What Is Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Treatment?

Intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy is a way to improve the color and texture of your skin without surgery. It can undo some of the visible damage caused by sun exposure -- called photoaging. You may notice it mostly on your face, neck, hands, or chest.

IPL may help if you have red, brown, or splotchy skin because of a health condition.

How It Works

IPL uses light energy to target a certain color in your skin.

When the skin is heated, your body gets rid of the unwanted cells, and that gets rid of the thing you’re being treated for. Unlike lasers, an IPL device sends out more than one wavelength of pulsating light. It can treat a range of skin conditions at the same time.

After IPL, you may look younger because your skin tone is more even. And since the light doesn’t hurt other tissue, you can get better quickly.

A board-certified dermatologist should give it. (You might see the letters FAAD -- fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology -- after their name.) In some cases, a nurse or physician assistant might be able to do it. Either way, find someone who’s skilled with IPL.

Who Should Get It?

It works best if you have pale or light brown skin. Talk to your dermatologist if you want to lessen or get rid of:

Who Shouldn’t Get It?

Talk to your doctor first if you:

IPL isn’t a good idea if you:

  • Are sensitive to light
  • Have recently tanned your skin using sunlight, tanning beds, or tanning creams
  • Might have skin cancer
  • Use a retinoid cream
  • Have very dark skin

Effectiveness

How well IPL works can depend on what you want the treatment to fix.

Redness: After one to three treatments, light therapy can get rid of 50%-75% of broken blood vessels for most people. They could completely go away. While treated veins don’t come back, new ones might show up later.

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If rosacea causes your face to flush, IPL can be a good alternative to laser therapy. You may have better results if:

  • You’re under 40
  • Your condition is moderate to severe

Sun damage: You may see 70% less of the brown spots and redness caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Hair removal: You’ll get the most benefit if you have light skin and dark hair. It may not work at all if you have dark skin or blond hair.

Acne: IPL may help if you have acne or the scarring it causes. You may need about six sessions to notice a difference. Research is continuing.

Risks

IPL is safe when done by a trained technician. But the treatment could cause hormonal brown spots to flare up. You could have other unwanted side effects.

Your skin could:

  • Scar
  • Hurt
  • Swell
  • Bleed
  • Become infected
  • Change color
  • Get crusty

Talk to your dermatologist if you feel sick after your treatment or your symptoms get worse.

What to Expect

Before the procedure, don’t:

  • Tan in the sun, in a tanning bed, or with tanning creams for 4 weeks before you go
  • Wax, or get a chemical peel or collagen shots for 2 weeks before
  • Wear perfume, makeup, deodorant, or any skin irritants
  • Take aspirin or another drug that can make you bleed more

Once you’re there, a technician or dermatologist will rub gel on your clean skin. You’ll wear dark glasses to protect your eyes. The handheld IPL device will go right on your body. The session will probably last 20 or 30 minutes. Large areas could take an hour or more.

While most people are fine with the light pulses, the treatment could sting a little. It might feel like someone is snapping a rubber band on you. Your dermatologist can give you numbing cream to put on 30-60 minutes before treatment starts.

What Recovery Looks Like

It may feel like you have a sunburn for 4-6 hours after you’re finished. Ice packs or a cool washcloth can help you feel better.

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Your skin may be red or bruised for a day or two. Some of your brown spots may get darker, but they should peel off within a few weeks.

While you heal:

  • Don’t put on makeup if your skin hurts.
  • Use moisturizing lotion.
  • Protect yourself with sunscreen. Make sure it has an SPF of at least 30 and a physical blocker like zinc. Reapply it every 2 hours, even if it’s not sunny outside.
  • Wash your face with cleanser for sensitive skin.

Your dermatologist can tell you when it’s safe to return to your normal skin care routine. It might take a week.

Most people get between three and seven sessions. It depends on the condition you’re treating. You’ll wait 2-4 weeks between each visit. It may take several weeks for you to notice any changes in your skin.

Things to Keep in Mind

These procedures aren’t cheap. In 2018, the average fee was $400 per session. Usually, cosmetic procedures aren’t covered by insurance. Ask your dermatology clinic if it offers a payment plan.

IPL can make your skin look better, but it can’t stop future aging. It also can’t help the condition that affected your skin. You can get follow-up treatment once or twice a year to maintain your look.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on June 06, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

News release, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery: “New Data From The Aesthetic Society Delineates the Top 5 Procedures Performed by Plastic Surgeons in the U.S. and the Rise in Patient Demand for Nonsurgical Options.”

JAMA Dermatology: “Skin Rejuvenation Using Intense Pulsed Light.”

American Society of Plastic Surgeons: “Scar Revision: Minimize a Scar,” “2018 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report.”  

Harvard Medical School: “Skin Care and Repair.”

The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: “Current Trends in Intense Pulsed Light.”

Michigan Medicine: “Photofacial -- Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Treatment.”

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Wrinkles and other signs of sun-damaged skin can be treated,” “Lasers and lights: How well do they treat rosacea?” 

National Rosacea Society: “Medical Therapy for Rosacea.”

BioMed Research International: “Unconventional Use of Intense Pulsed Light.”

Annals of Dermatology: “The Efficacy of Intense Pulsed Light for Treating Erythematotelangiectatic Rosacea Is Related to Severity and Age.”

Baylor College of Medicine: “Intense Pulsed Light.”

Merck Manuals: “Acne Vulgaris.”

Indian Dermatology Online Journal: “Light-based therapies in acne treatment.”

American Society for Dermatologic Surgery: “Intense Pulsed Light Therapy for Aging Skin.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Intense Pulsed (IPL) Photorejuvenation.”

Lasers in Medical Science: “Lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL) association with cancerous lesions.”

Aesthetic Surgery Journal: “Photorejuvenation: Using Intense Pulsed Light Technology in a Cosmetic Surgery Practice.”

International Journal of Women’s Dermatology: “A review of laser and light therapy in melasma.”

Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency: “Lasers and Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) sources used for cosmetic purposes.”

Golden Gate Obstetrics and Gynecology: “What is Intense Pulsed Light (IPL)?”

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