When used as hair-removal methods, both lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL) use light to heat hair follicles and prevent regrowth. While similar-sounding, the technology used by each really isn’t, with the key difference being the light source used.
To help you identify which hair-removal method is right for you, Lucy Xu, skin specialist and founder of London Premier Laser and Skin Clinics, and Dr Salinda Johnston of Candela Medical, explain what you need to know about both treatments.
Laser hair removal explained
Xu explains that, “Laser treatment affects hair in the active growth phase (anagen stage). The laser beam is made up of precisely controlled pulses of energy which are absorbed by the melanin or pigment in the hair, reaching into the active hair follicles that lie beneath the skin.” Essentially, the energy heats the hair – right down to the bottom of the root – safely destroying it without damaging surrounding tissue or skin. “This process is also called photo thermal destruction,” she adds.
“Most people will need a course of between six and eight sessions, after which time the hair will be visibly reduced or permanently removed and the skin will appear smooth and even.”
IPL for hair removal explained
IPL technology – also known as intense pulsed light technology – is actually not a laser treatment, Xu clarifies. “In contrast to laser hair removal it uses a broad spectrum of light with multiple wavelengths. This means it has more unfocused energy around the hair and skin area.” So, IPL uses multi-spectrum lights whereas laser use single spectrum light, “meaning IPL energy is scattered and much weaker. Laser has a densified light, and all energy is focused on this single light.”
When it comes to IPL, Xu explains the science. “Spectrum lights are measured as wavelength (nm), for example, 755nm wavelength means this spectrum light can penetrate 755nm deep beneath the skin. 755nm wavelength light is best attracted to melanin, so it is best used for hair removal. 532nm means light can reach up to 532nm beneath the skin.” Red cells in blood has highest absorption towards this light, so IPL is very effective at treating the appearance of superficial broken capillaries.
Dr Johnson reiterates that, unlike laser treatments which emit a specific wavelength, IPL works by emitting scattered wavelengths of light. “Various cut-off filters are commonly used to selectively filter out unnecessary wavelengths in order to target specific structures and chromophores. This can be melanin in hair or on the skin in the form of pigmented lesions, or oxyhaemoglobin in blood vessels which appear as broken capillaries. In more severe cases, this can be rosacea,” she explains. This makes IPL a gentle and effective treatment for those suffering from rosacea and facial flushing, as well as for hair removal.
When used for hair removal specifically, IPL usually requires six to eight treatments to see a complete removal of hair in an area. "This is dependent, however, on the person's skin colour, hair colour and also the thickness of the hair," adds Xu.
Which is better for hair removal, IPL or laser?
Xu says: “Typically, IPL technology will require more treatments and may produce less effective hair reduction. New laser technologies we work with in clinic are more advanced and effective than IPL counterparts with less discomfort (as they are fitted with integrated cooling systems). In addition, it means our machines can treat a wider range of skin and hair types than an IPL would.” It's for that reason they utilise IPL for greater purposes such as skin rejuvenation (as mentioned above).
While the skincare specialist feels that if people just want to remove excess hair, then true laser is the best option, she does say that “both lasers and IPL are effective when being delivered by a qualified laser practitioner”. Both experts agree that it is important to discuss your specific concerns with your aesthetic practitioner and take into consideration your skin type so that they can advise you on the best course of action.
What is the best laser for hair removal?
“We use the most advanced laser hair machines to deliver optimum results; Candela and Cynosure are two of the leading, most trusted suppliers of laser technology in the laser hair business,” says Xu. “The technologies combine both an alexandrite laser which is great for treating lighter skin types and a Nd:YAG perfect for treating dark skin.”
It depends on the equipment if all hair colours and skin types on the Fitzpatrick skin scale can be safely treated (based on the science, the light needs to be attracted to melanin). “So, everyone is recommended to have a patch test and consultation with your therapist beforehand to identify what’s best for them.”
What does laser hair removal entail?
Dr Johnson explains: “When we use the device Nordlys by Candela on our clients, they generally require a course of six to eight treatments. The patient will need to come in every four to eight weeks (depending on the area of the body) in which only the hair in the anagen stage will successfully be damaged. In between treatments patients can shave which encourages the damaged follicle to shed.” She stresses that it is important to refrain from having the area exposed to any sunlight, and as part of your daily routine, to keep the area protected with a SPF 30 or over.
Who can and can’t receive IPL and laser treatments?
Dr Johnson notes that both treatments are suitable for most male and females over the age of 18 years. “Medical conditions are always discussed during your consultation and therefore any contraindications which may compromise the treatment will be presented.”
There are certain conditions which prevent clients being treated with light-based technology, Dr Johsnon adds. “Often, they are related to medications that cause light (photo) sensitivity, or for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.”
How much does laser hair removal and IPL cost?
Prices can vary greatly depending on location or technologies used. “IPL will typically be cheaper than laser given that the results are less effective and in the long run would require a lot more treatments,” Xu notes.
To give you an example, this is what True Laser charges by commonly treated skin areas, should a client buy a course of eight laser hair removal sessions: under arms, £35; Brazilian, £50; lower legs, £75; men’s back and shoulder, £115.
For a high street clinic offering IPL expect to pay £40+ for under arms, £30+ for standard bikini and £50+ for lower legs, although most clinics will offer packages for a course which give better value at around 30 per cent off.
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