IPL and laser are Class 3 or 4 medical devices found in medical offices and medical spas. The class is an FDA classification that refers to how aggressive the device is and whether it requires a physician or nurse under the supervision of a doctor to operate it. Because IPL and lasers are medical devices, they are only available as in-office treatments.
IPL stands for Intense Pulsed Light. The laser is also an acronym. It stands for Light Amplification Stimulated Emission Radiation. IPL and laser both emit light energy. The key difference between them is how.
A laser is a straight, focused, concentrated beam of light.
The key word is beamed. It’s one beam. That beam of light is just ONE WAVELENGTH of light. That means, it has only ONE COLOR.
A laser points at a small area. Think of a laser pointer used by a speaker in a slide presentation.
IPL (Intense Pulsed Light)
Unlike a laser, IPL is NOT one beam of light. IPL consists of MULTIPLE WAVELENGTHS of light.
IPL light shines over a larger area. Think of a flashlight. The light from a flashlight is broader and more diffuse. Because the light is more spread out, IPL delivers LESS ENERGY than a laser. This makes IPL more gentle than lasers.
IPL treatments typically present no or little downtime. Lasers are much more invasive and therefore often require a little to a lot of downtimes.
So why would you ever want to use a laser? Why not just get IPL? Because there is the trade-off.
The main trade-off is how fast you want to see results. If you want instant gratification, faster results usually require more downtime (and risks). Many people don’t want to spend a week or two with their face looking red or covered in dark spots or ugly sores.
So, while IPL may be more gentle, it requires a longer treatment period – typically, a series of treatments spaced 4-6 weeks apart.
Of course, the choice of IPL or laser will depend on your problem – many conditions can be treated by both. But one will usually be better than the other, depending on the color of your skin, the nature and severity of your problem, your time horizon, how much downtime is acceptable to you, and your tolerance for pain.
A laser can also travel deeper into the skin than IPL. So certain goals (resurfacing skin, removing dermal pigment) can only be done by a laser.