Light Therapy Project

The Light Therapy Project allows students at the University of Maryland to borrow light therapy devices at no charge from the library.  These devices are used for mood regulation, especially during winter months.

How does it work and why would I use it?

Light therapy, or phototherapy, is the use of specific devices to treat changes in mood that are especially common during the darkest season of the year in climates far from the equator.  Light therapy is a well-established treatment that has been thoroughly validated with scientific research studies and carries a low risk of side effects.  It has primarily been researched for its effects on Seasonal Affective Disorder or the “winter blues,” although there is evidence that it can also be beneficial when a person’s mood is low for other reasons.  

Researchers think that light therapy works by impacting the neurotransmitters in the brain.  Some researchers attribute this effect to light receptors in the eye that inform our circadian (daily wake-eat-activity-sleep cycle) rhythms.  Sometimes, people find light therapy devices helpful to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm even if their mood is fine - like people doing shift work, or who are recovering from jet lag. Most people who experience benefits do so within the first week or two.

  • For more information about the benefits of light therapy:
  • For more information about the circadian rhythm:
  • For more information about the neurobiology of the circadian rhythm:
  • For more information about how to use a light therapy device, please set up an appointment with us, or contact your treatment provider with any questions.

How do I get a light?

The process is simple - and it works two ways!

If you want to borrow one to take home and use, first call the Behavioral Health desk staff at (301) 314-8106 and let them know that you would like to meet with one of our providers to get a referral form for a light therapy device. They will set you up with the next possible appointment. If you are already seeing a provider in the Mental Health Service or Substance Use Intervention programs at the University Health Center, simply discuss your desire for a referral in your next appointment. Once you have a referral from us, just take that with you to the Tech Desk at the Terrapin Learning Commons on the second floor of McKeldin library. They will set you up with a device, or put you on a waitlist if they are currently all checked out.

If you just want to try it once, at the library, there is a way to do that too.

Although the risks associated with light therapy are rare and generally minimal, we think it is important to have a conversation with one of our staff about how to use the device most effectively with the least risk, and to make sure that people who can most benefit from the devices have access to them first.  

As a condition of being able to borrow a light therapy device, you will be periodically required to fill out a nine question survey to assess your mood and ability to meet your life’s demands.   This survey will only be used to assess the usefulness of the light therapy device lending program, and advocate for more light therapy devices if necessary.  Your personal data will be kept private and confidential, as required under state and federal laws and guidelines, and any results will not and cannot be used for research without giving clear, informed consent.  

You will also be expected to treat the devices with care, as you would any other technology borrowed from the library, and damage, loss, or late return of the item will result in fines comparable to those for other library items.

There aren’t any devices left at the library, but I really want one.  What do I do?

Please speak to the librarian at the technology desk, so they can put you on a waiting list if there is one. There may also be a device available to borrow for up to to one hour, without any special permission. If you experience any discomfort, please sit farther from the unit and follow device’s guide for use. Please try to use the device as early in the morning as possible.

If you are reasonably sure that you would like to own a light therapy device, but not sure you will like it, first review the return policy for the company.  You might be pleasantly surprised.  Verilux and NatureBright both offer satisfaction guarantees, provided certain conditions are met, including proper use of the device, making a return within the designated period of time, and purchasing the device directly from the company.  These companies get to decide the requirements for accepting returns, however, and the Health Center cannot be held responsible if you purchase a device and are unable to return it.

I just want to try it once. How do I do that?

If you just want to try a light without borrowing it, some will be available at on the second floor of McKeldin library, near the Terrapin Learning Commons, where students can borrow technology, including the light therapy devices. Staff at the Tech Desk in the Terrapin Learning Commons can provide you with a light therapy device to borrow for up to one hour, without any special permission. If you experience any discomfort, please sit farther from the unit and follow posted guidelines. Please try to use the device as early in the morning as possible.

I want to buy a light therapy device of my own.  How do I do that?

If you already know that you want to purchase a unit, please contact us and we will be happy to assist you selecting from the products on the market - and we may have discounts available through the companies that have provided us with devices!  Good places to start are with NatureBright, Verilux, and Phillips.    

If light therapy is so great, why I have never heard of it?

Most of us tend to feel better during the summer, and since earliest known history, cultures across the world have revered the sun as a healing force.  Fortunately, light therapy isn’t just based on case studies, ancient history, guessing, or the sense that sunlight feels good.  Modern science has validated the power of sunlight to impact our moods - and when sunlight is lacking, light therapy devices can help to alleviate some of the problems that result.  A quick review of the literature reveals an extensive record of clinical trials, for various problems.

Regardless, light therapy is not used very much – and it is hard to be absolutely sure of an answer to why it is not used more.  There are a lot of possible reasons why light therapy, a treatment that has comparatively low cost, low risk, and high rates of effectiveness, is used so little.   The best informed theories we have suggest that this discrepancy between usefulness and actual use is because of the quality of early research, insufficient profits to support widespread marketing, and lack of insurance coverage/reimbursement.  

What types of light therapy devices are available?

Nature Bright and Verilux have generously donated several of their most popular devices to the University of Maryland.  We have the SunTouch Plus, by Nature Bright and the Happy Light 5000, by Verilux.  We may acquire additional lights and models, so for the most up to date information and availability, please go to the Tech Desk in the Terrapin Learning Commons, on the second floor of McKeldin library.  


People with a history or family history of bipolar disorder, cyclothymia, or mania, and individuals taking any psychoactive (including antidepressants) or photosensitizing medications, should consult with a healthcare provider prior to use, and contact their provider immediately if irritability, reduced sleep, or other side effects occur.  

People with eye conditions should consult their healthcare provider before use; this device may accelerate the rate of age-related macular degeneration, similar to any source of bright white or blue light, including the sun.  People who are sensitive to fluorescent light will also likely experience sensitivity to these devices.  There are light therapy devices that rely on LED light instead of fluorescent lighting, but as of September 2014, we do not have any yet.  

Side Effects:

Discontinue use if you experience any discomfort, including headaches, eye strain, irritability or uncomfortable glare.  If these experiences are minor, you may try placing the device farther away from you, on a lower setting, or using it for a shorter period of time.  

Potential side effects include: irritability, sensation of glare, eye irritation and dryness, headache, nausea, and dryness of skin. For more information about side effects:

Tips for use:

The device is usually positioned at a 45 degree angle from the direction you are gazing, and kept on a desk or side table at a height that allows the device to bathe your face in light, without staring directly at it. Staring directly at any very bright light is uncomfortable and not recommended. Feel free to work while using the light - just keep your eyes open - your eyelids block too much of the light! It is best to use the device early in the morning, and typically not advised to use after noon. Even for those who find it helpful in the afternoon hours, using the device too late can interfere with getting to sleep, much as caffeine might.

When you first try the device, start with 5-10 minutes, to allow you time to adjust the placement and see what it feels like. If you are comfortable with this, feel free to increase the duration of time it is on and the level of intensity used. Often, people use the device for between 15 and 45 minutes. If your device does not have a timer, consider setting one of your own - perhaps on your phone or laptop. If you feel uncomfortable, irritated, or experience headache or other discomfort, try turning the device to a lower setting, placing it farther away from you, and/or using it for a shorter period of time. Experiment until you find what works best for you! Read and follow all directions for use (included in device’s box)!