IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) Treatment

ipl treatment
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IPL is short for intense pulsed light, a popular treatment that treats broken capillaries ("spider veins") and hyperpigmentation ("age spots") caused by age and sun damage. IPL also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, which plumps up the skin and gives you a fresher look. It achieves best results when part of a series of treatments, usually a month apart.

You can usually get an IPL treatment at a medical spa or a clinic that specializes in IPL. Some day spas also offer it, especially if they emphasize skin care treatments with clinical results, but it is much less common there. It is exceedingly rare at resort spas because it tends to hurt!

The ideal candidate for IPL is someone with light skin who has sun damage, broken capillaries, and some laxity or lack of firmness and wants to treat all three conditions at the same time. IPL is sometimes referred to as a photo facial. It is often confused with laser treatments but is not the same thing.

Asians or people with dark skin should be cautious about getting IPL because dark skin absorbs more light energy. Adverse effects include hyperpigmentation, blistering, and even burns. If you have Asian or dark skin and are considering an IPL treatment, see an experienced physician who has treated many patients with darker skin types for both pigmentation and vascular lesions. A physician might also have alternative equipment that can achieve your goals with less risk.

IPL vs. Laser Treatments

IPL uses short blasts of a polychromatic, high-intensity light to penetrate just below the skin's surface, damaging the melanin that makes up "age spots" or the blood vessels that create broken capillaries. The skin repairs the damage, leaving you with an evener skin tone. IPL also boosts the production of collagen and elastin.

It generally takes a series of treatments to see the best results, perhaps three to six treatments, usually a month apart. IPL, which was first introduced in the 1990s, is a good all-purpose treatment. It's not the best at any one thing, but it works pretty well. 

Lasers use a high-powered, direct beam of intense coherent light on a specific wavelength to target a single condition. Because lasers are targeting one thing with a higher level of intensity, they're more effective. If you want to treat age spots and broken capillaries, for instance, that is two different laser treatments, whereas IPL combines it.

IPL at Day Spas

Day spas usually have IPL systems because they are less expensive than lasers and one machine can target several different things. By contrast, a medical spa, plastic surgeon with a medical spa, or dermatologist office might have a whole array of machines, both lasers, and IPL, so they can use the best one for your skin. Some types of skin, especially darker skin tones, need special equipment.

IPL treatments are usually less expensive than laser treatments, so you might want to try that first and see what kind of results you get.

Both lasers and IPL use intense blasts of light and heat, and both can be uncomfortable to painful, depending on the treatment, your skin type and condition, and your own pain tolerance. The operator will probably put a cooling gel on your skin, and cooling devices are often built into the machine.

Operator skill can also minimize pain, but you should expect discomfort at the very least. The traditional explanation of IPL is that it is "a rubber band snapping," but there is heat involved and it can be more uncomfortable than that metaphor indicates. Talk to the person giving you the treatment beforehand to get a realistic idea of how it will feel and what some of the side effects might be.

Things to Be Aware Of

  • IPL can also be used to remove hair, but it is not as effective as laser hair removal.
  • IPL CANNOT get rid of tattoos and should be kept away from any tattoos you have and want to keep.
  • People with Asian skin or darker skin should be extra careful as IPL can sometimes cause hyperpigmentation.
  • You can still get burned with IPL if the operator is not knowledgeable and careful during the treatment.

Things to Look For

  • The operator has an intake form and discusses your concerns before any treatment.
  • The operator has some kind of license and specific IPL training by an outside accredited source, beyond just the company that sold them the machine. Preferably the person is an esthetician. As with lasers, it's an unregulated field and most states don't require a license. Making sure a doctor or nurse or an esthetician is not necessarily a guarantee, because it comes down to the integrity of the person.
  • IPL is not that hard to learn, but the person has to care about what they're doing and have the ethics to know when not to treat something. Those are the safest people because they stick to their limits.
  • If the operator is an esthetician, get a regular facial first before trusting them to give you an IPL treatment. The training and the ethics of the person giving you the treatment is the most important thing to look for. You can be burned with an IPL if the operator doesn't know what they're doing.
  • The operator uses googles to protect your eyes, though this is not as critical as it is with lasers.

Questions to Ask Beforehand

  • "Why am I a good candidate for IPL, and how does it work?" This gives you an idea of how knowledgeable they are.
  • "What licenses do you have, and what's your training in IPL?" This tells you whether they're a skin care specialist or someone who was hired off the street and what kind of special training they have.
  • "How long have you been doing this?" This gives you an idea of their experience level -- but people have been known to lie. You can say you only want someone who has been doing it for at least two years.
  • "Do you have insurance?" This applies both to the spa that is giving the service and the individual.
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