What it does
IPL stands for intense pulsed light. It’s a type of light therapy used to treat wrinkles, spots, and unwanted hair.
You can use IPL to minimize or remove:
- age spots
- sun damage
- varicose veins
- broken blood vessels on your face
- hair on your face, neck, back, chest, legs, underarms, or bikini line
The difference between IPL and laser treatment
IPL is similar to a laser treatment. However, a laser focuses just one wavelength of light at your skin, while IPL releases light of many different wavelengths, like a photo flash.
The light from IPL is more scattered and less focused than a laser. IPL penetrates down to the second layer of your skin (dermis) without harming the top layer (epidermis), so it causes less damage to your skin.
Pigment cells in your skin absorb the light energy, which is converted into heat. The heat destroys the unwanted pigment to clear up freckles and other spots. Or, it destroys the hair follicle to prevent the hair from growing again.
You can use IPL anywhere on your body, but it may not work as well on uneven areas. It isn’t recommended for people who tend to get thick, raised keloid scars or who have darker skin tones. It’s also not as effective on light-colored hair as it is on darker hair.
How to prepare
Before your IPL procedure, your skin care specialist will examine your skin and let you know what to expect. Let them know if you have any skin conditions that might affect healing after your treatment, such as inflammatory acne or eczema.
Your skin care specialist may recommend that you avoid certain activities, medications, and other products for two weeks prior your procedure.
Costs and insurance
The cost depends on the type of condition you’re having treated and the size of the treatment area. On average, IPL costs $700 to $1,200. You might have to pay more for anesthesia, tests, follow-up visits, or medicines. Because IPL is considered a cosmetic procedure, most health insurance plans won’t cover the cost.
What to expect during the procedure
Your skin care specialist first cleans the area that’s being treated. Then they rub a cool gel onto your skin. Then, they apply light pulses from the IPL device to your skin. During your treatment, you’ll need to wear dark glasses to protect your eyes.
The pulses might sting your skin. Some people liken the feeling to being snapped with a rubber band.
Depending on which part of your body is being treated and how large the area is, the treatment should take 20 to 30 minutes.
To get the results you want, you may need to have three to six treatments. Those treatments should be spaced about one month apart to let your skin heal in between. Hair removal requires 6 to 12 treatments.
How well it works
Newer IPL devices work about as well as laser treatments for some cosmetic treatments, such as fading blood vessels in the skin. For hair removal, IPL works better on thick, dark hair than on fine, light hair. You may need to have several treatments to achieve your desired result.
Most people experience mild redness or swelling after the procedure. This typically fades within a day or two.
In some cases, you may experience:
- change in skin color
What to expect afterward
You should be able to go right back to your regular activities. The treated area of skin will be red and sensitive for a few hours, as if you got sunburned. Your skin may be slightly swollen, too. Your skin will continue to be sensitive for a couple of days after the procedure. You may need to avoid using hot water on it until your skin heals.
Alternatives to IPL
IPL isn’t the only method used to remove lines, spots, and unwanted hair. Your other options include:
Lasers: A laser uses a single, focused wavelength of light to remove unwanted hair, wrinkles, sun damage, and other spots. If the laser removes the top layer of skin, it’s considered an ablative treatment. If it heats the underlying tissue without damaging the top layer, it’s considered nonablative. Laser treatments require fewer sessions than IPL, and they can be used effectively on dark skin. Costs for laser skin resurfacing average around $2,300.
Fraxel laser treatment: The Fraxel laser is considered a nonablative treatment because it penetrates under the surface of the skin without harming the top layer. Some Fraxel treatments treat a fraction of the skin and may then be termed a fractionated laser, treating part of the skin in an ablative manner. Fraxel laser can be used to treat sun damage, lines and wrinkles, and acne scars. After the treatment, the skin regenerates itself. You’ll need several treatments to see results. Fraxel laser treatments cost around $1,000 per session.
Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion uses an abrasive device to gently sand off the top layer of your skin. It can be used to fade age spots and areas of darkened skin. It can also reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles. You’ll need a series of treatments to see improvement, and the results are usually temporary. The average cost of a session is $138.
The bottom line
Here are the pros and cons of IPL compared to other cosmetic treatments.
- The treatment works well to fade lines and spots and get rid of unwanted hair.
- The sessions are quicker than with other methods.
- The light doesn’t damage the top layers of skin, so you’ll have fewer side effects than with a laser or dermabrasion.
- The recovery is fast.
- You need to return for several treatments to get the results you want.
- IPL doesn’t work well on dark skin and light hair.
Discuss all of your options with your skin care specialist, including the benefits, risks, and costs, to decide whether IPL or another treatment will work best for you.