IPL hair removal has been around for almost 20 years. The technology was first developed to treat a series of vascular conditions, dry eyes, or dysfunctions of the Meibomian gland. However, scientists quickly discovered that intense pulsed light treatments have a series of cosmetic benefits. Doctors can now successfully treat aging, scarring, dyschromia, acne, or hyperpigmentation  with this technology.

Even though IPL is commonly known as a hair removal treatment, medical specialists prefer to name it a hair reduction method since it is not able to remove 100% of the undesired hairs.

IPL hair removal treatment

About IPL Hair Removal

IPL is a procedure that uses broad-spectrum pulsed light to target and permanently disable hair follicles. It is able to do so by heating up the melanin that is present in darker hairs. The most used light spectrums range between 400 and 1200 nanometers.

How Does IPL Hair Removal Work?

When the light hits the hair shaft, it heats up the melanin. This destroys the papillae that are responsible for hair growth. Depending on the area, doctors might apply an anesthetic on the skin to reduce discomfort.

Intense pulsed light treatments target hairs in the Anagen phase – the stage in which the root divides its cells and adds to the hair shaft, making the hair grow. During this phase, a constant blood supply feeds the hair. For hairs on our face and body, the Anagen phase lasts between 4 and 7 months, while the other 2 (Catagen and Telogen) can last up to 10 months cumulatively. IPL treatments cannot affect hairs in these 2 stages since they no longer connect to the blood supply.

After each treatment, patients can observe stubbles on the skin that was subjected to this procedure. It’s important to understand that these stubbles are not a sign of hair growth. Rather, it is a sign of our body eliminating the hair follicle and root. This step can last anywhere between a few days to a few weeks.

IPL hair removal - how it works

Visual representation of a body hair’s root and follicle during the Anagen phase.

Effectiveness of IPL Hair Removal

As mentioned before, IPL hair removal is more of a hair reduction – not removal – method. The procedure will effectively and permanently get rid of unwanted hairs, but it cannot yet eliminate 100% of them. This technology is not fit for those with white, gray, blonde, or red hair. That’s because it can only work where considerable amounts of melanin are present. In fact, it works best against dark, coarse hairs.

In addition, given that IPL targets melanin, it is not recommended to dark-skinned individuals since this treatment might cause damage to the skin.

Results differ in terms of skin and hair coloration. However, the average effectiveness rate of this hair reduction technology is approximately 60% 3 months after treatment and about 75% 1 year later. This method has not successfully treated individuals suffering from hirsutism, a condition that causes unnatural and excessive hair growth.

Contra-Indications

Patients should discuss their full medical history and ongoing medical treatments with their doctor. A set of conditions and treatments like skin cancer or photosensitizing medication make a patient unfit for this type of treatment.

Diabetics, those who undergo chemotherapy, and women at menopause generally have lower healing rates and should be treated with great caution. However, it’s best to wait about 3 years for the body to restore and stabilize its defense processes. Pregnant women should wait until their hormonal levels stabilize, well after giving birth and interrupting breastfeeding.

Those who have polycystic ovaries or undergo hormone replacement treatments are not ideal candidates since some of these can encourage hair growth. While there are no dangers associated with this treatment, the efficacy will be significantly lower than in other patients.

Photo-sensitive drugs like retin-A, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, acne treatments, antihistamines, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatory drugs, and the list can go on, will enhance the side-effects. At least a month needs to pass between the last dose of a photo-sensitive drug and the first IPL session. Freshly and/or strongly suntanned individuals are recommended to wait a few months until their tan goes away. At least 3 weeks should pass between sun exposure and IPL treatment.

IPL hair removal side effects

Where can IPL Hair Removal Be Used?

The eyelids and areas surrounding the eyes are sensitive to this procedure because of the risks of severe and permanent eye injuries. Injured or sunburnt skin is also not fit for this procedure. Doctors also avoid hairs that grow out of moles. This will affect the pigment and cause burns or make it impossible to identify by a dermatologist looking for melanoma signs and triggers.

