Intense Pulsed Light

Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Therapy - What You Should Know

Reviewed by Steven H. Dayan, MD

Many people can't tolerate the downtime or may otherwise not be good candidates for laser skin resurfacing. In these cases, intense pulsed light (IPL), or high-intensity pulsed light therapy, may be an option. This skin treatment goes by many other names, including computer controlled light therapy, Light Laser, MultiLight, Photo Laser and various brand names.

In a nutshell, IPL uses broad-spectrum light that filters out unwanted wavelengths as a means of treating a host of skin conditions and abnormalities.

Courtesy of AAFPRS

In fact, IPL can diminish or remove:

  • Age spots
  • Liver spots
  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Facial flushing
  • Redness
  • Broken capillaries
  • Telangiectasias (purple or blue veins on the face, also called spider veins)
  • Hemangiomas (red, purple, or blue birthmarks formed by blood vessels)
  • Freckles
  • Minor sun damage
  • Port wine stains
  • Tattoos
  • Varicose veins
  • Flat Birthmarks
  • Hypopigmentation (pale spots)
  • Unwanted hair
  • Large pores

Unlike laser resurfacing, chemical peel and dermabrasion, there is almost no downtime with IPL. That means no blisters, burns or long recovery period, and you can go right back to your life after your treatment is complete.

This therapy is based on high-intensity pulses of light that penetrate the skin. There are several different machines that emit different wavelengths of IPL to penetrate different distances into the skin.

Different wavelengths treat different skin conditions. To remove body hair permanently or almost permanently, for example, IPL zeros in on the hair follicles and kills them. However, hair grows in cycles and some follicles are lying dormant. Light therapy must hit the hair follicle during its growing phase to work properly.

Are You a Candidate for IPL?

You may not be a good candidate for IPL therapy if you are prone to developing red, raised keloid scars or other forms of excess scarring, hyperpigmentation, or hypopigmentation. You are also not a good candidate for intense pulsed light therapy if you do not react well to burns or if you have diabetes, as this disease may affect your body's wound-healing ability.

Discuss your candidacy with a qualified physician. He or she will examine your skin and any scars you have. You may need to have a patch test to see how you react to IPL. After this test, you have to watch the test area for several days for any reactions such as blistering, pigmentation problems, rashes, or persistent redness. Report any problems to the doctor's office or skin clinic.

If you are deemed an appropriate candidate, your doctor will devise an individualized IPL treatment plan. You will be instructed on what (and what not) to do for the two weeks before your first treatment. This will likely include staying out of the sun and avoiding certain medications that may increase bleeding risk, such as aspirin and ibuprofen.

IPL Treatment

Your technician or doctor will likely apply a topical anesthetic to the treatment area. After this, a cold gel is applied and a glass prism is placed over the treatment area. Pulses of intense light will be flashed through the prism, directed at the treatment area. You will receive several treatments. Your first treatment may not be as aggressive as those that follow. Treatments are usually performed every three to four weeks. The treated area may be slightly pink or red right after your treatment. There may be some mild swelling. Follow your doctor's advice regarding the judicious use of sunscreen with a high sun protection factor after your IPL treatment.

Although rare, blistering or slight bleeding can occur after IPL therapy. Other potential risks may include pigment changes and scarring.

IPL Cost

On average, IPL costs between $300 and $600 dollars per treatment. You can purchase a package of several treatment visits, which can reduce the total costs. Make sure you are clear about all the price points before you begin your IPL treatment series.

About the Reviewer of this Article

Steven H. Dayan, MD, is a facial plastic surgeon based in Chicago, where he founded and serves as a medical director for a skin care center (True Skin Care), a state-accredited educational center for estheticians. He also is founder and medical director for a DeNova Research. Dr. Dayan is board certified in otolaryngology and a member of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. He is also a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and participates in laboratory and clinical research in minimally invasive medical procedures and plastic surgery. He serves on the editorial board of the Facial Plastic Surgery Journal and has written and published extensively in the field. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Dayan attended the University of Illinois Medical School. He completed a residency at the University of Illinois and a facial plastic surgery fellowship.

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