Intense pulsed light (IPL) is a cosmetic skin treatment that may help reduce the signs of aging, remove unwanted hair, lighten darker patches of skin, and improve the appearance of scars and spider veins.

IPL works in a similar way to laser therapy. The difference is that where laser therapy delivers a single wavelength of light energy, IPL delivers multiple wavelengths. This means that IPL can treat a larger area of skin in a shorter time than laser therapy.

This article will explain how IPL works and what people use it for. It will also examine its safety and effectiveness and look at the possible risks and side effects of the procedure.

a woman having ipl treatment to remove hair from her legShare on Pinterest
A person may have IPL treatment to remove unwanted hairs.

IPL uses light energy to target accurately and remove pigmented or damaged skin cells or hair follicles.

Using a handheld device, a medical professional will target multiple wavelengths of light onto the skin. This light heats cells in the skin and breaks them down. The body then removes the damaged tissue naturally.

People may choose IPL as a treatment for a range of skin issues. These include:

People may also commonly use it to remove unwanted hair or tattoos.

IPL is safe for most people but is not suitable for everyone. Pregnant women and people who are on blood thinners, for example, should avoid IPL.

Other factors that make people unsuitable for IPL treatment include:

  • currently or recently taking the acne drug Accutane
  • having active acne
  • suffering from a skin resurfacing disorder
  • being susceptible to keloid scarring
  • having severe scarring
  • having suffered severe sunburn recently

As with any medical procedure, IPL does carry the risk of complications. These include:

  • pain
  • skin discoloration
  • swelling
  • infection
  • bleeding
  • scarring
  • crusting

The effectiveness of IPL depends on many things. It works better on white or light brown skin than on darker skin, for example. Another factor is the kind of equipment a healthcare professional uses during the procedure.

Everyone responds differently to IPL, and most people will need multiple rounds of the treatment before they start to notice results.

Anyone planning on having IPL treatment should speak to a dermatologist about the potential benefits, side effects, and complications.

To prepare for the procedure, a dermatologist will usually ask people to avoid the following for 2 weeks:

  • sunbathing and tanning beds
  • waxing
  • chemical peels
  • collagen injections

Immediately before and after therapy, people should also avoid using any perfume or deodorant on the treatment area.

The American Society for Dermatological Surgery also advise people not to take any aspirin, anti-inflammatory drugs, or herbal supplements before the procedure. These medicines can contribute to the risk of bleeding.

A medical professional will use a handheld device to deliver light therapy. During the procedure, people may feel a pinching sensation. Some individuals have described this as a feeling similar to an elastic band being “snapped” on the skin.

Many IPL providers will help people overcome this discomfort by offering a local anesthetic or chilling gel.

The length and number of sessions needed will depend on each individual’s treatment plan. It is worth noting that it can take anything up to several weeks to notice the results of IPL treatment.

Immediately after the procedure, the treated area may look red or pink. This tends to last for between 4 and 8 hours.

People may also notice a stinging sensation in the 4 to 6 hours after IPL. This feeling may resemble that of having a mild sunburn. A moist cloth or cool pack can help ease the stinging.

Swelling is also common, usually lasting for several days after the procedure.

During the recovery period, people should avoid putting makeup or lotion on the treated area for 24 hours after the procedure or until all the swelling has gone. After this time, individuals should moisturize the treated area at least twice a day for a minimum of 3 months.

IPL treatment may not be the best option for everybody. Some people find it too painful, while others are uncomfortable with the recovery time.

Fraxel treatment is a form of laser treatment that reduces the signs of aging. It is not painful, and most people only need one session rather than the multiple procedures that IPL requires.

People can have Fraxel treatment on the face, neck, shoulders, and chest. As it is a laser treatment, however, it carries the same potential side effects as IPL.

Microdermabrasion is another option for people who want to rejuvenate the appearance of their skin. It removes the outer, dead layers of skin, revealing the fresh, newer skin underneath.

Microdermabrasion results do not last as long as those of IPL or Fraxel treatment. In comparison with IPL, microdermabrasion may be:

  • cheaper
  • pain-free
  • have fewer potential side effects
  • have a shorter recovery time

In terms of hair removal, waxing, or shaving are common alternatives to IPL treatment.

While the results of these more traditional methods do not last as long, they tend to hurt less, have fewer potential complications, and involve little, if any, recovery time.

IPL is a cosmetic skin treatment. People may choose to undergo the procedure to reduce the signs of aging or remove unwanted hair. Other uses include reducing the severity of skin hyperpigmentation, such as freckles, birthmarks, or age spots.

This type of light treatment tends to work best on people with lighter skin, and an individual will typically need multiple rounds of treatment.

IPL is generally safe but can carry potential complications such as pain, swelling, and bleeding. Pregnant women should not undergo IPL treatment.