The Difference Between Intense Pulsed Light and Laser Hair Removal
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) vs Laser Hair Removal (LHR)
Removing unwanted body hair can feel like a constant battle. Waxing hurts, threading is expensive, and shaving only gives short term hair reduction results that last only hours before stubborn stubble appears, not to mention the headache and discomfort of razor burn and ingrown hairs. If you’ve tried everything and you’re ready to end the ongoing war with hair removal, it’s probably time to look into permanent solutions. For that, you’ll need light based therapies.
Light based hair removal methods come in two forms – Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and Laser Hair Removal (LHR). Both of these methods use light energy to get rid of unwanted body hair but their results are quite different. In this article, I hope to address the differences between IPL and Laser treatments as well as helping you decided which one is best for you.
What is IPL Hair Removal?
IPL is a hair removal method which uses a high output light source to deliver a broad spectrum of visible wavelengths of light to remove unwanted hair. These wavelengths are concentrated at the end of a flashlamp and delivered to the skin as light pulses. This light source is then absorbed by the melanin (the substance that provides pigment) in black and brown hairs causing thermal injury to the hair follicle. Injury of the follicle prevents the production of future hair. While IPL treatment is a light energy based therapy, it is a broad spectrum of pulsed light, whereas laser treatment is far more concentrated and specific.
This difference between laser and IPL hair removal can be easily seen if you simply imagine holding a very bright flashlight next to a laser pointer. A flashlight will illuminate a much larger area of space, while the beam of a laser pointer will be concentrated to a pinpointed area. This means that IPL treatment is applied to broader, general areas and results in a less concentrated application of the light therapy. There are many who think that a polychromatic, broad spectrum of light is best because it can target more than one thing (melanin, blood vessels, water). But I prefer technology that is specific to certain targets. I believe this minimizes untoward side effects and yields much better results with fewer treatments.
It is important to note that all forms of light based hair removal are effective only on hairs that are currently in their anagen, or growing phase. Because not all hair is in the growing phase at the same time, patients using both IPL and LHR will need repeated treatments to enjoy the full results.
What is Laser Hair Removal?
Laser Hair Removal delivers a targeted and concentrated energy to small individual hair follicles using a monochromatic light source, making them highly effective in treating specific problem areas. Like IPL, it is important to keep in mind that each laser treatment will only target hairs currently in the anagen or growing cycle, meaning multiple sessions are necessary for complete hair removal in any area.
Laser or IPL: Which is Better?
Is Laser Better than IPL?
Lasering is more specific. Because Laser Hair Removal uses more concentrated light technology, it is able to target individual hair follicles and highly specific areas of removal as opposed to Intense Pulsed Light’s less controlled application – this is a key difference between laser and IPL.
LHR is the safer option. Because laser treatment uses only one light spectrum and is able to achieve such concentrated application, it is generally much safer for darker skin tones as opposed to IPL which has a much higher risk of burning and scarring for those with higher amounts of melanin. When all is said and done, laser is both a more effective hair removal treatment with fewer sessions and is more cost effective. State of the art laser technology can treat all skin colors safely.
Laser treatments are more costly than other forms of hair removal such as waxing, shaving, or electrolysis. However, most of this is upfront cost. Because lasering removes unwanted hair “permanently,” when you are finished with your sessions it is unlikely you will have to spend money on hair removal again.
It isn’t completely painless. Some people do find the process of laser uncomfortable. However, this discomfort is brief and nowhere near as painful as other hair removal tactics such as waxing or sugaring. Most people find the mild discomfort a small inconvenience in comparison to the long term benefits of laser hair removal. We use topical anesthetic (on sensitive areas such as the bikini). The DCD (dynamic cooling device) that comes with state of the art lasers, makes the treatment much more comfortable than it was 20 years ago.
Because we are limited by human physiology and the hair growth cycle, the process is a long one. We generally have 5-7 growth cycles and it’s best to wait 6-8 weeks in between treatments so I tell people to not expect final results for about a year. But it’s so worth it!
There is a risk of burning or scarring. You need to find a good doctor or qualified laser technician. The laws vary state to state as to who can operate certain lasers. Having been an expert witness in laser burn cases, I cannot stress this enough. If you’re getting your laser treatments done at the same place you’re getting your haircut, you might want to reconsider.
All of this considered, I use only lasers with my patients who desire effective and safe hair removal.
Does IPL Hair Removal Work?
Though Intense Pulsed Light is often advertised as a more affordable option for permanent hair removal, this may not necessarily be true when total costs are calculated. Again, this is because much of the energy is scattered. You may choose IPL because it has a lower price tag, but you will need significantly more rounds of IPL to achieve optimum results.
Various filters can be used to make Intense Pulsed Light more specific to the target but it will never be as specific as a laser beam. I have seen many patients that have had 15-20 IPL treatments and still have hair growth. Moreover, repeated treatments can result in thinning of the target hair and even fine hair growth in the surrounding skin. These fine, thin hairs are very difficult to treat – even with a laser.
Because IPL devices produce a broader band of light, it can be a safe and effective treatment for rosacea, vascular lesions, and sun damaged skin. Yet, this is only the case for people with a lighter skin tone. If you have olive toned skin or darker skin, IPL can make certain skin issues worse for skin that holds more melanin. Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is often seen in those who have undergone an IPL treatment in an effort to achieve a more even skin tone. Many times the worsening pigment doesn’t show up until weeks after treatment.
Why Laser Hair Removal is Best
In summary, there are many varying opinions about IPL vs Laser Hair Removal treatment. While there are valid points to be made for both laser and IPL hair removal, it’s almost impossible to deny the significant benefits of Laser over IPL. More concentrated, more effective, and less damaging, Laser is my preferred method of treating all patients seeking long term hair removal.
If you’ve been looking into hair removal but are unsure of the next step, we encourage all of our patients to come in for a consultation. We can help you determine a course of treatment that is laser-focused and specifically tailored to your skin type.