IPL Photofacial FAQs

IPL Photofacial: The Claims

IPL Photofacial: What Is It?

A photofacial, or fotofacial, also known as photorejuvenation, is a treatment touted to reverse sun damage, even out facial color as well as improve tone and texture in the process. In other words, photofacial treatments reportedly:

  • tighten pores
  • reduce the severity of acne
  • reduce the appearance of or eliminate sun spots and freckles
  • lessen hyperpigmentation
  • treat skin flushing and skin redness
  • reduce the appearance of scars (acne, chickenpox, etc.)
  • reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • reverse sun damage
  • treat vascular lesions (broken capillaries, blood vessels, telangiectasia, rosacea)
  • improve facial contour
  • tighten skin
  • boost collagen and elastin production

Curious as to what effect an IPL photofacial treatment would have on my own skin, I put these claims to the test, with the help of Montreal’s Spa Évia.


IPL Photofacial FAQs

From what risk factors are involved to how to prepare the skin before undergoing a treatment, anyone considering IPL treatments is well-advised to consider the following questions.

  • What is an IPL photofacial exactly?
  • Is IPL the same thing as a laser?
  • What are the risk factors associated with IPL photofacials?
  • Who is authorized to administer IPL photofacial treatments?
  • Do IPL photofacials hurt?
  • How many treatments are required?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What do I need to do before undergoing a photofacial treatment?
  • What do I need to do after undergoing a photofacial treatment?
  • Is there any downtime after undergoing an IPL treatment?

What Is an IPL Photofacial?

In the words of medical aesthetician Natalie Kita, IPL, which stands for intense pulsed light, “is not a laser but is a powerful light source that is used for skin rejuvenation and has the ability to penetrate the skin with minimal skin damage. Like the laser, it works by filtering various wavelengths of light to react with specific skin conditions,” effectively stimulating skin regeneration in the epidermis as well as the dermis via increased collagen and elastin fibre production by gently injuring the deep layers of the skin while sparing damage to its outer layers, inducing a natural wound healing mechanism.

This controlled injury imposed on the dermis, which is below the skin’s most superficial layer, the epidermis, is a major factor in what leads to reportedly younger, fresher, tighter skin.

As physician Heather Brannon explains, “the effects of aging on the dermal layer are significant. Not only does the dermal layer thin, but also less collagen is produced, and the elastin fibers that provide elasticity wear out. These changes in the scaffolding of the skin cause the skin to wrinkle and sag.” By stimulating their production, you could say IPL photofacials, at least in theory, turn back the clock.

IPL photofacial treatments also have an impact on acne, reducing sebaceous gland activity as well as constricting blood vessels to reduce the appearance of broken capillaries or spider veins and targeting dark pigment, which lessens the appearance of dark spots.

IPL Vs. Lasers: What's the Difference?

Intense pulsed light is not a laser per se. It’s an intense light source. But so is a laser, fundamentally-speaking, albeit a far more intense light source. What makes IPL different from laser is that it directs a broad-spectrum high intensity light pulse on the skin instead of a more invasive, precisely calibrated laser beam set on a narrower, specific wavelength.

In other words, IPL operates on a wider range of wavelengths and thus, one IPL machine can treat more than one condition, using special filters to remove unwanted wavelengths and keep only those required for the specific skin concern being addressed.

So if a clinic or spa has an IPL machine, then it's safe to assume a variety of skin conditions as well as hair removal can be addressed whereas lasers work on a narrow wavelength range, which means a clinic may be able to only address one specific skin concern with one laser machine.

The downside of IPL is that while each individual treatment is allegedly less expensive, safer and gentler than laser, it is also less intensive and as such, the results are not quite as dramatic. Therefore, more repeat visits may be required to produce desired results.

Another consideration that may or may not affect one’s decision to undergo a photofacial is the dearth of research studying the long-term impact of IPL treatments, which is to be expected with a technology that’s younger than lasers, only in use since 1995.

Also note that a series of lifestyle measures need to be adhered to before being treated as well as after an IPL photorejuvenation session to maximize results and minimize any potential risks

IPL Photofacial Risks

What Risks Are Associated with Photofacials?

Considering that IPL, or intense pulsed light, is a fairly new technology only in use since 1995, it’s difficult to gauge what potential long-terms effects are associated with photofacial treatments, if any.

What does rise to the surface after a couple of Google searches is the glaring number of “horror stories” circulating on the Internet over the treatments, complaints arising over loss of skin tone, the appearance of pitted, orange peel skin, more fine lines and other claims that suggest the treatment had the opposite effect of what it’s touted to do.

What is not clear is whether these individuals followed pre- and post-care requirements to the letter, with the vast majority of anecdotal evidence I sorted through --i.e., several hundred forum entries-- making no mention of how daily habits were adjusted to ensure maximal results.

In one of the few cases that gave some kind of indication as to what lifestyle precursors were engaged in before getting treated, the woman mentioned using Retin-A for three weeks prior to treatment, which is the very thing you’re supposed to AVOID.

Clients should full out stop using any kind of Vitamin A acids on their face --retinoic acid, glycolic acid, tretinoin (Retin-A), Accutane, alpha-hydroxy acids, etc.-- 60 days before IPL administration. Ironically, no one in that particular forum thread seemed aware of that fact.

And for every horror story, there is arguably a happy one, with satisfied customers singing IPL photofacial’s praises, claiming tighter, brighter skin, clearer complexion, faded brown spots and the list goes on.

Finally, others claim it didn’t do very much, but again, it’s difficult to assess whether they underwent the recommended number of sessions or not since this crucial piece of information is generally not specified.

