Feeling 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 (SAD) — a mood disorder that is experienced by an estimated 5 percent of Americans every year. It’s characterized by a long list of symptoms, similar to those of depression, that usually occur in fall and winter “due to the shortening in day length and lower light intensity,” according to Hanne M. Hoffman, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who studies how light affects our physiology. Symptoms of SAD can include 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, also says that many may feel less energetic and have a greater need for sleep and an increased appetite — “especially for sweets and starches.” If you think you might be suffering from SAD, the best first step is to talk to your doctor or therapist.
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 cause chemical changes in the brain, tricking it into thinking it’s summer so it will release much-needed serotonin. But 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 to not just “buy the cheapest thing on Amazon or the thing that’s more portable.” With that said, the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, a nonprofit research and education institution and the leading authority on SAD and light therapy, does offer guidance on what to look for in a legitimate SAD lamp as well as other helpful resources.
To find the best SAD lamps, we spoke with nine experts and asked for their recommendations. As doctors and researchers, many of them did not want to endorse specific brands or models, but they did provide specific criteria for SAD lamps. All the options below meet those requirements, and we’ve tested several of them ourselves. For the best results, our experts advise using a SAD lamp first thing in the morning and positioning it between 12 and 15 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 in your therapeutic light time. Both Saltz and Hoffman caution against looking directly into the light. 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. And before you buy any SAD lamp, talk to your primary-care physician, since some medications might interfere with light therapy and “certain conditions could make you more sensitive to light,” adds Hoffman. Click one of the links in the table of contents to jump to a specific option or read more to learn about what to look for in a legitimate SAD lamp.
What we’re looking for
While an apartment with good lighting or a sunrise alarm clock might anecdotally put some people in a pretty good mood, neither has been clinically tested to treat the well-documented symptoms of SAD. For that reason, it makes sense to treat buying a SAD lamp as seriously as you would any other medical device or prescription medication. The most important thing to look for in a SAD lamp is the correct amount of light intensity. Every expert agrees on this point: To trigger the brain to release serotonin, a true SAD lamp must have a brightness level of at least 10,000 lux of white light. To put that into context, 10,000 lux is about as intense as ambient daylight, where 32,000 lux or higher is equivalent to direct sunlight. The number 10,000 is the “magic” one, Hoffman says, and scientific research has shown that it is the ideal light intensity “to get the best therapeutic benefit.” But light intensity drops the farther you are from the source, so many SAD lamps will also include a distance measurement telling you how close you need to sit to get 10,000 lux within a typical 30-minute time frame. Hoffman says most are designed to deliver the greatest benefit at a distance of around 12 inches from your face. Fortunately it’s not an all-or-nothing situation: “Sitting further away from the screen than what is recommended by the manufacturer (usually 10 to 15 inches) will cause the light intensity (lux) to be lower, and you might need to use the lamp for more than 30 minutes per day to get the desired mood-boosting effect,” she says. To confirm you’re getting the right amount of lux from any given SAD lamp, Saltz suggests downloading one of a host of new light-measuring apps (like Lux Meter Pro, which she mentioned by name) on your phone.
The largest and most common source of ultraviolet light is the sun, but incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lightbulbs also emit varying levels of UV light. And though a certain amount of exposure to UV light can boost your mood by helping your body convert vitamin D into its active form, the risks of prolonged exposure outweigh the benefits. According to Hoffman, your best bet is to use a UV-blocking SAD lamp combined with a daily vitamin-D supplement. Since the mood-boosting effects of lamps specifically designed to treat SAD are driven by light that is captured by the eye, and UV light can damage your eyes, all of our experts agree that legitimate SAD lamps must come with a built-in UV filter. Additionally, it’s important to note that some light-therapy lamps designed to treat certain skin conditions, and not SAD, function by emitting UV light. So you’ll want to be extra careful when choosing which lamp to buy. Check that the lamp blocks UV light or is labeled “UV-free.” If you’re not sure whether a certain lamp blocks UV light, our experts suggest reaching out to the manufacturer. All of the lamps recommended below qualify as UV-blocking or UV-free.
The experts we spoke to emphasize that the best SAD lamps have a large light surface of somewhere around one or one-and-a-half square feet. 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 retinas, where the light from SAD lamps is best absorbed. “The more surface area, the better,” Rosenthal says. Although smaller lights might advertise themselves as having 10,000 lux, Rosenthal says, you’ll only get that from a smaller light surface if your head is right in front of the light and remains in that exact position. With a larger light, you can move your head naturally without worrying about losing optimal positioning in front of the light.
Our experts say that the optimal position for a SAD lamp is above your eyes and at a slight downward angle to minimize glare. Again, even if it’s technically UV-free, Hoffman advises against looking straight into your SAD lamp. The more flexible your lamp, the easier it will be to achieve that position. An adjustable base or telescoping stand means you won’t have to worry about propping it up on books to get the most out of the light.
Best overall SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 12 inches | UV protection: Blocks 99.3 percent of UV light | Surface area: 16 x 13 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Height and angle adjustable
This lamp by Carex, a company whose products are often used in light-therapy research trials, has a big light surface that measures 16 by 13 inches, offering plenty of surface area. It won’t win any design awards, but it’s rated 10,000 lux at 12 inches, which means you get 10,000 lux when you position your face 12 inches away from the light. It also blocks 99.3 percent of UV light. This model is positioned at a downward-facing angle, something many of our experts recommend. While it isn’t cheap, it’s not as pricey as other lamps that meet this criteria on our list, which is why it’s our top pick.
Of the lamps she tested, Strategist junior writer Anna Yeo says this impressively large option mimics natural sunlight best: Its computer-monitor-size surface area casts a wide beam, while the translucent plastic panel acts as a diffuser to soften the brightness and prevent glare. Assembly is straightforward, as the head simply slides onto the adjustable arm, though Yeo says the light feels sturdy when fully assembled on the weighted base.
