What if you could just beam a stream of light at a broken blood vessel or age spot and—poof! — it disappeared? That would certainly pique the interest of anyone with skin (that’s 100% of us!). Though intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments don’t quite rid skin of flaws with just one treatment, they show a ton of promise for people suffering from redness and hyperpigmentation. Here, we look at how these light pulses aim to give you more perfect skin.
What is IPL?
IPL (also listed on treatment menus under photorejuvenation, photofacial or fotofacial) is a non-laser filtered flash lamp device that emits polychromatic, noncoherent, and noncollimated light (420–1,400 nm) with varying pulse durations.
Confusing, yes, but what you really need to know is that IPL treatments are non-invasive and non-ablative, meaning they target the lower layers of skin without affecting the top layers; are administered by a skin professional; and consist of a series of high-intensity pulses of broad-spectrum light that work to improve a laundry list of skin conditions.
But how does IPL work?
Now for more science talk: When a pulse of light hits the skin, its light energy is absorbed into the skin’s chromophores, which is a fancy term for the part of a molecule that gives it its color. This process converts light energy to heat energy, which causes damage to the specific target area. Damage, you say? Well, sort of: Think of IPL as a heat-seeking missile that hits its target (for example, unwanted melanin in an age spot) and destroys it.
IPL systems are often grouped with lasers, but they differ in that IPL delivers various wavelengths in each pulse of light instead of just one wavelength like a laser. This makes them somewhat less effective than lasers, yet preferred by patients seeking minimal downtime. Most IPL systems use filters to contain the energy output so that it’s confined to the desired treatment area, thereby enhancing dermal penetration where you want it with minimal impact on surrounding skin structures.
So what skin issues does IPL address?
As previously mentioned, IPL helps with the reduction of hyperpigmentation from age spots, freckles, certain types of birthmarks and other skin issues like melasma. IPL can also aid in minimizing redness, rosacea, and dilated or broken capillaries as well as diminish the ruddy effects of flushing. Acne sufferers could benefit from IPL’s ability to decrease pore size—albeit, minimally—and reduce oil production temporarily. As an anti-aging treatment, it also fairs well: IPL stimulates collagen production, which in turn helps smooth and tighten skin. For those looking to rid themselves of hair, IPL is also a popular mode of hair removal.
What does an IPL treatment involve?
First, be sure to consult with your dermatologist or plastic surgeon to make sure that IPL treatments will deliver on your expectations. Once you’ve decided that IPL is the right path for your skin issues, you’ll want to commit to four to six sessions every three to six weeks, depending on your practitioner’s recommendations. Sessions typically last around 20 minutes, and you’ll want to avoid sun exposure in the weeks leading up to the treatment as well as after treatment for the best results.
During an IPL session, you’ll experience light pinching or snapping sensations—all relatively painless. Some practitioners will apply a topical anesthetic to help ease any discomfort. With little to no downtime, some people even find themselves back at work the same day as treatment.
Does IPL have any side effects?
As with all skin treatments, some people experience side effects with IPL, which include tenderness after treatment, slight swelling and redness, hair loss or bruising. In rare cases, blistering can occur or pigment cells can become damaged, leaving behind a darker or paler patch of skin. Talk with your dermatologist about all possible side effects before committing to any treatment.
Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.