Laser vs. IPL – what is the real difference?
Did you know that not every light-based technology used for permanent hair reduction is actually a laser?
Some spas even seem to get the concept confused.
Both laser hair removal and intense pulsed light (IPL) fall under the same category of hair removal called photo epilation or light-based hair removal.
However, some significant differences exist.
How they work
Laser hair removal and IPL both work by producing light energy that targets the hair’s pigment to damage the hair follicle.
This should then reduce hair regrowth without causing any harm to the surrounding tissue.
However, there are significant differences in how laser hair removal and IPL work. The technology used to create the light as well as the properties of that light differ.
Laser hair removal
Laser hair removal machines generate a single wavelength of light. It’s pure light that’s composed of one color and one form.
This means it’s an extremely concentrated beam that has a specific target: the pigment in the hair follicle.
Lasers can be adjusted to different settings to work with particular hair colors and skin tones.
Lasers can be safely used on dark skin because thanks to the ability to fine-tune the lasers, the heat will be absorbed by the hair follicle, not the skin.
Hair removal by laser has a lower risk of burning than IPL.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) hair removal
IPL is a workhorse in dermatologists’ offices and not just for hair removal.
It’s also used to improve the appearance of port wine stains, spider veins, rosacea, freckles and wrinkles.
However, IPLs aren’t lasers IPL machines create a wide spectrum of light wavelengths, like a light bulb.
While the light is intense as its name implies, unlike lasers, that light isn’t focused into a concentrated beam.
IPLs generate a broad range of wavelengths that reach an assortment of depths, so only some of the wavelengths will be able to effectively remove hair.
The overall penetration of IPL is shallower than lasers.
Because of that, deeper, thicker hairs aren’t treated as effectively.
IPLs are also more likely to burn people with dark skin tones because the light is spread out more into the surrounding skin.
When you see a salon advertising something they call IPL laser hair removal, typically what they are offering is IPL, not laser.
Most women don’t know what IPL means, but they know about lasers.
So, salons and spas incorrectly use the word laser in an attempt to communicate that they're using a light-based hair removal method.
Effectiveness of Laser and IPL
Both methods of hair removal require that the hair is in the active stage of growth for the follicle to be sufficiently damaged to stop new hair growth.
Thus, both methods will require repeat treatments of the target area, anywhere from eight to 10 treatments, spaced about four to six weeks apart.
IPL treatments may require one or two more sessions than laser.
So, while IPL is usually less expensive than laser treatments, you will need more sessions.
A 2006 study examined laser hair removal and IPL hair removal. They found only a small difference in the effectiveness of the two methods. They tested IPL and two types of lasers: alexandrite and diode.
Six months after treatment, the amount of hair reduction was nearly 72 percent for the alexandrite laser and almost 69 percent for the diode laser.
After six months, hair reduction for those who underwent IPL was reported to be 66.96 percent.
So there's only a slight difference in effectiveness between laser hair removal and IPL, at least according to one study that was published in Lasers and Medical Science.
What’s the difference between laser hair removal and IPL? Here is our infographic.
Which hair removal method hurts more?
Both laser and IPL hair removal can be uncomfortable, and many people say it stings or feels like rubber bands being flicked at the skin.
Those with darker skin tones may feel more discomfort more than others.
Some women report that IPL hurts more because the light isn’t as targeted to the follicle. Others claim the opposite and say that IPL is less painful because the light isn’t as concentrated as a laser.
Based on these different experiences, it seems that the type of treatment that will be the least painful for you depends on your individual skin and hair type and the area being treated.
Who should avoid IPL, Lasers or both?
IPL is generally not recommended for darker skin tones because there is less contrast between the skin and hair color.
This leads not only to lower effectiveness at removing the hair but also to a higher risk of unwanted side effects like burning and scarring.
Both types of hair removal should be used with caution if you’re taking medications that make your skin sensitive to light.
Neither treatment should be performed on tanned skin, again, due to the risk of burning and lowered efficacy.
No matter which treatment option you choose for permanent hair removal, experts strongly recommended that you always have a test patch done before treating a larger area.
What you need to know
Both laser and IPL hair removal have been shown to permanently reduce unwanted hair, but there are key differences in the two technologies.
The obvious difference we've covered is that one technology uses lasers and the other uses intense pulsed light.
Also, laser hair removal uses a smaller hand piece because the laser is more focused, and IPL uses a larger hand piece that covers more area.
Here are some of the pros and cons of both methods:
Pros and cons of Laser:
- Effective for all skin types
- Costs more than IPL
- Usually requires fewer sessions than IPL
- Better at targeting deep, thick hairs
- Can remove hair almost anywhere on the body or face
Pros and cons of IPL:
- Effective for dark hair and light to medium skin
- Cannot be safely used on dark skin
- More affordable than laser treatment
- May need more sessions
- Can remove hair almost anywhere on the body or face