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Here’s one way to think about an IPL treatment: it treats skin discoloration caused by too much sunlight by using more light. In some ways, this may sound counterintuitive. So below, we’ve outlined some of the most important things to know about intense pulsed light treatment (or IPL, or IPL laser, or IPL photofacial). We cover the science behind it, the treatment itself, and other factors (like pain and cost) that you may be wondering about before trying it yourself.
The intense pulsed light is broad-spectrum light energy. So unlike a cosmetic laser, which uses a single wavelength of light, each IPL treatment emits light at multiple wavelengths in order to simultaneously target a variety of dermatological complaints, such as age spots, broken capillaries, and other types of skin discoloration. This makes it slightly stronger than an LED photofacial, which won't affect pigmentation and doesn't involve as much heat. From a handheld device, the IPL passes through the outer layers of the skin into the dermis, where their wavelengths are absorbed by melanin, tiny blood vessels, and other sources of irregular pigmentation.
Age spots. Sun spots. Liver spots. Solar lentigines. No matter what you call them, those flat gray, brown, and black spots on the skin are its main target.
All skin color is the result of a pigment called melanin produced in the epidermis. Each person's skin produces melanin at certain rate, but ultraviolet rays from the sun accelerate that process, which creates a darker, tanned appearance.
Over years, melanin can become particularly concentrated in one area and clump together to form age spots, typically on the hands, face, shoulders, and other areas regularly exposed to sunlight. (Freckles are produced through a similar process, but their formation is much more strongly predicted by genetics and by whether you're dressing up as Raggedy Ann for Halloween this year.)
Each IPL treatment usually takes about half an hour, and is performed with a small hand piece that a technician presses against the skin.
The sessions can involve some discomfort; many patients describe the feeling as similar to the snap of a rubber band against the skin or, less frequently, the gentle nipping of baby hummingbirds. The technician may apply a cooling gel beforehand to counteract the accompanying sensation of heat, and many IPL hand pieces have cooling attachments as well.
Because the system decides what cells to destroy based on color, it may not be a good option for people with darker skin.
Instead of discoloration, some IPL treatments target unwanted hair. In these cases, light energy from the hand piece is drawn to the melanin in the hair's root. This creates a burst of heat that permanently disables any follicles that are in an active growth phase.
IPL treatments can be valued between $200–$500, varying by region and by individual practitioners.