What is IPL Hair Removal? Is it Really Permanent?
What is IPL?
IPL, which actually stands for intense pulsed light, uses powerful light rays to treat various dermatological conditions as well as providing an effective means of hair removal.
Originally IPL was developed and used for medical and cosmetic purposes only, until it was noticed that as well as benefiting a patient's skin condition, it left them with reduced amounts of hair on the treatment area.
Thereafter, experiments were performed to gauge the efficacy of IPL for hair removal with the first IPL Hair Removal System being approved for use in the USA in the mid-90's.
The early machines were operated by clinicians and used virtually unfiltered light which led to unwanted side effects and high levels of discomfort.
In addition, results were inconsistent and sometimes disappointing for such highly expensive treatments.
The technology has been developed and improved over the years, so that now the machines have inbuilt filters to block unnecessary and harmful wavelengths and include cooling features, both of which serve to minimize side effects and pain levels experienced.
Now it is not necessary to go to a clinic or salon if you wish to have IPL hair removal as there are many home devices on the market to choose from, although they are less powerful than those used by professional operators.
IPL treatments in salons, though still relatively expensive, are much more affordable to the general public nowadays, and not just the preserve of the wealthy elite.
How Does IPL Work?
IPL uses polychromatic light (full spectrum) and low-range infrared radiation to target the dark pigment (melanin) found in skin and hair, and which is found in higher concentration around the base of the hair follicle.
The units of measurement for wavelengths of light and infrared radiation are known as nanometers (nms), each nm being equal to one billionth of a meter.
As previously mentioned, filters are used to block the most potentially harmful wavelengths of light, so that a broad wavelength is used (typically between 500 - 1200nm).
As the light energy is absorbed by the melanin around the hair root, heat is generated which in turn destroys the papilla, which produces the hair.
This causes the hair to be shed, usually 1 - 2 weeks following treatment.
The aim is to permanently damage the hair follicle sufficiently to prevent hair regrowth.
It is for this reason that IPL is really only suitable for those with a good contrast between skin and hair tone.
If you have pale skin and dark hair, you are the ideal candidate for this type of hair removal.
If your skin tone is too dark, then the risk of the skin absorbing the light and burning becomes greater.
The table below, developed by Thomas B Fitzpatrick in the mid 70's and named the Fitzpatrick scale after him, is used to classify skin tones in terms of their response to UV light.
If you are in the 1 - 4 range skin tone, then IPL is considered safe for you.
Hair Color (darkest)
White or very pale
Blue, grey, green
Always burns, never tans
Pale white with beige tint
Chestnut or dark blond
Always burns, sometimes tans
Beige to light brown (olive)
Sometimes burns, always tans
Light to moderate brown
Rarely Burns, always tans
Medium to Dark Brown
Rarely burns, tans more than average
Dark brown to black
Hair colour is also an important factor, with IPL not being effective for anyone with light blonde, white, grey or red hair.
Is IPL and Laser the Same - What is the Difference?
Strictly speaking, although Laser and IPL both use light rays to target melanin for hair removal and are often lumped together, in fact it is quite different.
Whilst IPL uses broad spectrum light rays, laser is much more targeted, using a specific wavelength of light and pulse duration, depending on the skin and hair type of the individual being treated.
Most home devices actually use IPL technology, one notable exception being the popular Tria 4X, whilst laser treatments are more commonly used in salons nowadays.
In terms of efficacy, there is no clinical data published and readily available to prove that either technology is more effective, despite the many claims that you may read to the contrary and made by various different clinics.
Is IPL Hair Removal Permanent?
This is not as simple to answer as you may think, as there are various factors which may affect the results.
FDA - Permanent Hair Reduction
The FDA (USA Food and Drug Administration), which regulates a very wide range of consumer products, has recognised and approved a number of IPL devices as providing permanent hair reduction.
The FDA definition of permanent hair reduction is:
"The long term, stable reduction in the number of hairs re-growing after a treatment regime, which may include several sessions.
Permanent hair reduction does not necessarily imply the elimination of all hairs in the treatment area."
Currently, the only method of hair removal classified and approved by the FDA as absolutely permanent is electrolysis.
What Does Permanent Hair Reduction Mean?
According to the FDA's definition "the number of hairs re-growing must be stable over time greater than the duration of the complete growth cycle of hair follicles".
In order to understand this, you need to understand the three stages in the growth cycle of hair:
IPL is only effective when hair is in the anagen stage of growth, and only a percentage of hair all over the body is actively growing at any one time.
In addition the hair lifecycles vary in length depending on the area of the body and are also genetically determined, so vary from one individual to the next.
The table below, therefore, can only be used as an indicative guide to rough averages:
You may conclude from the available evidence that, IPL is effective at reducing hair re-growth (up to 80% reduction), but it will take time and multiple sessions to achieve the desired results.
There is, however, limited clinical data to indicate how long this hair reduction lasts and how often it occurs.
Generally, as a guide only, you are likely to need 6 - 8 sessions initially (depending on the area being treated) with annual follow-ups.
IPL Hair Removal At Home - Pro's and Con's
There are many effective IPL devices available for home use, and they are improving all the time.
So what are the advantages of this type of hair removal in comparison to salon treatments?
Why doesn’t it get all the hairs even after several treatments? Do new hair roots form, or do some hairs turn white, or is it just because the light misses some each time and it’s just a case of repeating until you get them all?