In the Office with Dr. Jessica Krant: IPL, Photorejuvenation, and You

Skin Care

Dermatologists treat a wide variety of issues, from spider veins, acne, and rosacea, to age spots, fine lines, and rough skin. We have many tricks up our white coat sleeves, but there are few treatments so versatile as Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) therapy, which may assist in treating all of the issues mentioned above. Originally, IPL therapy was approved for hair removal by the FDA in 1995, but since then, it has come to be used as a treatment for a variety of dermatological issues.

How It Works

True lasers use a single wavelength of light in a collimated beam (where all the beams line up and there is no spread outward) to target one color. IPL uses many wavelengths of non-collimated light with filters that limit particular portions of the light spectrum to target a wide variety of colors at the same time. For this reason, IPL is also known as Broad-Band Light, or BBL. When used properly, IPL light is safely absorbed only by its intended targets and avoids burning or damaging surrounding tissue, making it a noninvasive and non-ablative treatment with little recovery time.

IPL’s converted heat energy is able to focus on certain pigments depending on the wavelengths included in the filtered section of light. For example, certain wavelengths will treat vascular lesions, such as rosacea and spider veins, by targeting hemoglobin in your blood, thus heating only the vessels to cause them to seal shut without affecting the surrounding tissue. Pigmented lesions, such as lentigoes or sun spots, are removed by targeting and destroying the melanin in the skin’s surface. In all cases, but especially true for hair removal, IPL works extremely well for light-skinned, dark-haired patients; this contrast between the two allows the IPL to target the hair follicle safely without heating, burning, and scarring surrounding skin.

What to Expect

IPL therapy usually lasts 15 to 45 minutes, and targeted areas can include the face, neck, chest, hands, arms, or legs. Skilled doctors can treat small, single spots, but most IPL treatments are intended for broad areas, so it’s best to talk to your board-certified dermatologist to see what she or he recommends. Because IPL is a non-ablative therapy, meaning it does not burn or evaporate the outer layers of skin, your outer layers of skin (the epidermis) will not be affected, and recovery downtime is minimal and may include some temporary redness and darkening of spots before they fade. Depending on the area and the severity of the skin issue, patients can expect a total of three to five treatments scheduled about a month apart.

IPL can treat a wide variety of skin issues, including age spots, sun damaged-skin, warts, scars, freckles, melasma, spider veins, rosacea, and unwanted hair, but the effectiveness of the treatment depends on your skin type, your level of tan, and the particular issue. For example, sun spots may fade in two weeks (although you’ll experience noticeable darkening initially), whereas treatment of melasma is much more difficult due to the natural complexity of the issue, and may in fact worsen with treatment. 

Bottom Line

Intense Pulsed Light therapy is a great procedure for many patients, and its non-ablative technology allows many people to see noticeable results without having to deal with obvious healing time. The results depend on the provider, the wavelengths used, and the initial skin type of the patient. For example, going for IPL treatment with a tan can confused the technology, resulting in too much targeting of the skin, which leads to blistering, peeling, or even permanent scarring. As always, talk to an experienced board-certified dermatologist prior to treatment as an inexperienced technician is more likely to cause burns, blisters, scarring, or permanent skin discolorations.

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