Intense Pulsed Light vs. Laser Hair Removal: CHOICE or OPTION?

Intense Pulsed Light: Addition to or Alternative to Laser?

What is IPL? It’s a revolutionary advancement in ‘laser’ cosmetology (which includes hair removal and more). Although similar to laser epilation in many ways, the actual photon emission source of an Intense Pulsed Light system is far superior in cost, fluence (power) and efficiency.

With a professional grade Intense Pulsed Light system, a very powerful flash tube delivers a photon emission 10-20 times greater in coverage area than a typical epilation laser (at 220 jcm2/second).

This light energy is carefully filtered with precision optics; the heat is removed from the energy with a Schott KG1 Filter, then all wavelengths above 1200 and below 410 (ultra violet A, B and C rays) are removed with a magnesium flouride coated lens.

The photons are then focused through a Schott BK7 Glass Condenser Lens for most treatments, and for special wavelength requirements, Ruby and Sapphire optics may also be utilized. The end result is a safe, usable, high-density photon emission with performance equal to (or greater than) that of a similarly powered laser.

Power Comparison between Intense Pulsed Light and Laser Systems

Standard laser epilators produce Constant Wave (CW) or Pulsed output power of around 20-80 Watts. An IPL (also known as an SPL) typically produces 300-800 Watts. This allows for a much larger treatment diameter, which equates to far greater speed and efficiency for the technician.

One of the greatest benefits of the IPL over laser is the difference in cost, although this is not readily apparent in the price of machines which have similar ratings in terms of ‘joules per square centimeter per second'; it takes just a little more analysis due to the much larger number of ‘square centimeters’ that are treated with the IPL in each second: The typical ‘price per watt’ of a standard laser is $100-$300, whereas the price per watt of an IPL is only $30-$70.

Average life expectancy of the flash tube is from 250,000 to over one million pulses (depending on model). This equates to 1-3 years of reliable service, which is the same as a Long Pulse Diode. The flash tube is easily serviceable when it comes time for replacement and costs around $100-$300 (depending on unit).

The Benefits of Pulsed Light over Laser

  • Larger areas can be treated at one time. A typical man’s back would require about 20-40 minutes with a QCW Diode Laser. An Intense Pulsed Light System, such as the SPL800ec, would do the same job in about 10 minutes.
  • IPL works on persons who are outside of the acceptable limit for the Fitzpatrick skin pigment grading scale. A type 5 could be treated safely, after skin bleaching, which itself is a topic entirely outside our area of expertise and should be discussed with competent professionals before implementation.
  • No hair is vaporized so there is much lower risk of pitting around the hair follicle itself (from intense heat).
  • IPL gives added benefits as a result of the hair removal treatment; improved tone, texture, and vitality of the skin are commonly noted.

Benefits of Laser over Pulsed Light

As fantastic as IPL is, it cannot be used for actual ‘photon shaving’. This is a procedure in which a laser is used to vaporize hair above the skin for immediate cosmetic improvement, while also disabling susceptible (anagen stage) follicles for gradual (or progressive) permanency.

The reason is very simple. The IPL energy emission optic is in direct contact with the skin during the treatment. The reaction that occurs when the radiation strikes a hair is very intense heat. It would cause pits and burns in the optic as well as potentially burn the patient’s skin. IPL must be used on shaved (or waxed) skin with a topical desensitizing spray gel to protect the skin.

How many treatments will your client need?

Like laser epilation, IPL is a progressively permanent procedure. This means that improvement will be noted over a series of treatments. Due to hair growth cycles and a variety of other factors, an investment of 5-10 treatments over 60-90 days is normal.

Discomfort and Client Reaction

Remarkably, the sensation felt with an IPL treatment is no more intense than that of a laser (although much more total energy is being delivered to the tissue). The first three pulses from the IPL generally are not felt by the client. The fourth (if the technician chooses to deliver that many) begins to feel like a snap of a rubber band or a pinch (as the follicle tissue absorbs and converts the energy to heat). Five or more pulses in less than one second may be uncomfortable for some clients. The use of a topical desensitizing spray gel or pre-treatment cold pack will alleviate most sensation.

Client Pre-Qualifications

Like laser, the best candidate for IPL hair removal has fair skin with dark terminal hairs. Skin typing for exposure to ultraviolet light can be categorized by the Fitzpatrick Classification, developed by Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick of Harvard Medical School.

