Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on February 04, 2024
8 min read

Intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy, also known as a photofacial, 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.

IPL vs. laser

Both IPL and laser treatments can be used to improve a variety of skin issues. The main difference is that IPL therapy is gentler on the skin and usually requires more sessions than laser therapy for comparable results. Laser treatment is more intense and recovery is longer. It can achieve more noticeable results from fewer procedures. However, unlike lasers, an IPL device sends out more than one wavelength of pulsating light. IPL can treat a range of skin conditions at the same time. Certain skin issues may respond better to IPL or laser. Your dermatologist can tell you which one is a better match for your needs.

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 issue you’re being treated for. 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.

For the treatment, you should seek a board-certified dermatologist (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 in IPL therapy.

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

Talk to your doctor first if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Have a skin condition
  • Have a sunburn
  • Take medication for other conditions such as blood thinners or the acne drug isotretinoin, better known as Accutane

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
  • Are very dark-skinned
  • Have a skin resurfacing disorder
  • Have severe scarring
  • Have keloid scar tissue

On the day of your appointment, avoid using perfume, makeup, and scented products that can irritate your skin.

Does IPL cause cancer?

Research shows that IPL is safe and does not cause cancer. IPL has been used for over 30 years without raising concerns about increasing the risk of skin or other types of cancer.

How well IPL works can depend on what you want the treatment to fix. Some concerns you want addressed might include:

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.

Sun damage .You may see a 70% reduction in 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.

Dry eyes. Usually, dry eyes are first treated with over-the-counter or prescription eye drops and lifestyle changes. But IPL may help if other therapies aren’t working. You are likely to see a decrease of 25%-50% or more in your symptoms.

Acne. IPL may help if you have acne or the scarring it causes. Research is ongoing, but you are likely to have a significant reduction in acne symptoms, with over 90% of people seeing positive results with IPL. You may need multiple sessions to notice a difference.

Rosacea. 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.

IPL treatment is safe when done by a trained technician. But it 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
  • Blister

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

Side effects of IPL hair removal

IPL hair removal may cause short-term side effects. These include:

  • Skin sensitivity
  • Mild discomfort or pain, such as stinging or feeling like you have a sunburn
  • Skin discoloration, such as slight redness

Less commonly, skin may become infected. In rare cases, skin may blister or scar, particularly for those with sensitive skin.

Before the procedure, don’t:

  • Tan in the sun, in a tanning bed, or with tanning creams for 4 weeks before treatment
  • 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
  • Take any medication that will make you sun-sensitive (for example, the antibiotic doxycycline )

Once you’re ready for the treatment, 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 20-30 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 a numbing cream to put on 30-60 minutes before treatment starts.

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.

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 such as zinc. Reapply it every 2 hours, even if it’s not sunny outside.
  • Wash your face with a 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 two to four weeks between each visit. It may take several weeks for you to notice any changes in your skin.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you're considering IPL therapy, including the cost.

  • These procedures aren’t cheap.In 2020, the average fee was $412 per session. Usually, cosmetic procedures aren’t covered by insurance. Ask your dermatology clinic if it offers a payment plan. Some practices also offer discounts with the purchase of multiple sessions.
  • IPL can make your skin look better but can’t stop future aging. It also can’t help the underlying condition that affected your skin. 
  • How long IPL results last can vary. Results can be different based on your area of concern. For example, treated veins or spots don’t come back, but new ones might show up later. You can get follow-up treatments once or twice a year to maintain your look.

While most IPL procedures must be done by a doctor, you can do IPL treatment for hair removal at home. These handheld devices are safe and effective but take more sessions to get the desired results.

At-home IPL is about the same as at a doctor’s office, except it uses a less intense light for safety reasons. You simply touch it to your skin and press the button to flash the light over the areas you want to treat. This process is repeated one to three times weekly.

Other options that may also treat your skin spots, fine lines, and redness include:

  • Microdermabrasion. This uses small crystals to gently buff off the top layer of your skin, called the epidermis.
  • Chemical peels. These are similar to microdermabrasion, but instead of crystals, they use chemical solutions on your face.
  • Laser resurfacing. This removes the damaged outer layer of the skin to promote the growth of collagen and new skin cells. Lasers use only one wavelength of light in a concentrated beam. IPL, on the other hand, uses pulses, or flashes, of several types of light to treat multiple skin issues.
  • Fraxel laser treatment. This is similar to laser resurfacing but doesn’t remove the top layer of skin. It can improve fine lines, skin texture, skin tone, scarring, and dark spots with less recovery time.

IPL treatment can be an effective way to treat a variety of skin conditions such as age spots, fine lines, acne, redness, and unwanted hair. You’re likely to see good results with minimal side effects, but IPL therapy is not right for everyone. Consult with a dermatologist to find out if IPL treatment is a good option for you.

What is the downside of IPL treatment?

The main downsides of IPL treatment are the cost and number of sessions needed to get results. Mild pain and redness also may occur during or after treatments.

How long does IPL treatment last?

Skin improvements often last 6 months to 1 year. Doing more treatments can help you keep your results.

How painful is IPL treatment?

IPL treatment may cause some pain or discomfort during or after treatment. You may feel a slight stinging or burning sensation, or like a rubber band hitting your skin.

Is IPL treatment worth the money?

Whether or not IPL therapy is worth the money is a personal decision. There’s no right or wrong, just what’s right for you. Consider that IPL treatment is safe and effective but isn’t cheap. Also, additional treatments are needed to maintain results.