What Is IPL Hair Removal and How Does It Work?

Published November 1, 2022
Beautician removes hair woman's legs using a IPL machine

Have you decided that you are done with shaving, plucking, and waxing? If you are fed up with traditional hair removal methods, you have some high-tech tools that can help you banish body hair for good. Lasers have been available for some time in dermatology offices, but now some people are turning to a treatment called IPL for hair removal.

IPL stands for "intense pulsed light." An intense pulse of light applied directly to your skin damages your hair follicle, causing it to grow back more slowly, then eventually not at all. IPL and laser are similar, but they use different types of light. If you're considering IPL, it can be helpful to learn what it can and cannot do before investing your money.

What Is IPL Hair Removal?

Laser hair removal uses specific types of light to damage your hair follicles. The follicle is a soft tube that sits underneath the surface of your skin and surrounds the root of your hair strand. Hair grows out of these follicles, so when they are damaged, hair eventually stops growing.

IPL is a specific type of laser therapy that removes hair by delivering an intense burst of light that damages the follicle. This damage first slows hair growth, then stops it completely. More than one treatment is required over several months to ensure that hair growth stops.

In addition to hair removal, IPL also has other uses. According to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), it can lessen the appearance of blemishes, scarring, sunspots, and wrinkles.

IPL vs. Laser Hair Removal

Once you've decided to invest in a hair removal treatment, the big question for many is: which should I do: IPL or laser hair removal? While the general idea is the same, the ASDS reports these two methods have quite a few differences.

IPL vs. Laser infographic

Precision

You can think of the difference between IPL and laser removal as two triangles, IPL pointing up and laser removal pointing down. The IPL triangle starts from a small point, and the light spreads out to the skin, affecting a larger area but with less power. Laser hair removal narrows and intensifies its beam of light, which affects a smaller area of skin but is more powerful and effective at damaging the follicle.

Effectiveness and Results

A 2019 study review published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine (LSM) found that IPL was effective in reducing hair growth by 80%. This result is achieved through diligent treatments and can last up to a year after the last session. By contrast, laser hair removal is 95% effective and lasts a minimum of two years.

Pain

Blasting a pulse of light into your skin may sound painful, but the level of discomfort depends on the person. Some have reported a sharp pain when the light pulses, like a rubber band snapped against the skin.

Numbing spray or gel has not been studied by the medical community, but many claim using this kind of product before a treatment greatly helps decrease any unpleasantness.

Time

No standardized treatment schedule has been adopted for IPL. Everyone will tell you something slightly different depending on who you go to or which product you buy. However, in general, IPL is done in multiple treatments over many months.

The treatments themselves take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on which areas of the body you want to treat. Your bikini line and armpits, for example, will take less time than both of your legs.

Many IPL devices sold to consumers have multiple strength settings. After each flash of light, the machine needs to charge for the next flash. If you use a lower setting, that happens faster. So, the stronger the pulse, the longer it will take.

Location

Many dermatology offices offer IPL hair removal. This type of hair removal can also be performed at home, although the device that you use at home is slightly different than the ones the pros use. Theirs will look like a wand attached by a cord to a larger device. Home devices are usually small handheld machines with charging cables. The device has glass on one end where the light shoots out and presses against your skin.

Intense pulsed light or laser armpit depilation

As you might imagine, IPL treatments performed professionally are more expensive than those performed at home. If done by a professional, IPL can cost anywhere from $700-$1,200, depending on the size of your treatment area. Home IPL devices range from $40-$700.

Given the cost difference, you might wonder if a professional service is worth the money. A 2019 study review published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine (LSM) found that home IPL devices can be just as safe and effective as the treatment you would get professionally. It should be noted, however, that the review was funded by a company that makes home hair removal devices.

The LSM study stated, "devices for hair removal can be used effectively as stand-alone products by the consumer if they are willing to adopt a regime of regular or frequent use." If you know that you stick to a plan better if you have to go somewhere, professional IPL may be better for you, but if you feel you can be consistent with a home regimen, a home device could work just as well.

IPL Safety and Side Effects

Using IPL is generally considered safe. The LSM review explains that the biggest risk for side effects comes from the size of the light wave. While this was a bigger problem when IPL first became widely available, manufacturers are regulated on their wavelength size, and this has become less of a problem.

Potential Side Effects

According to the ASDS, these are the biggest risks:

  • Blisters
  • Burns
  • Pain
  • Scarring (from burns)
  • Skin pigmentation problems

You can keep these complications to a minimum by following certain precautions. Avoid NSAIDs (like Advil and Aleve) for 48 hours before treatment. If taken in that time period, they can cause bruising and more sensitive skin. You may take it after your treatment.

Don't apply perfume, deodorant or makeup on the treatment area. Take a shower before your treatment to wash any of these products off, and be sure not to reapply before your appointment. After your treatment, you can apply these as normal. Do not sunbathe, use tanning beds or have a chemical peel at least two weeks before you start your treatments.

Contraindications

While IPL is safe for the majority of users, some situations warrant caution. Do not use IPL if any of these apply to you:

  • Active infections

  • Accutane use in the last six months
  • Hair removal by the root four weeks before treatment
  • Herpes sores within the treatment area
  • History of seizures
  • Pregnancy/breastfeeding
  • Recent sunburn
  • Severe dermatitis or eczema where you will receive a treatment
  • Unprotected sun exposure four weeks before treatment
  • Very dark skin

The key to successful IPL treatment is contrast. IPL works best for people with light skin and dark hair. People with blonde hair may not notice any change at all. Those with darker skin may also see a smaller result.

How to Use IPL

How do you use IPL? If you purchase a home device, be sure to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer for the best results. In general, however, you'll follow these basic steps.

  1. Shave the area you want to treat.
  2. Apply numbing spray or gel (optional).
  3. Put on sunglasses (IPL can damage your eyes).
  4. Place the glass firmly against your skin and press the "discharge" button.
  5. Move the glass up or down to the next section of skin and press the button again.
  6. Repeat until all areas have been "zapped."

Some devices come with an automatic discharge function, so you can simply move the device after the light pulses and wait for it to pulse again.

If you want to try IPL, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options. You can do some more research, talk to a dermatologist (skin doctor), or talk to a friend who has tried it. Good luck and happy zapping!

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What Is IPL Hair Removal and How Does It Work?