Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Lasers: The Complete Dermatologist's Guide

woman receiving IPL laser

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, 15 to 50 percent of women experience melasma (the fancy word for skin discoloration), typically between the ages of 20 and 40. Fortunately, thanks to the beauty industry’s latest technology, these percentages don’t have to put us into a frenzy. Sure, there are dozens of efficacious skincare products that work to diminish the appearance of discoloration, but even more than that, there’s IPL. 

Ring a bell? IPL, short for Intense Pulsed Light, is a treatment that uses—you guessed it—light to address and reverse signs of discoloration. And discoloration doesn’t just pertain to age spots and acne scars. Rather, IPL has the ability to improve the appearance of rosacea, broken blood vessels, superficial wrinkles, and more. Intrigued? 

Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about IPL lasers, according to dermatologists. 

What Are IPL lasers?

First things first, let’s be clear: While IPL treatments are widely recognized as a type of laser, Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan, clarified that it really is a high-intensity light, not a laser. 

“Lasers are defined by emitting a single wavelength of coherent light energy whereas IPL devices emit multiple wavelengths of high-intensity light, ranging from 500 to 1,300 nm,” she explains, reiterating that IPL boils down to light, not lasers. “Because of the range of wavelengths, IPL has multiple possible targets, including the dermal matrix, blood vessels, pigment, and hair follicles.” Because of this, Chang says that IPL can be used to treat multiple issues, including facial lines and wrinkles, vascular lesions (including rosacea, broken capillaries, port wine stains), brown spots, acne, and even the removal of unwanted dark hair.

The coolest aspect of IPL is that, as board-certified cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green points out, the high-intensity light penetrates the dermis (aka the second layer of skin) without harming the epidermis. Because of this, visible adverse side effects are less likely to occur. 

Here’s how it works. “The pigmented cells in our skin absorb [IPL’s] light energy, which is then converted into heat in the dermis,” explains board-certified cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban. “The heat then destroys the unwanted pigment. Or, in the case of hair removal, it destroys the [dark] hair and follicle causing damage that prevents the hair from growing again over time.”

The Benefits of an IPL Treatment

  • Diminished the appearance of dark spots
  • Reduces the appearance of rosacea
  • Blurs the appearance of broken capillaries
  • Removes dark hair
  • Evens skin tone

Thanks to IPL’s wider range of wavelengths, Green says it’s able to address myriad complexion concerns across various skin types and tones. 

According to Chang, it’s this versatility that makes IPL such an appealing treatment.

“IPL is able to treat various skin issues using the same device by applying different cut-off filters,” she explains, noting that IPL treatments are typically quick with minimal downtime.

Since IPL uses light energy to target dark discoloration, Shamban says that it’s most effective and safe on lighter skin tones with easy-to-decipher pigmented areas, as darker skin tones can cause the light to target more than the desired treatment area. That said, she says that people with darker skin tones can still consider IPL, they just need to be more careful with the use of this technology. (Booking with a board-certified derm practiced in IPL will ensure the utmost care is taken.)

IPL Lasers vs. Other Facial Lasers

Remember: IPL treatments don’t actually use lasers. That said, IPL still falls into non-ablative (a term well-known in conjunction with lasers) treatments, meaning it doesn’t injure the top layer of skin (much like many fractional laser treatments. Just because IPL can be categorized the same as some lasers don’t mean it equates in terms of effects. While IPL can bring about clear, radiant complexion results, according to Chang, it’s able to do so with less downtime compared to other facial lasers.

Despite their differences, IPL and lasers have a lot in common. “Both IPL and laser target many of the same goals, such as removing age spots, hair and spider veins, or rejuvenating the skin,” Green admits. “IPL generally requires a series of treatments to accomplish the goal, while lasers may complete the treatment more quickly.” But remember: Laser is often associated with more downtime accompanied by apparent healing.

