The ins and outs of IPL hair removal – cost, side effects and IPL vs laser treatment

OK, so if you’re fed up with shaving, waxing, or any other fairly mundane and repetitive method of hair removal, you may – like many others – have looked into more permanent methods of hair removal. One of the most popular currently is IPL, or intense pulsed light, so let’s take a look at how it works and what you can expect if you fork out for treatment.

The ins and outs of IPL

First thing’s first, it’s worth pointing out that the word ‘laser’ is often thrown around in connection with IPL. In fact, although IPL and laser hair removal work along the same basic lines, IPL doesn’t use a laser, so try not to confuse the two.

In simple terms, with IPL hair removal, flash lamps are used to emit a broad spectrum of varying wavelengths of light. The light targets and is absorbed by pigment within hair, where it’s converted into heat energy that destroys the hair follicle. This means that the treatment works best when you’re trying to get rid of dark hairs (with lots of pigment) on light skin – fair hairs with very little pigment are very tricky to treat.

Hairs go through a number of different stages of growth, and the follicles can only be treated successfully by IPL when they’re in their active growing phase, which means that not all hairs can be destroyed in a single session of IPL – you’ll need to keep going back at set intervals to maximise the effectiveness of the treatment.

A couple of weeks after each treatment, the zapped hairs should start to shed, and the hairs will hopefully start growing back much finer, or (fingers crossed!) not at all. IPL can’t claim to permanently banish hair, but has been known to lead to permanent hair reduction (though, as always, results vary).

IPL vs laser hair removal

So, as the terms are so often mistakenly used interchangeably, let’s take a closer look at the differences between laser and IPL hair removal. With laser hair removal, a single wavelength of light to zap hairs and can target pigment with far more precision. You can choose a laser with a longer wavelength that penetrates beyond the top layer of skin, great for use in darker skin tones where the extra pigment in the skin can easily suffer damage through absorbing laser energy.

In contrast, IPL treatments use flash bulbs that emit a whole spectrum of light. Although you can filter this light down to a limited selection of wavelengths, you’re still going to be bombarding the skin with various wavelengths that aren’t specifically targeting the pigment in rogue hairs.

Which is better…?

The jury’s out really. IPL is generally faster and cheaper, as the machines themselves usually cost a lot less than lasers. Some swear by IPL as a quick and effective route to permanent hair reduction, but as you’re not able to use the same precision as laser hair removal, it’s not generally recommended for darker skin tones where there’s a higher risk of burns and damage to the skin. In comparison, the Nd:YAG laser can be really effective at safely banishing hair on darker skin tones.

Although IPL sessions tend to be quicker, you’ll tend to need more of them on average, and some report pretty poor results. I’ve read more than a few cases where IPL sessions just didn’t seem to be doing the trick, and a switch to laser sessions showed a marked improvement.

IPL hair removal – side effects and negatives?

Before you take the plunge, make sure you know the risks associated with IPL hair removal. As with laser treatment, skin can absorb more of the light’s energy than is good for it unless proper care is taken over the procedure, especially with darker skin tones. This can lead to burns, scarring and permanent or temporary changes to the skin’s pigment. The number one rule is to make sure your technician is fully qualified and is using a good quality machine. Remember, it doesn’t matter how pretty the salon or shiny the machine if your technician doesn’t actually know how to operate it correctly and safely.

More common side effects include temporary redness and soreness of the skin – think sunburn – though this should subside over a couple of days maximum.

I’m afraid you’ll also have to be prepared for a certain amount of pain during the procedure. The sensation you’ll get from the flash lamp is often described as being similar to a flick from a hot elastic band. Ouch! Plenty of modern machines have cooling systems to help minimise discomfort though, and bear in mind that you probably should be feeling something if your hairs are actually being heated up enough to get rid of them permanently. In this case, no pain probably does mean no gain!

How much does IPL hair removal cost?

Another tricky one this, it’s going to vary from salon to salon but you can expect to pay anything from $50 upwards for one treatment on a small area like upper lip, to hundreds of dollars for a single treatment on both legs. As you’re going to need repeat treatments, some salons may offer deals for pre-booking multiple sessions, but overall this ain’t no cheap option.

So, in summary …

If you’re aiming for permanently reduced hair growth, there are plenty of happy customers who’ve had real success with IPL hair removal. That said, some feel there’s not enough evidence of its effectiveness longer term yet in comparison to lasers, and that in some cases hairs seem to be temporarily damaged but do grow back eventually. By all means give it a go, but do your research and choose the right technician to minimise the risks.

Be smart about weighing up the results too – you could easily end up heading back to your salon every few months year-on-year for touch ups, but that’s a sure sign that your hairs aren’t being effectively zapped.

Let me know your IPL hair removal experiences, good or bad.

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8 comments on “The ins and outs of IPL hair removal – cost, side effects and IPL vs laser treatment

  1. Lisa on said:

    Is IPL supposed to for facial hair removal? I started treatment with a lady at a home salon and ended up with more facial hairs than when prior to me starting treatment. After the 10th session I asked to read the instruction manual where it clearly states machine should not be used on face area. I contacted the supplier who sold her the machine (in Gauteng) and the woman brushed me off. I now have to pluck facial hairs daily! Really dissapointed in the treatment and in how it was handed by the supplier and the beautician.

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