PHOTO: Dana Holmes/CNN
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Whether winter makes you want to sleep all day, you experience a slight case of the “winter blues” 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 10K lux light set 16 to 24 inches away at a 45-degree angle from the eyes for 30 minutes can help SAD.

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.

The Happy Light Luxe by Verilux ($69.99; walmart.com) was a favorite straight out of the box and continued to consistently impress with each test. This light 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. Nothing came close to this light’s score in total points. It is a practical combination of quality and value, thanks to thoughtful design and construction. Even though three other lamps we tested had significantly higher price tags, their durability and flexibility didn’t come close to that of the Happy Light Luxe.

The Circadian Optics Lampu ($59.99; amazon.com) performs the most important functions of a SAD lamp like a star. It’s sturdy, well designed, easy to use and bright. Also, its nonslip bottom is a feature that we’re surprised wasn’t standard among all of the lamps that we tested. One of the biggest differences between this product and the Happy Light Luxe is the latter’s customization options. Simply put, this lamp doesn’t have a whole lot going on. It has three brightness settings, no timer, no color temperature adjustment and no fold-flat or wall-mount capability.

If you’re a frequent traveler during the darker months, the Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0 Light Therapy Lamp ($39.99; amazon.com) could be your carry-on’s new best friend. Although the light’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. We love how it folds up neatly like one of those snake toys from the ‘80s and packs brightness options and adjustable light direction into a small but mighty package.

Best light therapy lamp overall: Happy Light Luxe by Verilux ($69.99; walmart.com)

Happy Light Luxe by Verilux
PHOTO: Dana Holmes/CNN
Happy Light Luxe by Verilux

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 reasonable price of $69.99. 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 noonday sun, 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 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.

If you’re looking for a light therapy option that works in almost any setting, can be packed up easily and customized to your heart’s content at a great price, the Happy Light Luxe by Verilux is your light.

Runner-up: Circadian Optics Lampu ($59.99; amazon.com)

 Circadian Optics Lampu
PHOTO: Dana Holmes/CNN
Circadian Optics Lampu

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 the sun 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 you’re looking for a well-designed, simple light therapy lamp that’s built to last and will fit on almost any desk, nightstand or other surface, this is the right choice for you.

Best travel light therapy lamp: Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0 Light Therapy Lamp ($39.99; amazon.com)

Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0 Light Therapy Lamp
PHOTO: Dana Holmes/CNN
Circadian Optics Lumos 2.0 Light Therapy Lamp

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.

Still, this is a great light therapy lamp that’s durable and easy to use, and makes for a solid travel buddy.

Everything you need to know about SAD lamps

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.

How we tested

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 provided their own unique experience. From packaging to customizing the light’s angle, brightness and color temperature, we ran each light through the paces to see which rose to the top — more details on exactly how we tested and scored can be found below. Lamps with larger surface areas did produce a more enveloping light that felt less pointy (is that a technical term? No, but you know what we mean) than the smaller lights, but their bulkiness along with other factors made them less appealing overall. Most of the lamps we tested didn’t have timers, which we thought was odd considering there’s a fairly standard recommended time limit for exposure to a light therapy lamp of 20 to 60 minutes. It’s not too much extra work, however, to use an egg timer or the timer on a phone. Our three winners scored high marks in the usefulness of their various light settings and controls as well as their mobility.

This is how we tested each lamp to determine our winners:

Overall performance

  • Sitting time: The lamps fell into three categories for this test. There were those that required a minimum of 15 minutes, those that required a minimum of 20 and those that required at least 30. The lower the required use time, the higher the score.
  • Light quality: Does the light filter out UV light? Does it generate 10K lux of light? Does the light glare? Almost every lamp got the full points for this. Points were deducted for glare and lack of mention of UV filter.
  • Number of settings: All lamps turn on and off, but any setting beyond that scored additional points. This includes swivels, timers, brightness settings, color temperature settings and beyond. More settings meant more points.
  • Versatility: Lights earned points for their ability to be used in various situations, such as on a crowded desk or wall, carried in a suitcase or placed on a hotel nightstand.
  • Heat: The less we felt the heat of the light during a full recommended session, the higher the score. Sweating in your desk chair is gross, but luckily, none of the lamps radiated heat, although some did feel warm to touch.
  • Difference in settings: While testing, we were careful to note whether the settings felt noticeably different — whether compared to each lamp’s own settings or the settings of the competition. The more noticeable, practical and intuitive the settings, the higher the score.
  • Timer: Does the lamp have a timer setting capability? If so, how customizable is it?