How to Prepare for an IPL Laser Treatment

Since IPL treatments target pigment, Shamban highly advises against getting a tan or applying self-tanner prior to treatment. Additionally, she recommends not wearing any moisturizers or facial oils on the day of treatment, and to avoid fragrances, as IPL can sometimes adversely interact with these things. Lastly, she says to stop all retinoid use for at least a week beforehand so that your complexion is less compromised at the time or treatment. 

In addition to Shamban’s recommendations, Chang says to heavily focus on your sun habits. 

“Avoid sun exposure and wear sunscreen regularly in the weeks before treatment,” she advises. “Having a tan during treatment can increase the risk of side effects, including burns, blisters, and hyperpigmentation.”

What to Expect During an IPL Laser Treatment

Depending on the area being treated—and the concern being addressed—IPL procedures typically take between 20 and 45 minutes. Though, Green reminds us that one session is often not enough to fully address the concern. “It can often take more than one treatment, six weeks apart to achieve best results,” she adds. Which makes sense considering IPL hair removal appointments often require at least half a dozen spaced out over a six to eight-month period. 

Timing aside, IPL patients can expect to wear an eye protection device to shield their eyes from the light, and to have a numbing cream applied. While many dermatologists—Shamban included—say that IPL is associated with nothing more than a slight sensation like a rubber band snapping against your skin, let it be known that if you have the slightest pain intolerance, IPL may be quite uncomfortable for you. Additionally, keep in mind that when you’re on your period, your body becomes more sensitive, so it’s heavily advised against getting IPL in the week leading up to your time of the month, as well as the week of. (If you think you can handle it, kudos to you. But, take it from someone who got under-arm hair removal done during Aunt Flo’s visit and nearly left in the middle of the treatment due to the overwhelming “slight sensation.”)

Cost

Again, this is dependent upon what area and concern you’re treating. As a general rule of thumb though, Green says that most IPL treatments range between $600 and $1,200 per treatment.

Side Effects

Our experts briefly touched on this above so let’s dive all in, shall we?

While IPL is undoubtedly safer in lighter skin types, it is possible to treat concerns on medium-to-dark skin tones so long as extreme caution is taken. Caution is important because, according to Shamban, IPL targets dark spots and melanin in general, so the doctor needs to be to avoid heating all of the skin and causing a complication or damage. “Darker or lighter pigmentation issues can result in directly treated and even non-treated areas,” she adds. 

Since applying IPL to complexions with a propensity to pigment can cause trauma—including the development of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and even keloids—Shamban says that there are other options for dark skin tones that require less worry of caution. The best way to determine whether highly-adverse side effects could be waiting for you on the other side of an IPL treatment is to sit down with your dermatologist and discuss the best options for your skin needs. 

For those that do choose to undergo IPL treatments (regardless of skin tone), know that swelling and short-term redness (24 to 48 hours following treatment) are the most common side effects. “Rarely, blisters, bleeding, pigmentation changes, and scarring [can occur],” Green says. 

Aftercare

Since skin is sensitized following IPL treatment, Green recommends using an ultra-gentle cleanser with warm water on the area, and to avoid products containing benzoyl peroxide, Retin-A, Retinol, or glycolic acids. Additionally, she says to be generous with moisturizer, as ceramides and hyaluronic acid can speed up healing. Lastly, she says to skip out on makeup for 48 hours following treatment and—as always—don’t forget to load up on SPF (30 or higher).

The Takeaway

If you have lighter skin, IPL is hands-down terrific. If you have darker skin, you need to exercise caution when contemplating the treatment. 

“Although IPL treatments are performed widely, even at spas and non-physician practices, it comes with significant possible risks and long-term side effects,” Chang admits. “IPL can be dangerous in the wrong, untrained hands. I have seen numerous cases of burns, long-term pigment changes, and scarring from IPL treatments.” Because of this, It is very important to get treatment by a provider who is well-trained and experienced with IPL. 

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