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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. (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 four experts. As doctors and researchers, they 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 lamps fulfill. For best results, the experts say to use it first thing in the morning for 20 to 30 minutes, positioned about 14 inches away from your face. (And 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
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, which all four experts recommend.
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.
Other great SAD lamps
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, 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. Although it’s almost double the price of the Carex, if you want the closest thing to an “official” SAD lamp, this is your best bet. Another benefit is that if something goes wrong or if you have a question, you can call CET directly for help.
All the stats for this model are the same as Northern Light Technology’s Boxelite-OS: 10,000 lux at 14 inches, 3,500 Kelvin color temperature, same screen size, even same manufacturer. There are two main differences: (1) the Boxelite screen is in “portrait mode” while the CET Boxelite OS’s screen is in “landscape”; and (2) 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.
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. It 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.
This screen size is a bit smaller than what the experts recommend, but that makes it easier to carry around. Gordon-Elliott knows that people are sometimes put off by the price or larger size of certain light boxes. “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.” 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 is a very good compromise. The manufacturer says it’s 10,000 lux at 12 inches, which is very good for a light this size, and the stand can be adjusted to tilt down.
Reviewers on Amazon love this small option. It’s rated 10,000 lux at six inches. Even though it’s not optimal, if you want a smaller light like this one, Rosenthal suggests either moving it closer to your face, or using it for longer than the recommended 30 minutes. “That will tend to deliver more light to you,” he says.
Bonus! Best light-therapy glasses
And finally, perhaps the newest option for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder: light-therapy glasses. Dr. William Redd, 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.
Redd likes 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 don’t worry about having a light source so close to your eyes, says Redd. “The light source is adjusted [to account for that],” he says. One other benefit with glasses is that they’re basically foolproof. You don’t have to worry about having a properly sized light shining you at the correct angle, since the glasses handle all of that for you.
Redd also recommends the Luminette 2, which he also uses in clinical trials. They’re a bit less expensive than the AYO glasses, and not quite as sleek, but if you’re okay with not having a charging case and app integration, this gives you the same light-therapy technology for close to half the price.
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