IPL vs. Lasers: What’s The Difference?

The ins and outs of the two skin resurfacing and hair removing light therapies explained.
Written by Beth Shapouri
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IPL vs. Lasers: What’s The Difference?fizkes/Shutterstock

The stand-off between the two big light therapy therapies — intense pulsed light (IPL) and laser — may be most often associated with hair removal, but the truth is these two options come up against each other in other categories, too. These include skin resurfacing, acne treatments, facial rejuvenation, and more. While they both employ light, there are key differences that set them apart and dictate their pluses and minuses — but picking the one that’s right for you isn’t always as straight-forward as you may think.

If you find yourself faced with a choice between the two (meaning you meet the skin and hair coloring guidelines for the IPL usage you’re considering), the preference tends to come down to your feelings about your pain threshold, time commitment, recovery, results, and price. Here’s how they measure up.

What Is a Laser?

‘Laser’ is actually an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Lasers “use one strong wavelength targeting a specific chromophore,” explains Julie Russak, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City. That means they give a more concentrated pulse of light that penetrates deeper than their cousin, IPL, and they’re particularly good at stimulating collagen.

And, as we covered in our guide to laser skin resurfacing, there are an array of tools to choose from. “Specific color wavelengths can better address certain skin issues,” Dr. Russak shares. “At the lower end of the color spectrum, blue light combats acne, targeting a more superficial depth of penetration into the skin where these lesions reside. At higher wavelengths, light can penetrate deeper into the skin, targeting brown pigment and even deeper for skin tightening.”

There are also subcategories of lasers to be aware of. “Skin resurfacing lasers can be ablative or non-ablative,” explains Hadley King, MD, a board certified dermatologist and a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in NYC. “The basic difference is that ablative lasers remove the top layer of skin, while non-ablative lasers work by heating up the underlying skin tissue without harming the surface, so that your body will produce new collagen.”

What Is IPL?

IPL stands for intense pulsed light. Like lasers, IPL uses light to treat the skin, however, “in the case of IPL, we use multiple wavelengths of light to address red and brown pigment in the skin, to tackle hair removal, and to stimulate neocollagenesis,” Dr. Russak says.

While not as mighty as the laser, the pluses here are that IPL is usually less painful, is considered a ‘lunchtime treatment’ with little to no downtime, and, thanks to the use of different light wavelengths, can sometimes deliver dual results in one treatment. And because the ‘head’ of the device is larger and can cover more surface area, the sessions themselves tend to be shorter. It should be noted that IPL can only be used on lighter complexions, as “the risk of burning the skin increases with darker skin tones,” Dr. King explains.

What Do Lasers & IPL Do for Skin?

Research shows IPL can be effective for improving wrinkles, blood vessels and vascular lesions, sun spots, acne, and skin texture. And the list for lasers is even longer, with more benefits seen in correcting acne scars, tattoo removal, and overall resurfacing (one study finding that after a two year follow-up 100 percent of patients reported feeling the treatment had improved their skin).

When both are an option, the decision is often a trade-off between the degree of results people are seeking versus the intensity of the treatment. For instance, Dr. King says that for “true resurfacing” she recommends lasers. But, for the right candidate, IPL (sometimes called a photofacial) is her treatment of choice for sunspots. There are exceptions here, though. Dr. Russak points out that IPL is not recommended on patients with melasma or who tend to hyperpigment easily. “The heat can cause overproduction of pigment,” she says.

Now that you generally understand what they can do for the skin, here’s what you need to know about the treatments:

IPL vs. Lasers: What’s the Difference in Downtime?

IPL is usually said to have less downtime, but there are cases where lasers outrun it. Dr. King insists the amount of time it takes for side effects to subside “will depend entirely on the laser and what settings are used for either the laser or the IPL.” Dr. Russak agrees, explaining that just because lasers reach deeper does not mean you always have a longer recovery period. However, if you’re talking ablative lasers, IPL is the clear winner in this department. “Typically, if you are comparing a skin resurfacing laser that compromises the surface, yes, you would have more downtime than IPL,” she says.

On the flip side, some uses of IPL can end up with a more substantial recovery than you might expect. An example: “In an aggressive setting where the goal of using an IPL is primarily to address brown spots on the skin … in order to get those great results, you will require more downtime,” Dr. Russak notes.

IPL vs. Lasers: How Many Treatments Will You Need?

When going head to head, laser therapy tends to require fewer treatments to see results — but it really depends on your specific case. “IPL will usually require a series of several treatments,” explains Dr. King. “With laser treatments, it will depend on the intensity of the particular laser.” Some require a series while others may only be performed, at most, once a year at most.

IPL vs. Lasers: What’s the Difference in Price?

If you’re under the assumption that IPL is less expensive, you’re not wrong. But it doesn’t always work out that way. “Price always varies depending on strength of IPL or laser, downtime, results associated, number of treatments to achieve results, and technician experience,” Dr. Russak says. So, you might want to price out your options with your doctor to see which is better for your wallet and your needs in the end.

Which Is Best for Hair Removal?

While this article was to focus on lasers and IPL for skin resurfacing, we’d be remiss not to mention how each can be used to remove unwanted hair. First, a note: The way IPL interacts with melanin is why it isn’t recommended for darker skin tones — and it also means that folks with naturally light hair are not candidates to use it for hair removal either, as it won’t ‘find’ the hair. You also can’t have a sun tan, even if it came from a bottle. “IPL can not tell the difference between pigment within the skin caused by damage or pigment within the skin making up the patient's natural skin tone,” Dr. Russak shares.

If you happen to qualify for both laser hair removal and IPL, studies have shown both IPL and laser treatments to have an impact on halting hair growth. One study found that, in separate groups receiving one of the two treatments, both saw a significant reduction after six sessions (though the IPL treatments took place over a longer period of time). The study’s authors noted that while “the diode laser was more effective,” it was “more painful than the IPL.” Yet another reason why pain tolerance is often a determining factor in this decision for patients.

The Takeaway

Both lasers and IPL can have skin resurfacing and hair removal benefits, but it’s important to determine whether you are the right candidate. IPL for any purpose is usually only an option for those at the lighter end of the Fitzpatrick scale, while those with light hair are not a good fit for hair removal. Lasers, meanwhile, may come with a higher price tag and more downtime but often offer more variety. Consulting with a board certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon will ensure you receive the best treatment for your needs.

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BETH SHAPOURIis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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