Build

  • Durability and quality: The top of the chart for us, as far as build goes, is the quality of the construction and materials. We rattled, we twisted, we knocked them off of counters onto a hard floor twice and off of desks onto carpet two times as well to see if we could damage each light with typical stressors. We also looked at the instructions for cleaning and maintenance and assessed how easy or difficult it is to care for. There were some clear winners in this category and some clear duds.
  • Cord length: It’s surprising how much a few extra inches, or feet, can make in a cord. This is especially important for a lamp that has a high potential to be moved from bedroom to dining table to desk to hotel nightstand. Not being able to reach an outlet means no light therapy, which makes the lamp completely useless. We definitely struggled with getting a few plugged in under the desk and had to opt for an extension cord — yuck. So, we made sure to give lamps with ample cord length a higher score.
  • Overall design: If this light is going to be a permanent fixture in your office or home, you’re going to want it to look good there. Although this may be seen as a subjective analysis, we tried our best to consider how each lamp would fit in a variety of rooms and decor. The more versatile the design, the higher the points. Most of these lights were designed for practical use, but a few stood out as better designed than the others.
  • Button placement: Buttons came in all sorts of shapes, sizes, functionality and locations. Sometimes we were hunting for the switch; other times it was so simple that we wished all lamps could follow suit. We asked ourselves whether the buttons were easy to use and clearly marked.
  • Extras: We made sure to evaluate additional features that weren’t standard across the board to see if they were brilliant or useless. One extra that we saw a few times and loved was a nonskid base — genius.
  • Noise level: Although this was a category for testing, it turned out that none of the lamps made enough noise for us to notice. So, they all earned full points here.

Warranty

Length of warranty ranged widely from one year to seven years, and points were awarded accordingly.

How we rated

Each lamp was evaluated using the metrics described above, then given a score. Individual metric scores added up to a total category score. Categories were then added together to get the final tally of points to determine the winner. Here’s how we broke down the scoring:

  • Overall performance had a maximum of 70 points: sitting time (15 points), light quality (15 points), number of settings (10 points), versatility (10 points), heat (10 points), difference in settings (5 points) and timer (5 points).
  • Build had a maximum of 40 points: durability and quality (15 points), cord length (5 points), overall design (5 points), button placement (5 points), extras (5 points) and noise level (5 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: five or more years (5 points), two to four years (2 points) and fewer than two years (0 points).

Throughout the process, we kept the price tag in mind to make sure that each light was a solid value. It turned out that the top three lights were all in the reasonable mid range and the highs and lows ruled themselves out.

Other SAD lamps we tested

Aura Day Light Lamp, 10,000 Lux of Full Spectrum Bright Light With Adjustable Lux Dial and Timer ($129.89, originally $149.89; amazon.com)

Aura Day Light Lamp
PHOTO: Amazon
Aura Day Light Lamp

With the fourth-highest score behind our top three, we really wanted to like this lamp. As the second-most expensive lamp we tested, we wrongly assumed this light would dazzle us. It didn’t. It completely broke! First, the good stuff: The Aura Day Light Lamp has the lowest minimum recommended exposure time of 15 minutes. It has five brightness and six time settings. The patented LuxDial dimmer knob lets you customize your brightness, or start low and increase the brightness as you adjust to the light. The other buttons have a satisfying gentle click when pushed and are easy to use right on the front. Other notable features are that the Aura is wall mountable and comes with a 7-foot-long cord — one of the longest we tested. However, this lamp failed our drop test. We knocked it off of the desk onto the rug and it made a rattling sound but kept working. When we knocked it off of the kitchen counter onto the hard floor, the light dimmed, flickered, went out and would not turn back on.

Even before the drop test, we could hear rattling inside the light, and the casing felt flimsy right out of the box. The materials didn’t seem tightly put together, and there was a lot of space inside the light that made it bulky on the desktop. Its size wasn’t a major issue — we definitely tested larger lamps — but it was bulkier than the winner and had a larger light-surface area of 96 square inches to go with it. Aura’s design also feels a bit dated, but the dimmer knob and large buttons make it easy for older folks to use. Overall, this light could be good for someone who will leave it in one place (ideally in a carpeted room) and needs a timer as well as easy, clicking buttons and turn dial features.

Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Light Therapy Lamp ($119.99; amazon.com)

Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Light Therapy Lamp
PHOTO: Amazon
Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Light Therapy Lamp

The bulkiest light we tested was hands down the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus. This was a beast to get out of the packaging, required assembly and came with its own tool to put it together. With such effort to get it on the desk along with its $100+ price tag, we hoped it would be the star of the show. Alas, this lamp did not meet our expectations. For such a bulky stand, we wanted it to go higher so that it could fit over our computer monitors, not just over a laptop screen. Also, the swivel only goes up and down, not side to side. It’s still nice to have the ability to adjust, but it feels overengineered while still underperforming.

The large forked base helped stabilize the extra-large and -bright light box that is perched on a swiveling arm, but the top still felt heavier than the bottom, and it was easy to knock it off of the desk with an elbow. After multiple falls, the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus kept on working, so we didn’t dock points there. We were surprised that the swivel arm didn’t break its hinges at all when it crashed to the floor in its bent state, mostly because it seems like it would take the brunt of the weight and pressure on impact. So, we’ll give credit to its very strong construction.

On another note, the slide switch sticks out of the side panel and adjusts from “hi” to “lo” to “off” positions. The switch construction and location make it easy to find but felt a little jangly when we wiggled it. The five-year warranty is a great bonus, but it wasn’t enough to rise this light to the top. If you’re looking for a big, bright and enveloping light that will be a permanent fixture behind your laptop — the low setting works as a desk lamp too — this behemoth could be the lamp of your dreams.

Northern Light Technologies Boxelite ($183.25; amazon.com)

Northern Light Technologies Boxelite
PHOTO: Amazon
Northern Light Technologies Boxelite

We appreciated Northern Light Technologies Boxelite’s black metal casing and massive surface area, but this light box doesn’t have what it takes to be our winner. Here’s what we loved: The large surface area meant the light enveloped us like being outside in summertime without putting off any heat, and we expected the metal to get hot, but it did not. The top got slightly warm to the touch by the end of the recommended time frame of 20 to 30 minutes, but that warmth never radiated out. The basic on/off switch was easy to use and did the job well. We should note that the on/off switch is the only feature on this lamp; there aren’t any settings or adjustments to be made. It also comes with a whopping seven-year warranty — the longest warranty of all of the lamps we tested.

Although packaging wasn’t a specific criterion, it was part of the overall design that we considered. The Northern Light Technologies Boxelite packaging was not impressive, which was surprising considering the price point. The light was simply covered in bubble wrap and packing tape, then placed in a basic cardboard box with an 8.5-by-11-inch black-and-white sheet of instructions. Each time we knocked the Northern Light Technologies Boxelite off of the desk, one of the white plastic screws holding the screen onto the box corners would break off. We ended the drop tests with the light itself still working but only one screw still intact and a flapping screen. There weren’t any extra screws provided in the box, and we couldn’t figure out how to get a broken screw out of the lamp anyway. We thought this would be a great box light for a film photographer to use with slides or negatives, but unfortunately it missed the mark as a SAD lamp due to its construction and lack of versatility and lack of customization.

Verilux HappyLight VT10 ($29.99, originally $39.95; amazon.com)

Verilux HappyLight VT10
PHOTO: Amazon
Verilux HappyLight VT10

At first glance, the Verilux HappyLight VT10 seems quite cute and versatile because of its small size. You could potentially put it in a travel bag or on a crowded desk or small nightstand. Its price tag is also appealing from a value perspective, plus the included instructions are thorough. But in short this lamp was a dud. Because of the small, 20-square-inch surface area, the light felt less bright than the others we tested, and could really use the ability to adjust the angle. There aren’t any brightness settings or other extras to customize the light experience at all. The cord is the shortest we tested at 5 feet long. We could hear rattling pieces when we took it out of the box, as if poorly constructed, not damaged in transit. Our initial reaction to the rattling pieces was proven correct during the drop test. First, pieces broke off of the top and bottom, then on the second drop, the entire lamp shattered all over the room, including the fluorescent lightbulb. Overall, this lamp is not even worth the low price tag. Spending a bit more will get a much better and long-lasting product.

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