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Whether winter makes you want to sleep all day or you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you may have considered purchasing a light therapy lamp — or, as it’s often called, a SAD lamp — to literally brighten your days. Research has shown that a lamp with light intensity of 10K lux set 16 to 24 inches away at a 45-degree angle from the eyes for 30 minutes can help in treating SAD and other mood disorders.
We tested seven of the most popular, highest-rated SAD lamps. We evaluated everything from the variety of useful settings and features to whether it can survive a tumble off a desk. In the end, three lamps shined brighter — figuratively, not literally — than all the others.
Best light therapy lamp overall
The Happy Light Luxe by Verilux is sleek, slim, packable and stable, and its well-thought-out controls — which were missing from almost every other light that we tested — made customizing the experience a pleasure.
Though not as customizable, the Circadian Optics Lampu performs the most important functions of a SAD lamp like a star. It’s sturdy, well designed, easy to use and bright —and its nonslip bottom should be standard among all SAD lamps.
Best portable light therapy lamp
Although the Circadian Optics Lumos’s surface area is smaller than any of the other lamps that we tested and, therefore, may take longer to produce the full effect, this little workhorse gets the job done and won’t quit on you.
Hands down our favorite SAD lamp, this light has it all with zero unnecessary fluff. It’s packable and powerful, and it’s the most customizable lamp we tested. It’s a true champion, seriously outperforming the competition even at its relatively reasonable price. Each of the extras that it does come with are useful and well thought out. For example, no other light we tested offered a color temperature adjustment. Quick lesson: No light is actually white. Color temperature is the warmth or coolness of the light, or the amount of pink or gold or blue tint. Generally, higher-lux lights like SAD lamps tend to have cooler — more blue — temperatures. But the Happy Light Luxe allows you to adjust its brightness and temperature. Opt for cool light like a summertime sunlight, or go for a warm light, to mimic a cozy late sunrise or early sunset.
The three controls are easy to figure out — with a quick test or read through the instructions — and are right on the front so there’s significantly less fumbling, picking up or feeling around for a button, like on other models that we tested. Overall, setting combinations seem endless, especially when we factor in not just the whopping four brightness levels and three color temperatures, but also a timer that can be set by five-minute increments all the way up to one full 60-minute session. The timer is ideal for a long morning session or an afternoon pick-me-up at the tap of a button. Finding the perfect combination is part of the charm of this lamp; you can adjust the settings until you find which of the 144 possible combinations work best for you.
Other interesting things to note about this lamp are its versatility and durability. It can be mounted on the wall using a simple kit that’s included in the box. Basically, you just swap the foot from the bottom to the back of the light and use a screw with an included anchor to hang it wherever you’d like. This makes it able to work with even the smallest, most cluttered room or desk.
When we drop-tested the UV-free Happy Light Luxe, we satisfyingly pushed it off of a desk onto both a rug and a hard floor from a countertop several times. The attachable foot fell off each time but easily slipped back on without any physical damage or malfunction afterward. Speaking of design, this light is slim, slick and easy on the eyes. The corners are rounded and the matte screen prevents glare whether it’s on or off. The white case could contrast with some decors and could potentially get dusty, but swiping with a damp cloth would easily clean that up.
One odd downfall of this light is that its cord isn’t as long as the competition at just under 6 feet. The other two winners have cords longer than 7 feet, which isn’t a big difference, but we struggled to get the Happy Light Luxe’s cord to reach the outlet behind our 36-inch-deep desk and ended up using an extension cord. We also found ourselves wanting the ability to swivel or raise the light to customize the experience even more.
For $10 less than the overall winner, you can snag the Circadian Optics Lampu. Even in the box, from the very beginning we had a hunch we were going to love this light. The packaging was thoughtful and the design well beyond necessity, which gave us hope that more attention to detail was to come. Turns out we were right. It’s got looks, it produces brilliant light, it’s easy to move around the home or office and it won’t break easily if dropped.
Lampu is more of a modernist sculpture than other lamps we tested, which makes it both simple and a conversation piece. Its circular shape also seems to benefit its durability, because when we conducted the drop test its lack of corners to shatter helped it immensely. After multiple drops, the Lampu still looked and functioned as new. The construction overall feels very solid, with all its components tightly connected with no jiggling or rattling. It got the highest score for the drop test of any lamp we tested, though it is weighty enough that it won’t knock over easily. After much twisting and testing, none of its parts showed signs of loosening. The cord is also much longer than the winner’s — 7 feet 4 inches versus 5 feet 10 inches. The Lampu has a slightly smaller light-surface area than the Happy Light Luxe — 38.5 square inches for Lampu and 54 square inches for the Happy Light Luxe. Something about its round shape, though, made it feel more like a sun lamp and more cozy than the Happy Light Luxe, which seemed more utilitarian with its rectangular shape and stand.
There are several reasons why this lamp didn’t snag our winning spot; however, the biggest is its lack of settings. The Lampu has only three brightness levels that you access by tapping the button one, two or three times. The single button’s placement is also not ideal: It’s on the back of the lamp, so until you have become one with your lamp and know exactly where it is — you can’t feel it because it’s purely touch, not a switch — you will have to pick it up and look for it or feel around until something happens. We found feeling around to be annoying and just picked it up each time, which, admittedly, is also annoying, but faster and less awkward.
