Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Therapy

Tuesday, 27 January 2009 | Tags: , , ,

We all aspire to have perfect skin, but multiple imperfections are the norm. Not surprisingly, the science and technology behind erasing skin damage is big business. We delve into the details of a treatment called Intense Pulsed Light therapy, and put it to the test on sun-speckled Kristina.

Treatment Summary

Your skin takes a beating from the moment of your first breath as a newborn. From exposure to sun and the environment, and also from the unavoidable effects of aging, nobody escapes skin imperfections.

When it comes to sun damage in particular, your skin produces melanin as a protective measure, kind of like a built-in sun shade. Melanin build -up leads to a tan in the short term, and spots and freckles, even melanoma (skin cancer), over the long term. 

Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Therapy uses light frequencies to target a variety of discolouration problems like sun spots, fine wrinkles (not deep), broken capillaries, varicose and spider veins, freckles, birthmarks, and it even works for hair removal.

How it Works

For melanin spots, the IPL heats the skin cells and targets them with intense light. This combination treatment damages and destroys the spots, which flake off as your skin renews itself. 

IPL is generally best for light to medium skin tones with definite sun spots or freckles. It’s not a good choice for darker or deep olive complexions since it may cause lightening of the non-damaged skin cells.

Our expert, dermatologist Dr. William McGillivray of Project Skin MD, recommends IPL for light to moderate sun damage, broken blood vessels, and light wrinkles.

Commitment Required

A cycle of 4-6 IPL treatments is recommended by most doctors. The first session targets the surface layer (most sun damage is at this level), and the second and third sessions target deeper layer damage. Improvement in visible damage can be apparent within weeks (or in just days, as in Kristina’s case!)

The final treatments stimulate growth of collagen, which is slow to regenerate, so it may take up to 6 months to see any collagen-related results.

After treatment, you must limit sun exposure and wear high SPF and protective clothing since your skin is highly sensitive and can easily be damaged.


For Kristina’s freckles and light brown spots on her upper chest area, Dr. McGillivray prescribed two treatments of 15-20 minutes each, for a total cost of just over $1200. Was it worth it? See below.

Be Aware

  • People with health issues (e.g. insulin-dependent diabetics or people on blood thinners) may not be good candidates for IPL. Always discuss options with a doctor. 

  • If you have a tan already, it’s not a good time to do IPL. Wait until the winter, and be sure you don’t have any tropical trips planned for a few months after your treatments end. 

  • Rare side effects include temporary blistering, bleeding, and hypo- or hyper-pigmentation (which usually go away within a few months, but in extremely rare cases can be permanent.) Scarring is also an extremely rare side effect.

What to Expect

Intense Pulsed Light therapy is performed by a dermatologist trained in the procedure.

  • Each session begins with a cleaning of the treatment area and a specialized cool gel is applied to the skin.
  • Both patient and doctor wear protective glasses to protect from the bright flashes of light.
  • The IPL is applied with a handheld device that delivers little “zaps” or bright flashes, and a temporary hot sensation. The doctor moves the device over the treatment area “inch by inch”, zapping the skin each time.

  • Immediately after each treatment, a cool pad is applied to help reduce inflammation.

Treatments on the chest take about 15-20 minutes. The face takes about 20-25 minutes.

Typically, sessions are every 3 weeks or more in order to allow the skin to shed layers. Younger patients might require only 2-2.5 weeks, whereas older patients might require longer.

After treatments, special care must be taken to protect the skin, including wearing protective clothing and high SPF, avoiding harsh soaps and skin products.


Kristina, a sun-lover since her childhood days, eagerly volunteered to be our IPL tester. She underwent two 15-20-minute sessions, three weeks apart, focused on lightening the freckles and brown spots on the skin of her upper chest area.

Overall Experience

  • Kristina had a few sensitive spots where the light pulse was more than just a little uncomfortable (“ouch!”) but overall, the treatment was bearable.


  • After the first session, Kristina’s skin looked a lot better.

  • After just two twenty minute sessions, Kristina was very pleased with the results as most of the freckles and sun spots had faded significantly.


Does the Intense Pulsed Light Therapy get the A&K Stamp of Approval?

Yes. Sun-loving Kristina saw a dramatic reduction in brown pigmentation, even after her first treatment. As for the $1200 price tag? She thinks it was worth it.


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