What is Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Therapy?
Intense pulsed light (IPL) uses short bursts of high intensity light to treat a variety of skin conditions. Intense pulsed light treatments usually use a broad spectrum and non-coherent light source, much like standard white light. In many cases a specific filter is applied that limits the light to a specific range of wavelengths. A commonly used filter limits the light to orange and red wavelengths. Intense pulsed light is used for hair removal, photo-rejuvenation and acne treatment. IPL is often combined with photo dynamic therapy (PDT), which uses a chemical that increases light absorbance in the target tissue. Many newer models of IPL treatment systems use special filters to more carefully control the spectrum of light being applied.
How does IPL therapy work?
Unlike lasers, which produce coherent light of a specific wavelength, IPL systems often use a broad spectrum of non-coherent light. The light is absorbed more by pigmented tissue than non-pigmented tissue causing thermal damage to pigmented cells. Because hair and hair follicles generally have a higher density of melanin, IPL can be used to damage those structures. IPL can also be combined with treatments that increase the amount of light absorbance in the target tissue. Some treatments use specialized dyes to color the psilosebaceous unit, making it more susceptible to IPL therapy.
Is IPL therapy an effective treatment for acne?
The available research indicates that certain types of IPL treatment are effective at improving some acne symptoms. However, the majority of research indicates that IPL treatment alone is not a very effective treatment. IPL can also be used like blue light therapy to target the bacteria itself. This approach is most effective when coupled with a photodynamic agent, like 5-aminolevulinic acid (ALA). The research indicates that the combined IPL/PDT approach is moderately effective at improving acne symptoms. IPL can also be used to damage or destroy cells with increased pigment because they more efficiently absorb the energy from light than other cells. Because hair and hair follicles tend to have more melanin pigment than other areas of the skin, these tend to absorb more energy from the light used in IPL. By carefully controlling the duration and intensity of the light pulses, IPL can selectively damage the targeted cells or follicles. Advanced techniques that use special dyes that stain the psilosebaceous unit, thereby increasing its absorbance capacity, are being investigated. IPL tends to be less expensive, faster and easier to apply than laser treatment, but is generally less effective. IPL is a common treatment that is occasionally used for acne treatment, although more effective light and laser based treatments exist.
How and where is IPL therapy administered?
IPL is usually administered in a spa or clinical environment. There are numerous types of IPL treatment systems, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some systems include special filter sets to control the wavelengths of light being used, while others include automated cooling systems to prevent damage to the outer surface of the skin during treatment. Because of the variability in the treatment itself, there is a wide range of efficacy with this type of procedure.
How much does IPL therapy cost?
There is a substantial range in prices for IPL treatment. This often reflects the particular type of treatment, IPL system being used, area being treated and other factors. In general, IPL treatments range between $150 and $1500. Treatment of simple hyper-pigmentation (e.g. small sunspots) is an example of a a procedure that you might find at the low end of the cost spectrum, while full facial photo-rejuvenation or large scale hair removal treatments tend to run at higher costs. The cost of IPL acne treatments can also vary significantly, but are often in the mid cost range ($300-$600).
Popular IPL Systems
Before and after IPL therapy pictures of acne patients
Before and after pictures of patients undergoing IPL treatment (not including PDT) can be found here.
References and Sources
A Comparative Study of Intense Pulsed Light Alone and Its Combination With Photodynamic Therapy for
the Treatment of Facial Acne in Asian Skin.
Yeung, et al. 2007. For article abstract, click here.
Effectiveness of Photodynamic Therapy with Topical 5-Aminolevulinic Acid and Intense Pulsed Light versus Intense Pulsed Light Alone in the Treatment of Acne Vulgaris:Comparative Study.
Santos, et al. 2005. For article abstract, click here.
Treatment of Facial Acne Papules and Pustules in Korean Patients Using an Intense Pulsed Light Device Equipped witha 530- to 750-nm Filter.
Chang, et al. 2007. For article abstract, click here.
Gross and Microscopic Findings in Patients Submitted to Nonablative Full-Face Resurfacing Using Intense Pulsed Light: A Preliminary Study.
Hernandez-Perez, et al. 2002. For article abstract, click here.
Treatment of Inflammatory Facial Acne Vulgaris with Intense Pulsed Light and Short Contact of Topical 5-Aminolevulinic Acid: A Pilot Study.
Rojanamatin, et al. 2006. For article abstract, click here.