Best (less expensive) SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 10 inches | UV protection: UV blocking | Surface area: 11.5 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Not adjustable
Very few legitimate SAD lamps cost less than $100, but this one from Northern Light Technologies almost manages to squeeze under that mark and looks nicer (and more like a regular table lamp) than all the other lamps on our list. Although the light surface is smaller than the ideal size recommended by our experts (each side of the triangle measures 11.5 inches), Yeo says the brightness wasn’t at all compromised when she tested it — in fact, she says it was so radiant she had to slightly angle it away.
That’s also why Yeo says she found the ideal placement to be in the corner of her room (versus on her desk, where it was too bright). Clinical psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff tells us “it’s important to think about where you’ll be most inclined to use the lamp in your daily life to ensure you’ll actually use it regularly.” If you like the triangle shape but want something bigger, Northern Technologies offers this lamp in a larger size for around $85 more.
Best (even less expensive) SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 12 inches | UV protection: UV blocking | Surface area: 11 x 7 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Angle adjustable
Carex’s Theralite Aura is half the price of the Luxor Mini and still meets all our criteria. The brand offered to send it along with our best overall pick for testing, and Yeo says that, like the Day-Light, the Aura’s plastic panel diffuses light more naturally than the glass-paneled lamps she tested. Setup was straightforward (one screw attaches the arm to the base), and the light’s head can easily be angled up or down. While the lamp’s construction is the most basic of those she tested, Yeo says it’s a great starter option for those wanting to try one that’s not too big or expensive.
Best CET-endorsed SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 14 inches | UV protection: UV blocking | Surface area: 15 x 12 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Height and angle adjustable
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 from Northern Light Technologies (which also makes the pyramid-shaped lamp, above, and three more of our picks, below). Dr. Michael Terman, the president of CET and a professor at Columbia University, worked directly with the manufacturer to build this model to CET’s specifications. It has a large light surface that measures 12 by 15 inches, with adjustable height and tilt, and you get 10,000 lux at 14 inches. This lamp comes with a seven-year unlimited warranty and a 60-day money-back guarantee. Plus if you have any questions, you can call CET directly for help. Although it’s more expensive than many of the lamps on our list, if you want the closest thing to an “official” SAD lamp, this is your best bet. And we think the black spindly legs, while giving it a slightly sentient vibe, offer a unique and attractive silhouette.
Best dupe for the CET-endorsed SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 14 inches | UV protection: UV free | Surface area: 12 x 15 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Not adjustable
The technical specs for this model are the same as those of Northern Light Technology’s leggier Boxelite-OS, above: 10,000 lux at 14 inches and a light surface that measures 12 by 15 inches. Hoffman mentions this lamp as a slightly more affordable option that meets the requirements she and other experts specified to us. There are a few main differences between this lamp and the CET-endorsed model, above: The Boxelite light surface is in “portrait mode,” while the CET Boxelite-OS light surface is in “landscape.” The more compact Boxelite is not adjustable and, because it tilts slightly backward, does not shine down from above, as recommended by our experts for optimal benefits. But if you can handle the portrait orientation and find a decent position in front of it, you might prefer this one’s lower profile and smaller footprint, along with the lower price.
Best SAD floor lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 12 inches | UV protection: UV blocking | Surface area: 7 x 13 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: angle adjustable
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 you want to use the lamp while sitting on a sofa. 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 stationary bike. It provides 10,000 lux at 12 inches and has a rotating head, so you can easily adjust the angle of the light.
Best portable SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 12 inches | UV protection: UV blocking | Surface area: 7 x 13 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Angle adjustable
Though the light surface on this SAD lamp is the same size as the one on the floor lamp above — 7 by 13 inches — its slim profile makes it much 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. “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. The manufacturer says it provides 10,000 lux at 12 inches and blocks UV light. Plus the stand can be adjusted to tilt downward.
Best (less expensive) portable SAD lamp
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 6 inches | UV protection: UV free | Surface area: 8.7 x 8.5 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Angle adjustable
Strategist senior editor Chelsea Peng says she’s had this nice-looking cordless HappyLight for over a year now, and she still uses it for 30 minutes every morning once the sun starts setting earlier in the day. The magnetic base makes it easy to swivel, she says, and she doesn’t have to charge it very often. Plus, it comes equipped with a countdown timer that helps ensure you get the right amount of light by setting the light duration for up to an hour in ten-minute increments. The lamp offers three color options in daylight, warm white, and neutral white, which Peng says is fun to have when she’s tired of the same kind of bright light shining in her face.
Best SAD light box
Light intensity: 10,000 lux at 24 inches | UV protection: UV free | Surface area: 22.5 x 12 inches | Flexible/telescoping head: Not adjustable
Both Hoffman and Saltz mentioned this Northstar SAD lamp from the brand Alaska Northern Lights. Unlike other lamps on our list, this one is designed to look less like a traditional lamp and more like a light box. It offers the largest light surface of any SAD lamp on this list at 12.5 by 22.5 inches and a rating of 10,000 lux at 24 inches. And if you have the space for it, Hoffman says “bigger is better,” because it provides a larger field of light therapy and thus more flexibility to go about your daily life.
• Janna Gordon-Elliott, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian
• Hanne M. Hoffman, assistant professor at Michigan State University who studies how light affects our physiology
• Chelsea Peng, Strategist senior editor
• Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist
• Norman E. Rosenthal, the clinician and researcher credited with discovering SAD
• Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital
• Dr. Michael Terman, the president of CET and a professor at Columbia University
• Anna Yeo, Strategist junior writer
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