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.” Dr. Janna Gordon-Elliott, psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian cautions, however, that since SAD lamps aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s important not to just “buy the cheaper thing on Amazon, or the thing that’s more portable,” she says. A good SAD lamp should be of adequate size (the light surface should be large, about 12 inches–by–18 inches); brightness (look for a measurement of 10,000 lux); viewing angle (it should 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, I spoke with three experts about the ones to look for, and though they were less specific about particular brands they like, they were very specific about the criteria of a good SAD lamp, all of which the below lamps fulfill — for best results, use it first thing in the morning for 20 to 30 minutes, positioned about 14 inches away from your face.
“The more surface area, the better,” says Rosenthal. This lamp has a big screen with plenty of surface area. It won’t win any awards for its design, 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. “[The smaller lights] advertise themselves as having 10,000 lux,” says Rosenthal, but you only get that if your head is right in front of it and remains in the exact right position. With a larger surface area of light, you can move your head naturally without worrying about losing optimal contact with the light. This frees you up to read, write, or use your computer while getting your “30-minute dose of light.”
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. This model, the Boxelite OS, is now the only one officially endorsed by CET. Dr. Michael Terman, president of CET and a professor at Columbia, worked directly with the manufacturer to build this to CET’s specifications.
On paper, it has many of the same features as the Carex. It has a large screen with adjustable height and tilt, and like the Carex, you get 10,000 lux at 14 inches. At almost double the price of the Carex, it’s hard to recommend this one if cost is an issue, but 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.
This is very similar to the CET-approved model above, and might be a better option for most people. All the stats are the same: 10,000 lux at 14-inches, 3,500 Kelvin color temperature, same screen size, and same manufacturer. There are two differences: The Boxelite screen is in “portrait mode” while the CET Boxelite OS’s screen is in “landscape,” and the Boxelite does not shine from above as recommended by our experts for optimal benefits. But, this one is $55 less expensive, and it takes up less table real estate. The only downside is you don’t get the expert-recommended downward-facing angle unless you jury-rig something yourself.
Something of a mash-up between the Carex Daylight Classic Plus and the Boxelite OS. It has all the features our experts recommend: large screen, adjustable tilt, and 10,000 lux at 14 inches. If you’re comfortable buying a slightly older model, this is a great way to save a little money and still check all the boxes. Plus, even though it’s an older model, it’s still backed by Carex’s five-year warranty. And since this one — like the Boxelite — is elevated on thin legs, you can use the space beneath it to read, write, or rest a cup of coffee.
This one is a bit smaller than our recommended size, but we wanted to include a more portable option. 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.
Another smaller-than-recommended option that’s still a good size. Verilux is a well-regarded brand, and reviewers on Amazon love this one. This is rated 10,000 lux at six inches, which is not optimal, but could work if you don’t mind placing it close by, or if you are more sensitive to light. The 10,000 lux standard might sound arbitrary, but it’s based on clinical research. “In general, I would definitely recommend 10,000 lux of illumination. [There’s] not adequate evidence to support something of lower intensity,” says Gordon-Elliott. If you still prefer to use a smaller light, 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.
The briefcase-style handle and metal frame make this an extremely durable option that would be easy to transport. It’s also rated 10,000 lux at 24 inches, which is the strongest light rating we found anywhere. So if your space is arranged in a way that it would be hard to place this close to you, or if you simply prefer to be further away from the light, this is the one to choose. It’s also available to purchase with an included floor stand if you want more flexibility in terms of placement. The NorthStar is like the vintage Rolls Royce of SAD lamps; it’s a little clunky, but it’s immensely well-made and built to last.
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.
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