Doctors can treat tattooed skin with IPL as long as the patient understands that his or her tattoo might fade after a few sessions.

IPL Hair Removal Costs

Not all our hair follicles are active at any given moment and this procedure only targets active follicles. Therefore, patients might need up to 12 procedures to reach the desired results. A single treatment session can last between 15 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the area and the amount of melanin in the hairs.

Costs widely vary in terms of the same above mentioned factors. Generally, a reliable clinic requires between $50 and $500 for a single session.

Risks & Side Effects of IPL Hair Removal Treatments

Although generally safe, no procedure is 100% threat-free. There are a few things that can go wrong during the procedure, and a few adverse reactions that can appear after the treatment.

Skin irritation is definitely the most common one. Experiencing discomfort, redness, or swelling is normal as long as symptoms disappear within a few hours. However, if they persist for longer than a day, you should contact your dermatologist.

Hyperpigmentation is also common, most of the time temporary – with few patients reporting permanent hyperpigmentation after this procedure. Dark-skinned patients are more prone to experiencing this effect. Nevertheless, the main cause of excessive pigmentation in areas exposed to IPL is the wrong choice of laser or light frequency. If this symptom persists, you can check out our article on how to get rid of hyperpigmentation.

Blistering and crusting which can lead to scarring are rare, but plausible with IPL interventions, and so are other alteration of the patient’s skin texture. A small percent of patients reported excessive hair growth in areas that underwent IPL treatments. It is yet unclear why some patients respond this way to IPL treatments. Unfortunately, is it also impossible to find out in advance about their reaction.

IPL hair removal device

Handheld professional intense pulsed light device.

IPL Hair Removal Before & After Care

Good hygiene is the most important before & after care process. Artificial tanning practices like using tanning beds or spray products need to be discontinued at least a month before and during and IPL treatment.

It’s also important to avoid other hair removal methods on the area in question, be they permanent or temporary. Laser hair removal, plucking, or waxing will eliminate the target of this procedure. This leads to a drastic decrease in their efficiency, thus prolonging the overall treatment. Shaving, however, actually helps because it preserves the hair follicle and decreases the risk of skin burns.

Patients should avoid using strongly scented cosmetic products on the treated area for the whole duration of the treatment. In addition, patients should also avoid contact with chlorinated water or other chemicals for the first 24 hours after an IPL session.

IPL Hair Removal FAQs

Here are some common questions about this hair removal procedure that will hopefully clear up some misconceptions:

Do IPL treatments increase the risk of skin cancer?

Contrary to the popular belief, IPL hair reduction treatments do not increase the incidence of melanoma. In fact, there have been cases where this treatment helped doctors discover skin abnormalities. In time, these could have evolved into skin cancer.

Is IPL hair removal better or worse than laser hair removal?

Up until recently laser hair removal was only effective in light-skinned individuals. However, new devices can successfully treat dark-skinned individuals too. IPL works on the same principle. When compared to alexandrite and diode laser hair removal techniques, the effectiveness of IPL is visibly lower. However, laser treatments generally imply greater risks of side effects. Therefore, there is no straightforward answer to the IPL vs laser hair removal debate.

What about home pulse light technology devices?

Although results are visible, these devices are not a viable alternative to professional treatments. However, patients sometimes use them as a complementary treatment method to professional IPL hair reduction treatments.

So is this method really permanent?

In theory, it should be. There is no evidence hair follicles and roots are able to regenerate after IPL or laser treatments. However, the technology has not been around long enough to actually prove this.

All in all, IPL hair removal – or, better said, reduction – is a cheaper alternative to laser hair reduction treatments. Even though it registers slightly lower efficiency rates than laser sessions, intense pulsed light seems to have fewer side effects. In addition, many patients consider IPL a less-invasive procedure.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.