Periodic, well timed exposure to light is important for our health and wellbeing. Light, in particular in the blue part of the spectrum, is thought to affect alertness both indirectly, by modifying circadian rhythms, and directly, giving rise to acute effects. We performed a systematic review of empirical studies on direct, acute effects of light on alertness to evaluate the reliability of these effects and to assess to what extent they depend on other factors, such as time of day, exposure duration and sleep pressure. In total, we identified 74 studies in which either light intensity, spectral distribution, or both were manipulated, and the effects on behavioral measures of alertness were evaluated, either subjectively or measured in performance tasks. The results show that increasing the intensity or the color temperature of polychromatic white light in general has been found to increase subjective ratings of alertness, though a substantial proportion of these studies failed to find significant effects. There is little evidence in the literature that these subjective alerting effects of light also translate into improvements on performance measures of alertness. For monochromatic or narrowband light exposure, some studies have shown improvement in reaction time tasks with exposure to blue light, but generally this was not accompanied by changes in subjective alertness. Thus, the alerting effects of light are far less clear than often suggested. We suggest that in future studies more attention should be paid to other factors that may influence the effects of light, such as chronotype, circadian phase, homeostatic state and prior light history.