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. In total, we identified 68 studies in which either light intensity, spectral distribution, or both were manipulated, and evaluated the effects on behavioral measures of alertness, either subjectively or measured in reaction time performance tasks. The results show that increasing the intensity of polychromatic white light has been found to increase subjective ratings of alertness in a majority of studies, though a substantial proportion of studies failed to find significant effects, possibly due to small sample sizes or high baseline light intensities. The effect of the color temperature of white light on subjective alertness is less clear. Some studies found increased alertness with higher color temperatures, but other studies reported no detrimental effects of filtering out the short wavelengths from the spectrum. Similarly, studies that used monochromatic light exposure showed no systematic pattern for the effects of blue light compared to longer wavelengths. Far fewer studies investigated the effects of light intensity or spectrum on alertness as measured with reaction time tasks and of those, very few reported significant effects. In general, the small sample sizes used in studies on acute alerting effects of light make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions and better powered studies are needed, especially studies that allow for the construction of dose-response curves.