IPL Hair Removal – What are the Risks and Benefits?
How Does IPL Work?
In a nutshell IPL (intense pulsed light) works by targeting the dark pigment around the hair follicle in order to damage it sufficiently to cause the hair to fall out and inhibit its ability to re-grow.
The dark pigment which is found in both your hair and skin and which determines its colour is known as melanin.
Melanin is particularly dense at the base of the hair root to provide a good target for the powerful pulses of light emitted by the IPL device.
As the light is absorbed by the melanin it produces heat energy and it is this which causes the damage. The growing hair will fall out between one and two weeks following treatment.
Risks and Side Effects
So, after reading the above, you would be forgiven for feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, and wondering if it isn't a bit risky!
The truth is that, whilst there are some common side effects, they are generally both mild and transient.
However, there are certain precautions that you do need to take, and IPL is definitely not suitable for everyone.
Common Side Effects
Following IPL treatment it is not unusual to experience slight tenderness and redness of your skin, possibly accompanied by very slight swelling.
This can be alleviated by applying a cooling, soothing antiseptic gel and should clear up within one or two days.
There is a chance, also, that you may see slight pigment change (either darker or lighter patches), which should fade within a few weeks.
Risks - When IPL is Not Suitable
IPL hair removal has historically been most suited to those with light skin and dark hair and whilst there have been many technological advances to widen the scope of IPL, this is still broadly the case.
This is because there is a strong contrast between the melanin in the skin and the target hair follicle. If the skin is of a darker tone, there is a danger of the light being absorbed by melanin in the skin as well as the follicle, which can lead to burns, blistering and permanent scars in severe cases.
There is a universally recognised numerical table known as the Fitzpatrick scale which rates skin tones by their response to UV light (from 1 - 6). If you fall in the 1 - 4 range then IPL should be good for you.
If you are planning to go to a salon for professional treatments, then the practitioner will advise you.
If you are planning to buy a device for use at home, then it should have an inbuilt skin tone sensor which you must use prior to each treatment. This automatically stops the device from working if it detects an unsuitable, unsafe skin tone.
In addition to skin tone, you need to take into account the colour of your hair. IPL is not effective for anyone with light blond, white, grey or red hair.
Some conditions preclude the use of IPL for safe hair removal:
The list above is not by any means exhaustive - do read all manufacturer's safety precautions prior to using any home IPL machine and seek proper medical advice if you are in any doubt.
Bear in mind, also, that you will not be able to use any hair removal method that requires the hair to be pulled out at the root i.e. waxing, tweezing, epilating, threading between IPL treatments.
You can, however, keep unsightly growth under control with shaving.
Benefits of IPL for Hair Removal
There are a number of benefits of choosing IPL for your hair removal as opposed to other methods:
Is there a danger from radiation rays and cancer risk?
The short answer is no, there is no known cancer risk.
The non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation used in IPL and laser hair removal is at the low end of the spectrum where not enough energy is produced to damage DNA, which is associated with cancer risk.
We have given an in-depth explanation of this in our article: Should I be Worried about Radiation from Laser Hair Removal?
Do home IPL devices work?
Yes, they can be very effective but are likely to be less powerful than those used in salons so results may take longer to achieve. For help with choosing the best machine for you see our article: How to Choose Which Home Laser/IPL Device to Buy
Are permanent results guaranteed?
No, it is not possible to guarantee the results as there are a number of factors affecting them, not least the genetic makeup of the individual.
According to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery it is impossible to determine in advance who will require how many treatments and how long hair will remain gone.
There are a small number of individuals for whom IPL just does not work, even though they may be the "perfect" subject on paper, with dark hair and light skin and there is currently no scientific explanation for this.
However the ever-growing popularity of IPL for hair removal and the number of glowing reviews bear testament to the fact that many people achieve very good results.
Why does it take so many sessions and so long to achieve good results?
In a nutshell, this is because hair growth follows 3 stages, with hair all over the body being in various different stages at any one time. Additionally, the growth cycle of the hair varies in time length depending on the part of the body in question.
IPL is only effective on the hairs that happen to be in the actively growing stage at the time of treatment, therefore a number of treatments are needed to be able to treat every hair in the growing stage.
This is explained in detail in our article: The Life Cycle of a Hair and Electrolysis.
Is IPL safe for facial hair removal?
Facial hair can be removed with IPL from the cheeks down. It is not safe to use IPL anywhere near the eyes or for eyebrows as there is the strong danger of eye damage.
If you are buying a home IPL device and want to use it for facial hair, check carefully to check that it is suitable. Many devices have a separate flash cartridge for facial use, with a smaller window for greater precision.
Is IPL the same as Laser Hair Removal?
Strictly speaking no, it is not the same although both use light energy to target melanin at the base of the hair.
The difference is in the technology as IPL uses a broad light spectrum and laser an individual wavelength. The relative merits of each are explained here.