What is IPL: All You Need To Know on Intense Pulsed Light Therapy

7 min
December 03, 2021

IPL – aka Intense Pulsed Light – is a light therapy technology that has been around for decades and proven to be super effective at treating hyperpigmentation (sunspots & age spots), spider veins, broken veins, freckles, and even rosacea. With visible results after one treatment and virtually no downtime, it’s no surprise that this treatment is an aesthetician and dermatologist-favorite.

Understanding Dark Spots

Dark spots aka hyperpigmentation can be triggered by a variety of things: too much time in the sun, acne scarring, physical trauma, and genetic skin conditions. Essentially, hyperpigmentation is a response to skin injury and environmental aggressors. When skin is damaged, the production of pigment, also called melanin, goes into overdrive. It’s basically your skin saying, “hey - some damage has happened!”. 

Melanin’s primary function is to protect cellular DNA in the nucleus from UV radiation – this of it as the body’s natural sunscreen. When skin is assaulted by free radicals, it triggers melanin production resulting in a buildup of pigment.

The cells responsible for producing melanin are called melanocytes – dark, finger-like-looking cells that exist in the basal layer of skin. More damage equals more melanin made by melanocytes. 

Over time, melanin migrates to the middle layers of skin and becomes visible hyperpigmentation when it reaches the upper layers of skin. These are the brown, dark and discolored spots you see in the mirror. The length of time these spots take to form will depend on the severity of the trauma or hormone fluctuation.

Think of it this way: when you go to the beach and develop a tan, the additional pigment isn’t a cute glow – it is your skin’s injury response to harmful UVB rays. Beyond what you see on the surface, the UVA rays also cause damage deep into skin that might not be visible today but can pop up years from now. 

While hyperpigmentation can affect all skin tones, darker skin tones which already have more melanin are more susceptible to hyperpigmentation. 

How IPL Can Help

IPL is light therapy that destroys overproducing melanocytes right at the source! Melanocytes absorb IPL heat, leading to their destruction without harming the surrounding tissue. Any present melanin is dispersed and makes its way to the surface where it is eventually sloughed off with other dead skin cells, leaving you with a smooth and even complexion. 

IPL helps to reverse signs of sun damage, acne scars, redness and, according to recent research, helps prevent future signs of aging. IPL can even diminish stubborn melasma. Beyond just hyperpigmentation, IPL improves the look of visible veins and rosacea by reducing the appearance of broken capillaries without disturbing the surrounding tissue. 

Intense Pulsed Light is used on specific areas, like the face, neck, chest, shoulders, arms, and legs. While some patients only require one treatment, others may need as many as three treatments to achieve desired results.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that IPL does not protect against future dark spots from forming so it’s essential to incorporate SPF into your skincare routine every single day – no exceptions! 

What an IPL Appointment is Like

After cleansing the skin, a conductive gel is spread on the target area - this has a cooling effect. The laser is glided across the target area, emitting intense light. The treatment is often described as a sensation of rubber bands snapping against the skin. It is relatively painless and can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the treated area.

You can expect to return to daily activities immediately without the need for any downtime. Most people will likely experience some redness and sensitivity, along with some slight swelling, although this usually only lasts for a few hours. Darker, pigmented skin cells can appear like black flakes – resembling the look of coffee grounds - following the days after treatment. Do not pick. This is a safe reaction – healthy, young-looking skin cells will reveal themselves as natural cellular turnover takes place. 


What To Know Before Booking

Those that rate highly on the Fitzpatrick scale or are noticeably tanned should not receive IPL. This is because IPL wavelengths target melanin in skin. In skin tones with more melanin, the device is not able to distinguish the dark spots from normal skin – it doesn’t know which cells to target. 

Blistering, hypopigmentation, and scarring can be adverse side effects of the treatment if not performed by a trusted, medical professional.

Remember to protect your investment! You need an at-home skincare routine to treat and prevent against hyperpigmentation on a daily basis. There is not one “magic bullet” ingredient so look for products that combine active ingredients like Lactic Acid, Arbutin, Vitamin C, and Kojic Acid. And let’s say it again – always wear SPF. A hat and large sunglasses don’t hurt either…

Discover Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare for All Your Skincare Needs

IPL can’t stop dark spots alone – check out Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare for at-home innovative skincare options.  For more skincare tips from the experts at Dr. Dennis Gross, check out our blog’s newest content today.  Shop the collection of Dr. Dennis Gross bestselling skincare backed by dermatologists.

Written By

Kayla Kernel

Kayla is a Medical Esthetician with 10+ years of experience. Growing up, Kayla struggled with cystic acne and scarring. This experience drives her passion to help others on their skincare journey. Kayla specializes in all skin types, tones, and ages.

Read More from Kayla Kernel

Written By

Kayla Kernel

Kayla is a Medical Esthetician with 10+ years of experience. Growing up, Kayla struggled with cystic acne and scarring. This experience drives her passion to help others on their skincare journey. Kayla specializes in all skin types, tones, and ages.

Read More from Kayla Kernel

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