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 Tweakments

Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and Broadband Light

What is IPL?

Like laser, IPL is a technology that uses light to achieve its effects. But unlike lasers, which use a specific wavelength to send beams of light that hit a precise depth in the skin, IPL is a broad-spectrum light, a collection of different wavelengths of light.

IPL devices are less complex than lasers and also less expensive. IPL technology has been widely available for 20 years and is a cheaper and less sophisticated technology than laser. For instance, beauty salons can often stretch to the price of an IPL machine, which may cost up to £40,000, whereas lasers start at around £40,000 and can go all the way up to £80,000.

IPL 100

EXPECT TO PAY

£ 150 - 195

TWEAKMENT TIME

30 minutes

LONGEVITY

6 - 12 months

ANAESTHESIA

None

DOWNTIME

None

How does IPL compare to lasers with treating pigmentation?

Briefly, both IPL and lasers work well for treating pigmentation.

IPL is a relatively inexpensive treatment, so it will be cheaper than laser treatment, but you may need more sessions of IPL. Lasers offer a more hardcore approach to pigment-busting and are very effective. They are likely to cost more, depending on how much treatment you need, but you may need fewer sessions than you would of IPL.

You will get the best results if you find a practitioner who really knows their machine(s) and has many years’ experience in how to get the best out of it. With light treatments, as with so many other areas of aesthetics, it is the expertise of the practitioner that really makes the difference to the outcome.

pigmentation

intense pulsed light IPL

How long does IPL last?

This is kind of a trick question. The answer is: the effects of IPL are permanent, but they don’t prevent the problems recurring.

For example, if you have IPL treatment to get rid of thread veins, the IPL breaks up the pigment in the veins, and your body subsequently disperses the pigment. However, you may get other thread veins in a year or two.

Similarly, if you have age spots treated using IPL, those age spots will be gone, but other age spots are likely to develop as you age.

If the problems recur, you can simply have IPL treatment on the new instances of the problems.

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How does IPL treat pigmentation?

IPL can reduce age spots – which are clusters of pigment that have developed on the skin over time, and can soften patchy skin pigmentation that has resulted from exposure to ultraviolet light. It can also be useful to improve melasma, the butterfly-shaped pigment patches that often occur during pregnancy, but because melasma is a condition that is driven by hormones, your practitioner needs to assess carefully whether you are a suitable candidate for treatment. Most practitioners prefer to treat melasma with appropriate prescription skincare.

In general, the light emitted by the IPL device is attracted to the pigment – the brown melanin – in the skin and shatters it into fragments that the body can clear away. The treated spots look darker for a few days before they start to disappear. To get the best results usually requires two or three rounds of treatment.

Because IPL treatment targets pigment in the skin, it works better on paler skins. If IPL is used on darker skin tones there is a risk that it could result in hyperpigmentation — creating patches of darker pigmentation – which is the opposite of the effect that you are hoping for. IPL treatment can’t be done if you have a tan – after sun exposure, clinics should make you wait for four weeks before treatment. After treatment, you must protect the skin with high-factor SPF.

Pigmentation before and after

Are there any side effects to IPL?

IPL is considered a safe treatment, but it can still have side effects. These are the four side effects you’re most likely to experience:

  1. You may feel discomfort or pain during the treatment.
  2. Your skin may turn pink and may become somewhat sore after the treatment.
  3. For a few days after IPL, your skin may be red, or may swell or peel, as if you had suffered a mild sunburn – though be aware this is unusual, and it may be an indication that the treatment you were given was at too high a level.
  4. If you have had freckles or age spots treated, they will look darker for up to a week before gradually disappearing.

About one in ten IPL patients also experiences bruising after treatment.

Two other side effects that occur occasionally after IPL treatment are hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation:

  • Hyperpigmentation means ‘too much pigmentation’. In hyperpigmentation, a treated area of skin becomes darker – much like when you get a suntan – because the treatment has stimulated melanin from epidermal melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin. Hyperpigmentation is more likely to occur on darker skin, and it can usually be reversed by treatment. But it is a compelling reason for not treating darker skin with IPL.
  • Hypopigmentation means ‘too little pigmentation’. Hypopigmentation occurs if the IPL treatment heats up the melanocytes to the point at which it destroys them, leaving pale patches. Hypopigmentation is not reversible.

For more information about these issues, read my pigmentation factsheet.

IPL Before & After


FAQ ABOUT Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and Broadband Light


Isn’t IPL used for hair-removal?

Yes, IPL is used for hair removal – in fact, that’s its most frequent use. But IPL is also great for reducing pigmentation in the skin. For sorting out pigmentation problems, the practitioner will the same kind of IPL device as for hair removal, but with a different setting. IPL can also be used to stimulate collagen production within the skin, but it is more often used for pigment-busting or hair removal than for skin rejuvenation.