Note that the ideal candidate for IPL photorejuvenation is white, untanned, still has some elasticity in the skin, is not pregnant and has not taken Accutane in at least 6 months.


Risks and Side Effects Associated with IPL Photofacials

  • skin redness, tenderness and swelling 48 hours to one week post-treatment
  • bruising (encouraged by the use of aspirin, ibuprofen, or Aleve within one week of treatment)
  • blisters and burns (rare)
  • unwanted changes in pigmentation (white or dark patches), more likely to occur in dark-skinned or tanned individuals
  • scabbing (common with brown spots, which are supposed to rise to the surface, crust over and eventually flake off)


Photofacial Contraindications​

  • recent sunburn or suntan
  • unprotected sun exposure, tanning bed or solarium use 4 weeks prior to treatment
  • pregnancy
  • breastfeeding
  • cancer
  • lupus
  • hypopigmentation (e.g., vitiligo)
  • history of seizures
  • history of keloid scarring
  • severe dermatitis, active inflammatory acne or eczema (within the treatment area)
  • active infections
  • Accutane use in the last 6 months
  • diabetes medication
  • herpes simplex outbreak (within the treatment area)
  • dark skin
  • Vitamin A acids (retinoic acid, glycolic acid, tretinoin (Retin-A), Accutane, alpha-hydroxy acids) used within 60 days of treatment
  • photosensitizing medications
  • presence of a pacemaker
  • presence of surgical metal pins or plates under the skin of treatment area
  • use of St. John’s Wort within three months prior to treatment
  • blood-thinning agents (Aspirin, ibuprofen, or Aleve used within one week of treatment, anticoagulants)


How to Minimize IPL Photofacial Risk Factors:

IPL Photofacial Administration Qualifications

Who is Authorized to Administer IPL Photofacial Treatments?

This appears to be a grey area, at least in the United States. Who can administer IPL treatments varies from state to state. Another point to consider is IPL machines usually, or at least should have a registration accreditation program set up to ensure only qualified professionals use the equipment.

In the case of Sheerwave IPL RF, the brand of IPL equipment used on me during my photofacial treatments, the distributor insists on the following prerequisite to operate the device:

“MD, Esthetician degree or DEP as an esthetician, nurse or 5 years practicing in the esthetic industry if treated in Quebec. Check with your state board for legislation on the use of the IPL in your state and insurance policy."

As for Canada’s regulations with regards to IPL administration qualifications, it’s not clear. My request for information was not addressed nor acknowledged by taxpayer-funded health agency Health Canada (with more than 72 hours notice) in time for publication. Consider contacting Health Canada’s Medical Devices Bureau yourself for more information

Do Photofacials hurt?

Do Photofacials Hurt?

I address that question in my IPL photofacial review, having undergone the procedure myself.

How Many Photofacials Are Needed

How Many Photofacial Treatments Are Required to See Results?

Anywhere from 2 to 6 treatments are recommended for optimal results, depending on the skin conditions being treated. Read up on what happened with my own treatment plan to find out how many I needed.

How Much Do IPL Photofacials Cost?

That rests entirely on what’s being treated and where you live, with prices varying significantly. In the case of Montreal’s Spa Évia, each session ranged from $75 to $300*, depending on the treatment area.

*Note that prices are subject to change without notice.

Photofacial Preparation: What Do I Need to Do Prior to Treatment?

In order to minimize any potential side effects, individuals preparing to undergo an IPL photofacial should:

  • avoid going in the sun without SPF30 sunscreen (must contain UVA and UVB filters) for at least 4 weeks prior to treatment
  • ensure treatment area is free of sunburn, suntan, herpes outbreak (cold sores), inflammatory acne, eczema, hypo or hyperpigmentation
  • avoid over-the-counter blood-thinning agents for at least a week (Aspirin, ibuprofen, or Aleve)
  • stop using any form of Vitamin A acid for at least 60 days, including retinoic acid, glycolic acid, tretinoin (Retin-A) and alpha-hydroxy acids
  • stop using Accutane for at least 6 months
  • bring contact lens case and solution as you’ll be required to remove contact lenses before treatment
  • bring sunscreen that's at least SPF30 to the appointment; you'll need to apply it after the treatment

IPL Facial Aftercare: What Do I Need To Do After the Treatment?

In order to minimize any potential side effects, individuals who’ve just undergone an IPL photofacial should:

  • immediately apply moisturizer and a full spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 protecting against UVA and UVB rays
  • wear full spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 protecting against UVA and UVB rays, every day on the treated area for at least 30 days (failure to do so can result in complications and skin damage)
  • avoid the sun as much as possible for the duration of the treatment plan as well as the next 30 days following the final IPL photofacial treatment
  • avoid applying foundation or powder makeup immediately after the treatment session, if possible
  • not take hot baths for 48 hours following treatment (hot showers not recommended either, hot water must not touch the treated area, warm showers are fine)
  • not engage in strenueous exercise that produces perspiration for 48 hours in order to avoid infection
  • not scratch or pick treated area to avoid infection
  • as with pre-treatment measures, avoid using any form of Vitamin A acid for the duration of the treatment plan, including retinoic acid, glycolic acid, tretinoin (Retin-A) and alpha-hydroxy acids
  • as with pre-treatment measures, avoid using Accutane
  • moisturize frequently

Is there any downtime with IPL Photofacials?

No. Unlike with most laser treatment, which often require a few days of recovery as a result of extreme redness, blistering and peeling, an IPL treatment requires no downtime, appearing in most cases as if one has just a slight sunburn or exercised on a cardio machine for an hour. You can book an appointment on your lunch break and go back to work right after, with colleagues none the wiser.

Read about my experience with IPL photofacials for additional insight.

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