What It's Like to Get an IPL Treatment for Skin Pigmentation

I tried photorejuvenation. Should you?
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Michelle Villett
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I tried photorejuvenation. Should you?

As a beauty editor, it's practically a job requirement to avoid the sun and preach the gospel of SPF to everyone you meet.

But for me, it wasn't always that way. Pre-beauty editor days, I spent some time in sun-drenched Australia—where, as my dermatologist put it, "every year of sun exposure is equivalent to 20 years here" in frigid Canada.

Okay, that's probably not an exact scientific measurement, but the man had a point. Even though I have #noregrets about my time there (c'mon, like I'm gonna avoid the beach!), I came home with more than a few souvenirs... the pigmentation kind of souvenirs.

That's right, sun damage. It didn't take that long for the evidence of my sun exposure to show up as freckles on my cheeks. And not the cute kind of freckles, either. More like irregular blotchy ones, with some spots a darker brown and larger than the others. This pic from a few months ago is pretty blown out, but look closely and you'll see some splotches on my cheek:

Before IPL treatment

Before IPL treatment, sun damage on my cheeks.

Now, since I've researched this very topic as both a patient and a magazine writer, I know that pigmentation is the most difficult thing to treat topically. I can't even tell you how many derms have said that to me. On a personal level, I've tried everything from Retin-A to Lumixyl to Lustra to every type of acid, and have never really noticed much of a difference.

So what I've done for the past few years, whenever this issue has started to bother me, is to just call in the big guns: IPL treatments at my dermatologist's office. (Which I pay for entirely by myself, just to be up front!)

What the heck is IPL? And could it work for you? Read on!

What is IPL?

IPL stands for Intense Pulsed Light, also known as photorejuvenation or the photofacial. Treatments are performed at doctor's offices and medi-spas, and can be fantastic for erasing mild sun damage, freckles, irregular pigmentation and light brown spots on the face, neck and chest.

In a nutshell, IPL treats the skin with quick and powerful flashes of light. The light energy then penetrates below the skin's surface, where the unwanted brown pigment (melanin) lives. The heat breaks down this pigment into tiny particles, which either rise to the skin's surface as scabs (naturally sloughing away within a week or so), or get carried away by the body's lymphatic system.

This is what it will look like, except not nearly as cute because your skin will be red and coated in gel:

IPL treatment

Googles protect your eyes during an IPL treatment.

Besides going after the brown pigment, IPL can also have a subtle effect on fine wrinkles, large pores, rosacea and dilated capillaries. However, for the latter two concerns, it might be better to get a different procedure altogether—the vascular laser. That one specifically targets red spots, and at my derm's office, they always give me a quick zap around the nose and chin with it, after I get the IPL. So I have to conclude that it does a better job than the IPL machine for redness.

I'm sure you're wondering about downtime. There is none! Because IPL uses multiple wavelengths of light, it is not technically a laser—so it works without causing any deep resurfacing, just some minor redness. Some people (like me) see sufficient results after the first session, but usually derms recommend three to five sessions, one month apart, with maintenance visits twice a year.

Expect to pay about $400 and up per treatment, depending on where you go, and always make sure that it's under the care of a licensed physician. (Here's a horror story from someone who went to a spa with no doctor present, and was left with crazy red burns.) Where I go, which is here, it's $450 per session, and while Dr. Solish doesn't do the IPL himself, he's right in the next room!

Who Should Try IPL

IPL is perfect for younger patients who are starting to see early pigmentation (oh HAI!), minor wrinkling or uneven tone, but don't want or need an intensive resurfacing treatment that requires time off work.

Of course, before you get a treatment, you'll need to get a correct diagnosis from your doctor. The way it works at my dermatologist's is that you see him first for a skin evaluation, and then you schedule a separate appointment with the laser technician who will administer the IPL (or whatever machine he recommends for you).

If you have naturally tanned or dark skin, make sure you consult with an experienced physician, as the risk of complications, i.e. burning or permanent pigmentation changes, is much higher.

IPL or Fraxel?

Kim Kardashian Fraxel

Kim Kardashian gets regular Fraxel treatments to maintain her complexion.

You might be wondering if Fraxel would be even better than IPL. By Fraxel I mean the category of fractionated laser treatments that resurface the skin, requiring days of healing time while the skin and collagen regenerates. (Here's an article I wrote for the Globe a while back explaining Fraxel in more detail.)