Similarly, laser is also used for both hair removal and for tackling pigment in the skin (and for skin rejuvenation), but the practitioner will use a different type of laser for each task rather than the same laser with a different setting.

How does IPL work?

An IPL machine produces flashes of intense light. The light includes different wavelengths, so it has a scattergun effect and strikes at different depths into the skin. The light waves strike into the skin, heating it up to give the desired effect – for example, to tighten and firm the skin, to denature hair follicles, or to break up unwanted pigmentation.

What is IPL photofacial?

A ‘photofacial’ is a bit of a loose term, but it means a skin-improving treatment done with light (from the Greek word ‘photos’, meaning ‘light’), in this case, IPL. Here, the IPL is used to heat the fibroblasts in the skin – the cells that make collagen – and this stimulation encourages the fibroblasts to produce new collagen, to improve the look of the skin. The treatment will also reduce pigmentation in the skin, which will help the whole face to look fresher and clearer, too.

Does IPL work for thread veins?

Yes, IPL is an effective treatment for thread veins – it actually gets rid of them. The light energy is attracted to the red haemoglobin pigment in the veins, and breaks it up, so that the body can disperse it. You will probably need more than one treatment, depending on the extent of the veins.

Bear in mind that your skin will doubtless produce more thread veins as it gets older – but when it does, you’ll know what to do about them.

What can IPL do for age spots?

IPL can remove age spots, by breaking up the brown pigment that has clustered together to form them. However, you are likely to develop other age spots in due course. If so, you can simply have further IPL treatments to fade and remove the spots.

Does IPL work as a treatment for melasma?

It can also be useful to improve melasma, the butterfly-shaped pigment patches that often occur during pregnancy, but because melasma is a condition that is driven by hormones, your practitioner needs to assess carefully whether you are a suitable candidate for treatment. Most practitioners prefer to treat melasma with appropriate prescription skincare.

How much does IPL cost?

The cost of IPL can vary substantially depending on the clinic you choose and which area or areas you have treated.

Here are some examples of IPL costs:

  • IPL for pigmentation problems costs around £100–150 per treatment. You may need several sessions to clear pigmentation problems, thread veins, or rosacea.
  • IPL skin rejuvenation for the entire face costs from around £150 per treatment.
  • IPL rejuvenation for the full face and neck costs from £200 upward per treatment.

How long does IPL take?

An IPL session usually takes around 20 minutes. You may need a course of several sessions spaced out at 3–6-week intervals to get the results you want.

Most people need little or no downtime after IPL – for example, most people can go straight back to work after a treatment. However, for your first IPL session, it is wise to allow some downtime to see how your skin responds to IPL.

Do I need a patch test for IPL?

When you go for a consultation, your practitioner should offer you a  patch test for IPL, just to assess how your skin reacts to the light. This should be done 48 hours before treatment.

Where can I get IPL?

You can get IPL at a wide variety of clinics. When finding a practitioner for IPL, bear in mind that the UK has no regulation – no regulation at all – over who can use IPL devices and cosmetic lasers. These are powerful machines, so it’s vital that you find an experienced and skilled practitioner for your treatment.

As with other types of cosmetic procedures, practitioners may have impressive-looking certificates of competence on display on their walls – but unless you know how long and demanding each course was that produced those qualifications, they may not mean much.

I recommend you use the Find a Practitioner tool on this website to find a skilled practitioner who provides IPL in your area.

What is it like to have IPL?

IPL treatment is usually straightforward and goes something like this:

  • Your chosen practitioner examines your skin and plans the treatment.
  • For two weeks before treatment, you should avoid direct sunlight or tanning machines (please, please, never use tanning machines. They age your skin faster than anything except smoking). You should also avoid chemical peels and creams that contain vitamin A or glycolic acid as these make the skin more sensitive to light.
  • Most IPL treatment doesn’t require anaesthesia, but in some cases the practitioner may apply a topic anaesthetic to the area being treated.
  • You wear protective eyewear to keep the flashes of light out of your eyes.
  • The practitioner applies a cold gel to your face.
  • The practitioner places the IPL treatment head against your skin and activates it. The light flashes, and you feel a snap. The feeling of each IPL shot is most commonly compared to having an elastic band pinged against your skin – not nice, but not excruciating.
  • If you tolerate the initial IPL shots well, the practitioner may turn up the intensity, so the discomfort may become more challenging.
  • After finishing the shots, the practitioner wipes off the remains of the cold gel, and you’re good to go.

After the IPL treatment, you should be scrupulous about wearing high-factor sunscreen, and avoid exposure to the sun for several weeks – or you will risk undoing all the good effects of the treatment.

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