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What Is An IPL Treatment?


IPL, short for intense pulsed light, is a popular treatment that is best-known for its ability to treat vascular conditions like broken capillaries ("spider veins") and the brown spots or "age spots" caused by sun damage. IPL also stimulates the production of collagen, which plumps up the skin and gives you a fresher look, and refines or tightens large pores. New IPL machines can also be effective at hair removal.

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. IPL is not the same as a laser treatment.

How Does IPL Work?

IPL uses short blasts of a polychromatic, high-intensity light to penetrate just below the skin's surface, damaging either the melanin that makes up brown "age spots" or the blood vessels that create broken capillaries. The skin repairs the damage, leaving you with a more even skin tone. IPL is also touted as a way to boost 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, says Greg Absten, executive director of The Laser Training Institute, which provides training in lasers, IPL and light therapy.

"IPL is quite useful, but it's a broad shotgun approach," He says. "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 -- the "rifle approach," says Absten. If you want to treat age spots and broken capillaries, for instance, that is two different laser treatments, whereas IPL combines it.

Day spas tend to offer 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 offices 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 With IPL

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 causes hyper-pigmentation.

You can still get get burned with IPL if the operator is not knowledgeable and careful during the treatment.

Things to look for in an IPL Treatment

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. Absten says that making sure a doctor or nurse or an esthetician is not necessarily a guarantee, because it comes down to the integrity of the person."

"It's not that hard to learn," he says. "But whether the person is a doctor, a phD., or a tech, they have to take the time to learn, they have to care what they're doing, and they have to have the ethics to know when not to treat something. Those are the safest people in the world because they stick to their limits."

If the operator is an esthetician, I would get a regular facial first before trusting them to give me 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 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 Before You Get a IPL Treatment

  • "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 on 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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