A photofacial can clear up facial blemishes resulting from aging, sun damage and various other conditions. But instead of a laser, another light-based technology called “intense pulsed light” or IPL is used.
As in non-ablative laser treatment, the IPL photofacial recovery process is quick, and aftercare is easy. In this article, we explain the basics of the procedure and what you can do during the post-treatment period to get excellent, long-lasting outcomes.
What Is IPL Photofacial Treatment, and What Does It Do?
Before we explain the procedure, let us talk about what IPL is and how it differs from lasers.
White light, such as that emitted by the sun or a light bulb, is made of invisible and visible energy waves. The light waves exist in a continuous color spectrum and travel in different directions. The energy of a light wave is roughly represented by its color.
Laser equipment produces narrow-spectrum light waves. In simple terms, laser rays are of exactly the same color. More importantly, they travel in one direction, which is why they produce “coherent light.” In contrast, IPL devices emit broadband or “incoherent” light, with light waves of different colors spreading in different directions. Coherent light is, by nature, more powerful and focused than incoherent light.
Lasers target specific molecules (chromophores) in the skin. They simply bypass the other structures, which is why they are precise surgical instruments. When a laser beam hits its target, the molecule heats up and damages a small portion of the surrounding tissue. Water, blood hemoglobin and the skin pigment melanin are the most important targets of dermatologic lasers.
Molecules absorb light only when it has the right color or energy. Narrowband light, such as that produced by a laser, has only one or two molecular targets in the skin. In contrast, the broad-spectrum light produced by IPL devices may be absorbed by many structures. So doctors use light filters to improve their precision.
During an IPL photofacial, filtered light is used to get rid of facial blemishes. It produces a small amount of skin injury to stimulate inflammation and tissue repair processes. The flaws disappear when skin renewal is complete.
IPL photofacial treats the following skin concerns:
- Brown spots and unwanted tattoos
- Uneven skin tone
- Unwanted facial hair
- Fine and coarse wrinkles
- Acne scars
- Disorders of the facial blood vessels resulting from sun damage, rosacea, inborn conditions and others
Since IPL has less energy than lasers, treatments are more affordable and pose less risk of unwanted side effects. And while far-infrared and some visible lasers are not suitable for dark skin (particularly, Fitzpatrick types V and VI), IPL devices may be adjusted to safely treat a greater variety of skin types. Like the Vbeam laser, IPL is non-ablative, so it does not leave behind open wounds.
What Happens During an IPL Photofacial Session?
At the start of your procedure, your doctor will give you eye protection and clean up the problem area. They will then apply a cooling gel to limit the damage on IPL-exposed skin cells. The doctor will select the equipment settings appropriate for your skin type and the condition being treated. Then they will pass light energy pulses over the target spot. An IPL photofacial session usually lasts 30 minutes.
What Is the Timeline of the Effects of IPL Treatment?
In the first 1-3 days after your session, you will see some inflammation in the treated area. It will subside about a week after the procedure. The healing process starts as soon as the inflammation is gone. You will notice skin improvement in the next 4-8 weeks. But expect it to be less dramatic than the transformation after laser skin resurfacing treatment.
Collagen production reaches its peak about three months after an IPL therapy session. However, you will see more changes 6-12 months after your last procedure, thanks to the continuous remodeling of collagenous tissue. Contraction of the collagen fibers tightens up loose areas, enhancing skin texture.
How Many IPL Facial Sessions Do You Need?
That depends on what skin condition you have, its severity and your treatment response.
For superficial blemishes like small sun spots, 1-3 sessions may be enough. Wrinkles usually need 4-6 treatments, but unwanted hair, deep spider veins and large pigmented lesions may require more. Generally, it takes more IPL sessions than laser procedures to correct the same skin problem.
Multiple treatments are spaced at intervals 4-8 weeks long, giving time for your skin to recover and improve some more. This allows for a more accurate assessment of your need for another session.
Is IPL Treatment Painful?
Aside from the cooling gel applied by your physician, the equipment releases a coolant that also helps limit heat damage. Skin cooling makes the procedure tolerable for most adult patients, but children may need a sedative or pain medication.
After your session, you may feel a mild, sunburn-like sensation, which can persist for a few days. This is part of the inflammation process. You may apply an ice pack to relieve the discomfort or take acetaminophen if the site feels tender.
What Are the Side Effects of IPL Photorejuvenation Procedures?
Expect to see some redness, swelling and discomfort on the treated area immediately after your session. These symptoms result from normal inflammatory processes in your skin. They are usually mild and should disappear spontaneously in a few days. Vulnerable people may experience bruising, blistering, and crusting, which they can remedy by applying an ice pack, topical corticosteroid cream and emollients on the site.
