is not equal,” Hoffman explains, and the dimmer light in later months of the year is insufficient to turn on the “‘feel good’ centers in the brain,” which turns into SAD in some. According to Janna Gordon-Elliott, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork–Presbyterian, SAD lamps aren’t regulated by the FDA, so it’s important not to just “buy the cheapest thing on Amazon, or the thing that’s more portable.”

Almost all the experts we spoke to emphasize that a good SAD lamp should have a large light surface, about 12 inches by 18 inches. It also needs a brightness level of 10,000 lux, a viewing angle that allows it to be positioned above your eyes and at a slight downward angle to minimize glare, and UV-blocking ability. (Any decent SAD light should have a built-in UV filter and be labeled “UV-Free.”) To find the best SAD lamps, we spoke with nine experts. As doctors and researchers, many of them did not want to endorse specific brands, but they did provide pretty specific criteria for SAD lamps (which all of the options below meet). For the best results, the experts say to use a SAD lamp first thing in the morning; position it about 14 inches away from your face for 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t worry, it’s totally fine to multitask: You can eat or read or scroll through your phone or watch something on TV while getting your therapeutic light time in. And before you buy any SAD lamp, talk to your primary-care physician first, since some medications might interfere with light therapy and “certain conditions could make you more sensitive to light,” Hoffman advises.

Best overall SAD lamp

As we noted above, almost every expert mentioned the importance of finding a lamp with a light area that’s at least 12 inches by 18 inches. A lot of the less expensive, smaller, and, let’s say, more aesthetically pleasing lamps are simply not big enough to ensure the proper amount of light hits your retina. “The more surface area, the better,” says Rosenthal. Every expert did agree on this point: It’s essential to find a SAD lamp with 10,000 lux. It’s the “magic” number, Hoffman says, which scientific research has shown is the ideal light intensity “to get the best therapeutic benefit.” Although smaller lights might advertise themselves as having 10,000 lux, Rosenthal says, you get that only if your head is right in front of the light and remains in the exact right position. With a larger light, you can move your head naturally without worrying about losing optimal contact with the light. This lamp by Carex, a company often used in research trials, has a big screen with plenty of surface area. It won’t win any design awards, but it’s rated 10,000 lux at 14 inches, which means you get 10,000 lux when you are 14 inches away from the light. This model is positioned at a downward-facing angle, something many of our experts recommend. It’s almost identical to another Carex lamp Hoffman approves of that’s similarly on the more affordable side of the SAD lamp spectrum (and is currently sold out). While it isn’t cheap, it’s also not as pricey as other lamps that meet this criteria on our list, which is why we’re leading with it.

Best (slightly less expensive) SAD lamp

This light, also from Carex, shares all the expert-recommended features of the Day-Light Classic Plus: large screen, adjustable tilt, and 10,000 lux at up to 14 inches. It’s slightly smaller, with a screen measuring 13.5 by 10 inches. But it likewise offers two light settings, one specifically for light therapy and the other for working-at-home tasks at your desk requiring a lower lux level. “It’s important to think about flexibility and where you’ll be most inclined to use and incorporate the lamp into your daily life to ensure you’ll actually use it regularly,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff. “For example, you might want to ensure the size and aesthetic fits well on your night stand or on your breakfast counter. If it is something you plan to keep in the closet, you are less likely to actually remember to use it and incorporate it into your daily routine.”

Best designed SAD lamp

The Center for Environmental Therapeutics, a nonprofit research and education institution, is perhaps the leading authority on SAD and light therapy. While CET used to put out a widely circulated list of recommended light-therapy lamps, the organization has since discontinued the practice, instead focusing on one officially endorsed model: this one. Dr. Michael Terman, the president of CET and a professor at Columbia, worked directly with the manufacturer to build this to CET’s specifications. It has a large screen with adjustable height and tilt, and you get 10,000 lux at 14 inches. Another benefit is that if something goes wrong or if you have a question, you can call CET directly for help. Although it’s roughly double the price of both Carex lamps, if you want the closest thing to an “official” SAD lamp, this is your best bet. And we think the black spindly legs make this the best-looking of the bunch.  

Best dupe for the CET-endorsed SAD lamp

All the stats for this model are the same as Northern Light Technology’s Boxelite-OS: 10,000 lux at 14 inches, same screen size, even same manufacturer. Hoffman mentions this lamp as another affordable option that meets the requirements she and other experts told us. There are two main differences between this and the above lamp: Firstly, the Boxelite screen is in “portrait mode” while the CET Boxelite-OS’s screen is in “landscape.” Secondly, the Boxelite does not shine from above as recommended by our experts for optimal benefits. If you can handle the portrait orientation and jury-rig the light to shine down, you might prefer this one’s lower profile and smaller footprint, along with the lower price.

Best SAD light box

Both Hoffman and Saltz mentioned Alaska Northern Lights. It offers a large light surface, as experts recommend, but with a rating of 10,000 lux at 24 inches, you’ll have to be farther away from it to soak up its benefits. But that’s still in line with the range that Romanoff recommends: “The ideal distance between your face and the lamp should be between 16 and 24 inches.” Both Saltz and Hoffman advise not looking directly into a light box. Instead, “put it at an angle next to the computer screen or place it on a table next to where one is reading a book,” Hoffman says. Unlike other lamps on our list, this is designed to look less like a traditional lamp.

