IPL vs. Laser Treatments For Hair Removal: The Differences

Grooming trends have changed wildly since the colonial days of clamshell razors and homemade lye depilatories. Thanks to advancements in technology, aesthetic professionals have options. Yet, with these options comes debate and confusion, especially among two of the most popular cosmetic procedures: intense pulsed light (IPL) and laser hair removal. What really blew the lid off for us was learning some practitioners don’t know the difference between IPL vs. laser, and some practices may offer IPL but pass it off as laser.

IPL vs. laser hair removal both involve fancy energy to remove hair follicles and prevent regrowth, but similarities in how they work tend to end there. Both treatments are effective at reducing the appearance of unwanted hair, but certain technologies can be painful, expensive, and even dangerous. Selecting the right method depends on factors such as skin type, budget, and longevity of results.

To help you choose IPL vs. laser hair removal for patients, we’ve outlined the procedures below, as well as weighed the pros and cons.

IPL For Hair Removal

IPL uses a broad spectrum of light with varying wavelengths to treat unwanted body hair. Compared to a laser, the beam from IPL is weaker and more dispersed. IPL is known as the “jack of all trades” device, because it is used to treat a broad range of skin conditions, such as wrinkles, age spots, birthmarks, and varicose veins. The type of facilities that carry the technology tend to be smaller, boutique med spas, salons, clinics, and practices. with lower budgets since the equipment tends to have a lower price tag than laser devices.

The Process

IPL treatment is administered through a handheld flashgun device that emits pulses of light, which are absorbed by the melanin pigment in hairs. The light turns to heat that is absorbed by the skin, resulting in damage to the follicle effectively removing hair and slowing down regrowth significantly. Multi-spectrum light naturally spreads, allowing IPL hair removal devices to cover larger areas of skin than laser. IPL sessions last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the treatment area.

How Long Has The Technology Been Around?

The first IPL device was approved by the FDA in 1995. Approval was for the treatment of telangiectasia, known as spider veins. Practitioners noticed a loss of hair around the areas of skin being treated, which led to the development of IPL as a hair removal tool.

Will An IPL Remove Hair Permanently?

The short answer is no. IPL requires six to eight treatments, on average, to see a complete removal of unwanted hair in an area. However, IPL technology generally produces less effective hair loss because the treatment is stunting the growth of follicles, rather than completely disabling their ability to regrow hair.

Efficacy For Patients

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Energy, frequency, skin, and hair color all determine the efficacy of the IPL treatment. IPL is typically only an option for those on the lighter end of the Fitzpatrick scale – the system that classifies how different types of skin respond to UV light from 1 to 6. The way IPL interacts with melanin is why it is ineffective and unsafe to use for dark skin types 4-6. Practitioners should never recommend IPL treatments for melanin-rich patients because of the risk of burning the skin increases. Patients with naturally light blonde, red, white, or grey hair are also not IPL candidates because the device won’t locate the hair.

IPL Hair Removal Results

While patients may see temporary hair depilation with IPL, the follicle will likely reawaken and begin producing hair again. That’s because IPL lacks the power and wattage necessary to cause thermodynamic damage in the hair follicle. IPL for hair removal has been compared to putting a kink in a hose – it stops the water for a time, but once untangled the pressure restores.

Side Effects

  • IPL pain is commonly described as a sting, like rubber bands being flicked at the skin
  • Patients may experience reddening or burns on skin, due to longer exposure to heat
  • Patients with darker skin tones may feel more discomfort than others
  • Treatments cause sensitivity to the sun

Recovery

IPL is often referred to as a “lunchtime treatment” because it typically requires little to no downtime. Patients should be able to go right back to their normal activities. The treated area of skin will likely be red like a sunburn and possibly swollen for a few hours. Skin may be sensitive for a couple of days following the procedure.

IPL Devices

An IPL device consists of an intense flash bulb, energized by a power source, with a range of heat settings controlled by software on the system’s computer. If you’re purchasing for your practice, look for an IPL machine that has a safe, long pulse duration or top hat technology for effective treatments and low liability. Make sure the device has a user-friendly interface that allows very simple programming and setup, as well as a replacement bulb you can change in the office. IPLs require regular changes of flash bulbs and handpieces, so that should be factored in when considering costs and prices, which can vary greatly between brands.