The answer? It depends. If you have a significant amount of sun damage, scars or deep wrinkles—and are able to take a few days off work while you recover from the intense swelling and redness—then Fraxel might give you more bang for your buck than IPL. Usually, derms use Fraxel on women in their 40s and up, but I know some women (including Kim Kardashian) do get it younger if they are in the public eye, or want to avoid even having to wear foundation.

For the record, I asked Dr. Solish about this and he said that for my skin, it wouldn't be worth it and I should just stick with IPL "whenever it bothers you." Maybe in 10 years, I'll upgrade....

What to Expect at an IPL Treatment

Before you book your IPL sesh, make sure you don't have a tan—even a fake one—as that'll mess with the machine's ability to target the brown pigment. If you use Retin-A, you should stop it a week or two before your session to prevent extra sensitivity.

At the appointment, you'll be escorted into the treatment room, where you'll be asked to lie on the bed and don some cute goggles while your laser technician applies a cold gel to your face. Usually the rooms look something like this one (at Glow Medi Spa, where I didn't get the IPL done but have had many other skin treatments in the past):

Glow MediSpa treatment room

The treatment room at Glow Medi Spa in Toronto.

Then brace yourself, because there's no way to mince words here. IPL hurts like a b**ch.

The technician will place the IPL handpiece against your skin and you will feel a quick snap... and then pain... as the light flashes. Honestly, it sucks. It goes so deep, you can even feel it in your teeth. But they never said beauty was easy, right?

It takes about 20 minutes for the technician to cover your entire face with the device, working inch by inch and in quadrants—cheeks, chin, forehead. I won't say you get used to the pain, but the procedure is over so quickly, it's really not that bad. Then your technician will wipe off the slimy gel and apply a sunscreen. You can put on makeup right away.

On that note, make sure you bring your makeup, because you'll definitely need it. I snapped this (very terrible) iPhone shot post-treatment:

Just after IPL treatment

What you'll look like right after having IPL.

Hot stuff, huh? I can't believe I just showed that on the internet—red, swollen, splotchy face with limp bangs (I was sweating from the pain!). You can see how the brown spots immediately went darker, which is a good sign! 

Fortunately, the flushing does go down quite quickly and you can cover this up ASAP with foundation.

My Results From IPL

Whenever I go for IPL, which is usually once every 12 to 18 months, all I want (and get) out of it is for the bigger brown blotches to go—I'm okay with keeping the rest of my smaller freckles. They don't bother me enough to go through with multiple sessions, which I can't really afford anyway.

It's a pretty cool thing to see those bigger spots go dark brown within 24 to 48 hours after the treatment, and then slough off within another few days. Magic!

Here's a post-IPL shot so you can (hopefully) see the difference compared to before:

After IPL treatment

After IPL treatment, a little less sun damage.

I wasn't able to replicate the same lighting as before, so this is just natural light and no re-touching, I just brightened the photo. I'm wearing simply a light foundation, same as the first pic. (And my hair looks a totally different colour, even though it's not!) 

As you can see, one session doesn't make your skin perfect, but a least there aren't those distracting large blotches now; the spots that remain are also more faint overall.

Unfortunately, I've found that the spots do come back... eventually. So it's not a permanent thing, but if I can get a year out of it, that's good enough for me.

Of course, to maintain your results, it's super-important to protect your skin from the sun by staying in the shade and wearing SPF 30 always!

My go-to sunscreens for face include Cyberderm Simply Zinc Sun Whip (the best and most elegant high-zinc formula EVER):

Cyberderm Simply Zinc Sun Whip

Cyberderm Simply Zinc Sun Whip.

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense (a zinc-titanium combo with a slight universal tint):

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense.

And Suntegrity "5 In 1" Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen (number one in the EWG database and comes in five tints):

Suntegrity "5 In 1" Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen

Suntegrity "5 In 1" Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen.

But if you prefer a chemical sunscreen, I like Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face (oil-free and non-greasy):

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Sunscreen.

And Ombrelle Face Ultra-Fluid has a nice light texture, too:

Ombrelle Face Ultra Fluid

Ombrelle Face Ultra-Fluid Lotion.

Have Your Say

Do you have pigmentation issues? Have you ever tried IPL? What has worked well for you?