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, a condition experienced by an estimated 10 million Americans each year. Symptoms include less energy, greater need for sleep, and increased appetite — “especially for sweets and starches,” says Norman E. Rosenthal, the clinician and researcher credited with discovering SAD.
The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy, a.k.a. “SAD lamps.” 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.” 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 six experts. As doctors and researchers, many of them did not want to endorse specific brands, but they were very specific about the criteria of a good SAD lamp, all of which the below options fulfill. 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.
Best overall SAD lamp
As we noted above, 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. Although smaller lights might advertise themselves as having 10,000 lux, he 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. 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 (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 14 inches. It’s a slightly older model, but if you’re comfortable with that, this is a great way to save a little money and still check all the boxes. Plus, it’s still backed by Carex’s five-year warranty. And since it’s elevated on thin legs, you can use the space beneath it to read, write, or rest a cup of coffee.
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. But there are two main differences: 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 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.
Best light-therapy glasses
Light-therapy glasses are 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. 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.
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