IPL Pros & Cons

IPL Pros

  • More affordable when comparing IPL vs. laser
  • Can remove hair almost anywhere on the body and face
  • Covers broader treatment areas such as arms and legs
  • Can be adjusted through pulses to match the skin and hair types of each patient
  • Effective for dark hair and light to medium skin tones 

IPL Cons

  • Less efficient Impermanent solution for hair removal and less efficient
  • Requires series of treatments
  • More painful than laser with higher risk of burns
  • Cannot be safely or effectively used on dark skin tones or light hair

Laser Treatments For Hair Removal

Laser hair removal directs light to areas of increased melanin (hairs) to damage the follicle which inhibits future growth – similar technology when comparing IPL vs. laser. Lasers are generally very focused beams of light that can be directed at specific areas in which the patient wishes to remove hair such as face, body, arms, underarms, legs, and bikini line. The type of facilities that carry the technology tend to be more established med spas, clinics, and practices that have the budget for heavy-duty equipment and adequately trained practitioners. 

The Process

Laser hair removal is administered by pressing a handheld laser instrument to the skin. Devices generate a single wavelength of light that penetrates deeper into the skin to reach the base of the follicle. A laser emits a light that is absorbed by the melanin in hair. The light energy is converted to heat, which damages follicles. Depending on the type of laser, a cooling device on the tip of the instrument or a cool gel is used to protect skin and lessen the risk of side effects. Treatments last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on the target area. 

How Long Has The Technology Been Around?

Laser hair removal has been tested since the 1960s and became commercially available in 1995 after approval by the FDA.

Will Laser Treatments Remove Hair Permanently?

The short answer is no. Although laser treatments effectively delay hair growth for long periods, the procedure typically doesn’t result in permanent removal. Patients will likely require occasional maintenance treatments to remain hair-free. 

Efficacy For Patients

Hair color and skin type influence the success of laser hair removal. Laser is most effective for people who have light skin and dark hair, but it can be successfully used on all skin types. The pigment in the hair attracts the laser, so darker hair absorbs the laser more effectively, which is why people with dark hair and light skin are ideal candidates for laser hair removal. Patients with dark skin typically need to be treated with a special type of laser that detects the hair against their skin. Those with light hair make less than ideal candidates and they are also less likely to experience drastic results, as the laser doesn’t focus well on non-pigmented hair. Laser hair removal is not effective on blonde, grey, or white hair.

Laser Hair Removal Results

Patients will not experience immediate smooth skin and the complete absence of hair. Over time, hairs will die and drop off. While results are not immediate, they are much longer-lasting. After one to ten treatments, any hair that does reappear is usually lighter in color, finer in texture, and much slower to regrow.

Side Effects

  • Skin irritation such as reddening, itching, tenderness, or slight swelling
  • Might darken or lighten the affected skin
  • Treatments cause sensitivity to the sun

Recovery

On average, patients experience minimal discomfort after treatment and return to life as normal immediately. Within a few weeks after the procedure, most patients may notice some new hair growth from the treated follicles that were inactive at the time and therefore not responding to the laser.

Laser Hair Removal Devices

Common features in laser hair removal systems include various spot sizes, wavelengths, and contact cooling to protect the surface of the skin. High-quality lasers can last for millions of pulses, making their running costs low. Service is arguably one of the most important factors to consider when purchasing a laser hair removal device. Look for a company that offers longtransferable warranties, trade-in programs, reasonably priced add-ons, and uses minimal consumables, such as handpiece covers.

Laser Hair Removal Pros & Cons

Laser Pros

  • More precise treatment of unwanted hairs with less risk of sun damage
  • Effective to treat all skin types (a major win in IPL vs. laser)
  • Requires fewer sessions with better results than IPL
  • Can remove hair almost anywhere on the body and face
  • Will not cause harm to the surrounding tissue

Laser Cons

  • Initially more expensive than IPL, but may be cheaper long-term
  • Can cause temporary irritation
  • Requires a series of treatments

Our Professional Hair Removal Device: MediDiode

There is room for improvement when it comes to IPL vs. laser, which created an opportunity for us with the MediDiode.

Imagine laser hair removal, FDA cleared for every skin type, in 20 minutes or less for about half the price of comparable devices. The MediDiode’s secret lies in how it’s engineered. Its unique, straightforward design built in the U.S. enables practitioners to paint with the handpiece, rather than stamping, for fewer missed spots. The device fires utilizes more than three times as fast as the frequency of standard hair removal lasers. Most patients experience permanent hair reduction after six to 10 treatments. Every piece of equipment comes with complementary training sessions with our clinical specialists and a two-year standard warranty.

IPL vs. Laser Hair Removal, Which Is Best For Your Patients?

Given the variety of treatments on the market, it is important to consider the pros and cons of IPL vs. laser before you put on the protective sunglasses and hit power. If you’re interested in learning more about one of the world’s most cutting-edge laser hair removal devices, download the MediDiode brochure. We look forward to helping your patients achieve skin they are comfortable in!