It doesn’t have a timer, which means you’ll have to set your phone or something else to know when to shut it off. It doesn’t have color temperature adjustment either, so you’re stuck with the standard cool shine. Also, its glassy face does look shiny and slick, but it can reflect other light sources in the room and cause a slight glare. Speaking of the design, although it looks like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and we appreciated that, it may not work with more traditional decor. A wall-mount option is not included, but for what it lacks in extra features it makes up for with quality construction and thoughtful design — other than that button on the back.
If hopping one planes to different time zones or heading farther north or south regularly are part of your routine, then the Circadian Optics Lumos 2. is the right SAD lamp for you. It folds up in such a fun, swivelly way and emits a surprising amount of light for such a small light-surface area of 9 square inches. The folding could be seen as an issue if the parts were janky in any way, but this lean, mean light therapy machine swivels into uncountable positions so that you can get your shot of 10K lux in almost any scenario.
The swivel is a nice feature that lets you point the light at exactly the right angle. Folded up, the Lumos measures a petite 14 by 2.5 by 1.25 inches, so you can take it with you almost anywhere in your work bag or carry-on suitcase. This long, tall light is also wall mountable, which makes it ready to work in any situation where space is at a premium. Another thing we really like about both Circadian Optics lamps is the organized, well-designed and simple-to-open packaging. When it came time to the drop test, this little guy took a licking and kept on ticking. We thought the slender design would cause it to break apart when knocked off of a counter onto a wood floor, but it survived all of the drop tests completely unscathed.
Although the light is bright and can be swiveled for maximum benefit, the light doesn’t provide a true sunshine experience because of the small surface area, which is why it didn’t take top honors. This lamp also doesn’t have a timer or any other setting beyond the three light brightness settings. The single button is placed right on the front so it’s easy to find and tap once, twice or three times to achieve your preferred brightness, but of the three settings, it seemed like only the brightest could be considered competitive with the other lamps. We tested this on a particularly dark and groggy winter New York City morning and the highest setting was the only one to break through the gray overcast natural light that came in through the window.
The Lumos comes with an attachable foot for using on a desktop rather than wall mounting for added versatility, but it comes across like a bit of an afterthought. This lamp is very lightweight and somewhat unstable on a crowded desk. We’d like to see the base more weighted for maximum stability. The plastic of the base is sturdy, but a nonslip bottom would also be an improvement. As it is, it’s pretty easy to knock over. Even just pushing the button on the front caused it to push back and wobble.
Before committing to purchasing one of these lights you may be asking, “What is SAD, anyway?” Seasonal affective disorder is basically defined as a bout of depression during the same time frame each year for at least two years in a row, followed by remission during the remaining months, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Women and people who live in areas that see less daylight in the winter months seem to be more affected than others, according to the National Institutes of Health.
If that sounds anything like you, the next logical question may be “Can a SAD lamp help?” Since 1984 when it was first researched, bright light therapy (BLT) has proven to improve those winter doldrums again and again. Enter the SAD lamp. Scientists have started zeroing in on exactly what kind of light, when to use it and how much light will do the trick best. The two key things that have been identified in order to get the best results are 10K lux brightness and UV filtered light. In general, the light should be 16 to 24 inches from your face and point toward your eyes from the side and at an angle of about 45 degrees, or halfway between your nose and your shoulder. Never look directly at the light. (You wouldn’t look at the sun, would you? That’s basically what this is mimicking.) Thirty minutes at 10K lux first thing in the morning (generally recommended to occur before 8 a.m.) is the equivalent of one hour of sunrise. See the lamp’s instructions for its specific recommendations.
Before adding a SAD lamp to your morning routine, speak with your doctor. Certain supplements, lifestyles and medical conditions have shown to reduce or negatively impact the use of light therapy. Even with a doctor’s approval, it’s recommended to test your personal reaction to the light by setting it about 18 inches from your face at an indirect angle (ideally 45 degrees from your forward glance) for about 10 minutes. If you feel dizzy, get a headache or experience any other odd symptoms, a SAD lamp, sadly, may not be for you.
To make sure we truly found the best light therapy lamp, we spent weeks testing. We compared performance, build, features, warranty — all by the same criteria. We took notes on how each handled, from unboxing to falling off of a desk onto a hard floor.
As much of the United States is in the danger zone and experiencing those darker months right now while testing, it made for a perfect scenario to test the brightness options and overall light experience. Our home office was overloaded with boxes and cables, but it quickly became clear which were the front runners and which just didn’t have what it takes to edge out the competition. Lining them all up and testing them enables us to identify differences you wouldn’t otherwise notice when using one lamp at a time. Subtle differences in things like brightness and light experience became obvious, while important features like a timer and desk footprint emerged as stark points of differentiation.
All of the lamps we tested met the 10K lux light therapy brightness recommendation, but from there they each provi
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