Patients with skin of color may observe pigmentation changes that can persist for months. Topical retinoids (drugs that work like vitamin A) can reduce hyperpigmentation, while phototherapy can correct hypopigmentation. However, a highly-skilled, board-certified dermatologist avoids these side effects by setting the device to the appropriate treatment parameters.
Patients having unwanted hair removal should avoid waxing and tweezing days before their appointment. These treatments completely remove the hair shaft, which is rich in melanin—IPL’s molecular target in this type of procedure. Without it, the treatment will not work. Using the wrong instrument settings also reduces IPL’s effectiveness in getting rid of unwanted hair.
Rare complications of light-based therapies like IPL and lasers include eye injury, burns, infection, skin discoloration and scarring. Care in performing the procedure helps prevent them. But you may also be advised to avoid light-sensitizing treatments and blood thinners before your appointment to make sure you have a smooth recovery.
Light-sensitizing agents include tanning, Accutane and other vitamin-A-like medications, glycolic acid and other chemical peel formulations, and some acne antibiotics. Blood thinners include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen and herbal supplements like Ginkgo biloba.
What Is the Downtime After an IPL Photofacial?
The downtime after an IPL procedure is minimal, lasting only while the treatment area is sore. It is best to avoid strenuous activities during this period to minimize the risk of bruising or trauma and avoid aggravating the inflammation.
How Do You Take Care of Your Skin After IPL Photofacial Treatment?
Taking care of your skin after your procedure helps you avoid complications and see results faster.
Here’s a list of our IPL photofacial aftercare recommendations:
- Use a mild cleanser twice a day. Apply moisturizer after washing your face.
- Use sun protection (SPF 30 or greater) when going outdoors.
- In the first 24 hours after your session, you may apply an ice pack as needed for pain or bruising.
- Sleep on your back with your head elevated in the first few nights after the procedure. Doing so helps avoid pressure on your face while it is healing.
- Take cold sore and antibiotic treatment if your doctor prescribes them. IPL, like other light-based treatments, can make you prone to cold sore reactivation and some skin infections.
- Call your dermatologist for problems that you think could be related to your procedure, e. g. severe pain and redness, infection, etc.
Meanwhile, here’s a list of what you should not do after your IPL session:
- Direct sun exposure amid a series of IPL treatments and a few months after the last. Sunlight damages collagen, DNA, and other structures in the skin, so it can counter your progress.
- Vigorous activity, e. g. exercise, before the inflammation subsides.
- Applying makeup or resuming your skincare regimen while your face is still sore or before the doctor clears you for it. The skin is irritable when it has not healed fully. Using cosmetics and harsh chemicals during this time can make it prone to infection, irritation and scarring.
- Scratching and picking at the treated site while in recovery as these can also introduce irritants into your skin.
- Smoking and drinking, which delay your body’s repair processes.
Adequate hydration and a balanced diet are also essential. Water washes away IPL’s breakdown products, preventing them from prolonging the inflammation process. Healthy eating provides all the nutrients you need to speed up skin renewal.
How Often Should You Get IPL Maintenance Treatments?
Most patients need 1-2 maintenance sessions a year. Once you reach your treatment goals, the enhancements can last for 6-12 months. Making healthy lifestyle choices can prolong IPL’s cosmetic effects.
Ready to Get an IPL Photofacial?
In summary, an IPL photofacial is a skin rejuvenation procedure that uses incoherent light to eliminate various types of facial lesions. Compared to laser treatment, it poses less risk of unwanted side effects and is less pricey. However, the cosmetic results are also more subtle, so more IPL than laser sessions are needed to remedy the same skin problem.
The downtime after an IPL photofacial is minimal, and the post-treatment care regimen is similar to that required by a non-ablative laser procedure. The expected side effects are redness, swelling, and discomfort, which are all mild and transient.
Finally, the use of light-based technology for skin treatment is innately complex. To ensure the safety and effectiveness of your IPL therapy, entrust it to no less than a board-certified dermatologist. You may read our quick guide on finding the right laser or IPL therapy specialist to know more about getting help for light-based skin treatments.
Let LA’s Best Skin Doctors Help You Recapture Your Radiant Glow
You may have heard of IPL from a friend who has had unwanted hair removal. But this treatment also works for facial blemishes produced by sun damage, acne, aging and others. It is like a laser procedure but gentler and more affordable.
At BHSkin Dermatology, our award-winning skin care professionals impress patients every day with their expertise in IPL technology. If you’re thinking of getting a photofacial, you may consult with them face to face by visiting our Glendale or Encino clinic or remotely through our virtual portal.
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