Expert Doctor

Intense Pulsed Light

Posted January 31, 2017

Kimberly Finder, MD

San Antonio, TX

Intense Pulsed Light

As a person gets older, their skin naturally changes due to various factors. Wrinkles, stretch marks, sun damage, and various dermatologic diseases can occur to a person over the years. Fortunately, there is a way to treat these conditions that does not involve going “under the knife” for the procedure. Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) skin rejuvenation utilizes a broad-spectrum light, similar to a laser, to treat a variety of skin treatments.



Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) comes from a device that emits a form of pulsing light energy and is much like a powerful camera flash. The light is directed onto the skin. It is light energy that’s absorbed by various targets that have the potential to absorb various wavelengths of light energy. It acts a lot like a laser but because the light is broad-based, with multiple wavelengths, it is not as specific as a laser.

IPL photo rejuvenation can be used for a variety of treatments such as treating; redness, blood vessels, pigments, or removing unwanted hair. What intense pulsed light therapy excels at is treating reds such as blood vessels, general redness, and telangiectasia. Flushing reactions can be toned down by IPL including toning down rosacea flares and treating brown spots.

IPL has many properties that are similar to what a laser will do but it’s technically not a laser. IPL does its job a little different than a laser because of the broad spectrum of light rather than one individual wavelength of light.



The patients that benefit the most from intense pulsed light are individuals with a lighter skin tone who are usually skin type I, II, or III. Patients that typically have red targets such as blood vessels, generalized redness, telangiectasia, and brown spots from sun damage benefit from the treatment. The brown spots are generally called photo-damaged skin, which are found from the face through the neck area.



A typical intense pulsed lightface treatment costs around $300. Usually, IPL packages can make individual treatments cost less than $300 because they are bundled as a package.  More than one treatment session is generally necessary for optimal IPL results.



IPL rejuvenation is not more or less advantageous than a laser. It is just different because a laser is emitting a specific wavelength of energy. In order to target specific structures in the skin, sometimes lasers will be more advantageous. For example, lasers are better for laser hair removal than IPL devices for treating unwanted hair.

Intense Pulsed Light is best for patients with generalized photo damage where the skin is bronze or excessively brown from chronic sun exposure. IPL can help to improve the photo damage significantly. IPL also does a good job at targeting reds where lasers can do the same thing. Certain lasers can target reds but IPL does it effectively and it is not necessary to use a specific blood vessel targeting laser.



Photodynamic therapy utilizes a medication called Levulan. It is a medicine that is painted on and is light activated. If someone is painted with Levulan and put in a dark closet for two days, nothing would happen. The medicine is inert without being activated by light. An Intense Pulsed Light device can activate the medication. A patient gets the benefits of the IPL for reducing browns or treating blood vessels at the same time the Levulan medication is activated. It targets pre-cancers, skin cancers, and does a very good job of improving photo damage. It improves the health and quality of the skin by doing a Levulan photodynamic therapy treatment.



Sometimes patients think an intense pulsed light is safer than a laser, which is not true. An IPL device in the hands of someone who is experienced can be very safe but it is not inherently safer than a laser. Any light device, whether it is a laser or an IPL, can cause injury to the skin if it is not used in the right way.

Another common misconception is that the procedure can be done without having to worry about protection from sun exposure. It is important that patients use adequate sun protection to protect themselves from inadvertent injury from the IPL treatment by getting a tan from too much sun. Tanned skin is recognized by the IPL energy and responds to the energy just like a brown spot. The treatment can create burns through the skin if tanned skin is being treated.



Generally patients whose skin type is naturally dark are not the best candidates for intense pulsed light treatment because the skin naturally has too much melanin target in it. Getting a really good skin history is important on the part of the IPL provider to make sure the skin is adequately protected from the sun in order to have a safe treatment. It is important to know that the doctor doing the IPL treatment has done a lot of them and is taking precautions. This could mean the difference between a safe treatment and a not safe treatment.



Typically, intense pulsed light treatments are done as a series of treatments. It is rare that one treatment is adequate enough to get a full response. Using IPL for skin care is almost always done in a series of 2-6 treatments depending on the patient’s needs and what kinds of energy settings are used. The sessions are scheduled at intervals around three to six weeks apart.



After an intense pulsed light treatment, the skin will look red with some swelling. Patients develop whatever degree of redness and swelling they usually tend to develop. The redness or swelling may diminish by the end of the day or may still be noticeable the next day. It just depends on the patient.

In the days after an IPL treatment the skin will develop what is often referred to as chocolate chipping. This means the skin cells being treated get dried and they look like little brown pepper flakes or chocolate chips. They naturally slip away over the ensuing days or even a week or two after an IPL treatment. The chocolate chipping demonstrates that the treatment is destroying the bad pigment and getting rid of it.



Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs not only with intense pulsed light but also with any light or energy-based treatment where there is a significant amount of inflammatory response. The skin responds by creating and producing more melanin as a temporary phenomenon called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This can occur with an IPL or a laser. The provider needs to know how to handle a device and who should be treated.



Intense pulsed light has been around for more than 15 years, and is still an important tool in aesthetic dermatology. IPL is useful in treating red telangiectasias and blood vessels. As with most medical procedures, it is important to find a doctor who is skilled and experienced in performing the procedure. It is also important for the patient to protect their skin from the sun before undergoing treatment. A skilled doctor and adequate skin protection will make a big difference in the success of an intense pulsed light procedure.


Written by Cosmetic Town Editorial Team - MA

Based on an exclusive interview with Dr. Kimberly Finder in San Antonio, TX

Article Last Updated on January 31, 2017