Rejuvenate your skin with IPL

March 6, 2018 by Shari J. Twigg, MD
Rejuvenate your skin with IPL
What is IPL and how can it be used?

This is the topic for today.  Many aren’t aware of what IPL or Intense Pulsed Light therapy is used to treat.  It is not a laser, as many believe, but a targeted light therapy that is “intense”.   It uses various filters to target specific “chromophores” in the skin.  These chromophores can be melanin (the pigment molecule), hemoglobin, and water.

So what does it treat?  Well, IPL can treat many things, from dark pigmentation spots or freckles, vascular lesions like those pesky dilated red vessels in the face with the accompanying redness or rosacea, as well as skin aging.  In addition, it does a great job for hair reduction, literally anywhere you’d like it done (face, arms, legs, bikini, underarms, knuckles, back (yes you can get rid of your husband’s back hair!), and anywhere you can think to do)—the key is it only treats pigmented hair.  Sorry, it won’t work on gray, white or blonde hair!!

I’ll discuss first Skin Rejuvenation Therapy.  The IPL machine has different filters to use to best target the chromophore(s) we’d like to target and different setting to use for younger/older skin issues, skin types, sensitivity, etc.  For Skin Rejuvenation treatments, we target 3 different chromophores during one treatment:  water, melanin, and hemoglobin. This produces and overall heating of the dermis for cell renewal.   Why target water?  Well, as you know, our body and skin are composed of large amounts of water.  The IPL heats the water in the dermis of the skin, creating a small thermal injury.  Once this is created, the body has to repair this and new collagens and elastins are produced, making the skin firmer and younger appearing as well as reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

The next target is melanin, the pigment, and the cells harboring these pigment granules.  Most of us have not been as good about sun protection as we should be.  You can change that starting today, but to help decrease the abnormal pigment in the skin that is already there, the IPL targets melanin and causes the pigment to shatter as well as the cells harboring that pigment.  This is later sloughed or just gotten rid of by phagocytosis (hungry little white blood cells that clean up).  Take a close look at your skin on your face, neck, decollete, hands, and arms.  Now look at an area that never sees any sun, perhaps the abdomen or buttocks, or between the fingers.  Note how even and smooth the pigment and skin are in these locations.  The changes in pigment we see on our exposed areas are due to UV rays or can even be due to inflammation (acne, burns, picking, etc).

Finally, the last target is hemoglobin.  What’s that?  Well, it is located in the red blood cells.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it at some time, perhaps biology in 9th grade.  What occurs when the IPL is used for this is the hemoglobin gets heated and then transmits that heat to the blood vessel wall.  As the vessel wall is heated, it becomes damaged and eventually closes off (it may take several treatments, as with all of the above).  Now this is working very superficially, so no worry about anything too deep or large becoming damaged.  It works with very small blood vessels.  Most of us have some dilated blood vessels on the face, such as corners of nose, nose, mid cheeks, and chin being the most common.  Those with a predominant or excessive amount of these may have a subtype of rosacea.  Others likely are caused from trauma and sun damage over time.

For other types of IPL treatments, like treating pigmentation or hair reduction (photoepilation), different filters are used to specifically target each.  When targeting pigment, such as age spots or freckles, after treating it, the pigment will darken for 1-2 weeks, then, as stated above, flake off (slough), or get eaten by hungry little white blood cells and gotten rid of.  These typically require treating the area every 3-6 weeks for 2-6 sessions, on average.  Maintanence treatments will likely be required to keep pigment down and other combinations of treatments may be used as well.   When targeting hair one of two different filters can be used depending on the darkness, thickness, and depth of the hair.  The melanin is again the target here.  The melanin becomes heated and coagulates the hair bulb (where hair originates from) and papilla.  This works only on actively growing hair, so multiple cycles of treatments are required.  For example, hair on the face stays in the active growing stage for about 4 weeks, therefore, every 4 weeks, a treatment should be performed to catch new actively growing hairs.  For the legs, arms, and back, each hair is in an active growing phase for about 8-10 weeks, therefore, the cycle for those locations reflects that.  To effectively reduce the hair in a given location, most require 6-10 treatments and maintenance treatments about once every 6 months.

It can even be used to treat acne (mild to moderate) by targeting a molecule (Porphyrin) the acne bacteria secretes.  When the IPL light hits the Porphyrin, it causes a chemical reaction that produces reactive oxygen killing the bacteria.  It typically takes at least two treatments before you will notice the acne is improving.  Treatment series of 8-12 treatments is recommended, doing these every 3-7 days.  Maintenance treatments may be necessary.

What does IPL feel like?  Well, depending on the treatment we are targeting, it can feel like a minimal warm sensation with light acne treatments to a more intense rubber band-like snap on the skin.  It is very tolerable for most people.

These are the basics of IPL or Intense Pulsed Light therapy.  I hope this helps answer any questions regarding IPL.  It’s a great treatment and quick to do.

Thanks for reading,

Shari J. Twigg, MD