Best SAD floor lamp

A SAD floor lamp is also something to consider, and it’s a great solution if you don’t have any available table space, or if you want to use the lamp while sitting in a chair. This one, also from Northern Light Technology, stands four feet tall once fully assembled, so you could even do double duty and use it while you’re on a treadmill or a stationary bike. It has 10,000 lux at 12 inches, which is still very good, and a rotating head so you can easily adjust the angle of the light.

Most portable SAD lamp

The light surface on this is admittedly a bit smaller than what the experts recommend, but that’s what makes it easier to carry around. Over the years, enough experts have told us that, whether it’s a SAD lamp or a face mask, the best one is the one you use — meaning that it can be okay to opt for a SAD lamp with a slightly smaller light surface like this one if that means you’ll actually use it more. “If you’re thinking, I know I’m not going to use it if it’s too cumbersome, and I’m going to feel good about myself if I buy the smaller machine, then buy the smaller machine,” explains Gordon-Elliott. Rosenthal agrees: “It’s infinitely better to have a small one than nothing.” While research shows you will likely be best served by a larger light, this one seems a reasonable compromise: The manufacturer says it’s 10,000 lux at 12 inches. Plus, the stand on this can be adjusted to tilt down.

Most (less expensive) portable SAD lamp

This SAD lamp is even smaller than the one above. But aside from that, it offers the other expert-recommended features we’re on the lookout for: a rating of 10,000 lux, a rotating panel, and protection against UV rays. Since it’s much smaller than others, it might be more practical if you’re short on space: This lamp can sit on the corner of a desk for a quick light before starting your day.

Best light-therapy glasses

Both Romanoff and Saltz say that SAD lamps are generally considered more effective than other light therapy gadgets. But light-therapy glasses have emerged as a newer option for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Dr. William Redd, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recommends these light-therapy glasses from AYO, which he uses for conducting clinical research into the effects of light on cancer patients and cancer survivors. The light-treatment methods he studies also apply to SAD, he says, because whether studying the effects of light in a clinical setting or treating SAD on your own, the most important thing is to ensure you’re getting a consistent and “adequate circadian effective dose” of 20 to 30 minutes of properly calibrated light.

We also heard about these glasses from Janet Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and the founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, who uses them herself: “ I find that it’s easier to stay on a consistent schedule when I have the flexibility to walk around and do other things during my dose of light therapy,” she explains. Kennedy mentions that these glasses would be particularly useful for those treating jet-lag. The brand also makes an AYOlite, which is similar but isn’t connected to an app and is less expensive, Kennedy tells us.

Clinical psychologist Joshua Tal agrees that glasses like these make it even easier to multitask while fitting in your daily SAD treatment. “They’re great because they allow you to do your light therapy while moving around,” he says. Redd adds that the glasses are easy to wear and come with a charging case and integrated smart-phone app, which is helpful for data tracking. And he says not to worry about having a light source so close to your eyes: “The light source is adjusted to account for that,” he explains. Another benefit of wearing light-therapy glasses is that you don’t have to worry about having a properly sized light shining on you at the correct angle, since the glasses handle all of that for you.

Best (less expensive) light-therapy glasses

Redd also recommends the Luminette 2, which he also uses in clinical trials. They’re not as sleek and don’t come with a charging case or app integration. They do, however, offer the same light-therapy technology for roughly half the price. These use blue-enriched white light that offers less lux than the SAD lamps above. We heard mixed messages about blue light from two of our experts. According to Hoffman, there’s no clear advantage to blue light as opposed to white light except that blue light might not have to be as bright to work. Romanoff says some research has shown that blue light has helped those with SAD and those looking to regulate their circadian rhythms. “Overall, there is a good amount of debate among researchers about which is the best light therapy, and it ultimately depends on each person’s individual circumstances,” Romanoff explains. “The best option is to consult with your doctor so you can make an informed and personalized decision about which light is best for you.”

Best sunrise alarm clock

Although it’s not the same as a SAD lamp or light-therapy glasses, a sunrise alarm clock might be an option to make your morning routine easier. In a sense, these work similarly to SAD lamps in supposedly mirroring the look of sunlight — when our colleagues at the Cut asked experts about sunrise lamps like this one, which we’ve written about before, they learned that these “dawn simulators” help “mimic a natural morning.” They can offer a comforting light that’s much less brighter and easier on the eyes as you wake up than an intense SAD lamp. Neurologist Guy Leschziner told the Cut: “If you give people a burst of very, very bright light, early in the morning, then you can actually push your body clock forward and make them wake up earlier.” A sleep doctor recommended this clock to former Strategist contributor Liz Krieger when she was reporting on another story. “While light boxes and melatonin are decent remedies for some of this seasonal malaise, this floodlight-to-your-face has transformed my morning,” Krieger writes. It offers “a slow, gentle progression from a barely-there golden glow to a bright, everything’s-gonna-be-all-right white light, steadfastly streaming just a few inches away from my head.” At 300 lux, it has only a fraction of the brightness of the aforementioned SAD lamps. But it does offer 20 different settings for a dimmer or brighter flash of light first thing in the morning.