Type I: Never tans, always burns (extremely fair skin, blonde hair, blue/green eyes)
Type II: Occasionally tans, usually burns (fair skin, sandy to brown hair, green/brown eyes)
Type III: Often tans, sometimes burns (medium skin, brown hair, brown eyes)
Type IV: Always tan, never burns (olive skin, brown/black hair, dark brown/black eyes)
Type V: Never burns (dark brown skin, black hair, black eyes)
Type VI: (black skin, black hair, black eyes)

Types 1 through 4 are outstanding candidates. Type 5 will have excellent results as well but care must be taken to assure that the IPL will not burn the skin. Type 6 should not undergo laser or pulsed light hair removal unless done in conjunction with skin bleaching due to the high risk of burning and hypo/hyper pigmentation issues.

For Type 5 and Type 6, we do not hesitate to recommend hair removal methods which have been in use for many years prior to the development of laser or IPL technology: Electrolysis, using either Direct Current, Short Wave, or Blended technology continues to be a popular and effective treatment which works equally well on all hair and skin types.

IPL Treatment: Deep Tissue Thermolysis With Follicle Extraction and Carbon Dye

The treatment protocol for IPL hair removal is remarkably similar to deep tissue (long pulse) laser epilation. Before applying treatment, remove all hair from the area by tweezing or waxing. IPL hair removal is most effective when applied to an empty follicle shaft. Most human hair does not normally have enough pigment to allow for sufficient heat exchange to cauterize, desiccate and necrotize the cells which produce hair. To compensate for this lack of quantitative and qualitative photon targets, it will be necessary to place a high-density carbon dye inside the follicle prior to treatment.

Using a cotton-tipped applicator, completely cover the treatment area with the special dye included in your kit. Massage the dye into the follicle pore with a firm downward circular motion. Repeat 2-3 times to saturate the follicle pore. Use an ethyl alcohol based wipe (isopropyl alcohol will not dissolve the dye) to lightly clean the excess from the surface of the skin. At this point you will have all desired follicles visibly highlighted with a dark spot (as seen above) and are ready to power up your IPL for treatment.

Prepare the skin with IPL pre-treatment gel then place the IPL head on the desired area. Activate on pulse setting five (the unit will deliver five photon bursts when the trigger is pressed). Move the IPL and repeat. You should give no more than 5 pulses per area on the first treatment to determine the patient’s reaction.

After the desired area has been completed, apply a cold pack. This will cool the dermis and soothe any uncomfortable neural activity. Apply the post-treatment gel and advise the patient not to pick or scratch the area. The dermis will show some trauma in the form of eurythmia (reddening) which may last 12-24 hours.

Schedule the patient for their next treatment in 10 to 14 days. By then some of the new anagen hairs will be surfacing. Hair growth activity will diminish substantially after each application.

Important Considerations for Safe Treatment

  • Treatment Around or Near the Eyes: Great care must be exercised when working near the eyes. The IPL emission is powerful enough to actually penetrate the eyelid and permanently damage the eye. Having the patient close their eyes is not satisfactory protection. The use of a dark-colored damp wash cloth which is folded over four times will deflect the harmful radiation; however, only IPL protective eyewear is recommended.
  • Treatment Around or Near Mucus Membranes: IPL radiation will severely damage the tissues inside the nose and ear canal. Treatment should be avoided in these areas altogether.
  • Treatment Around or Near the Genitals: IPL hair removal is safe for application to the pubic regions including the reproductive organs of both sexes. Care must be taken into consideration in these areas due to the increased level of neural sensitivity. The patient may find the process uncomfortable without a topical desensitizing spray.
  • Treatment Around or Near the Areola (nipple): IPL hair removal is safe and effective on hair growth which occurs from the areola of both sexes.
  • Post-Treatment: The skin surrounding the treatment area will experience short-term erythmia (reddening) which will subside within 12-24 hours. Should the treatment area show signs of excess scabbing you may wish to reduce the overall treatment time or intensity. The application of a post-treatment cooling and healing gel (such as Aloe) is encouraged to speed healing and reduce sensitivity. Instruct the patient to refrain from applying cosmetics or sunbathing for at least 24 hours.


If you are considering adding high intensity light technology to your practice and are making the critical “first place to invest” decision, the versatility, efficiency, and cost make Intense Pulsed Light a very strong contender, if your goal is to convert working capital into client income.

Comments are closed.