What’s the difference between IPL and laser?

With so many treatments available today for the purpose of skin revitalisation, navigating the beauty world can be difficult. And while terms like ‘IPL’ and ‘laser’ might sound familiar, do you really know which one’s used for what?

Laser is an acronym for Light Amplification for the Stimulated Emission of Radiation and is used in the beauty industry for an array of treatments, ranging from the correction of skin irregularities, pigmentation and wrinkles to hair reduction.

Pulsed-light machines and lasers basically work in the same way. Put simply, a wavelength is selected that is readily absorbed by the target tissue. Both aim to heat the target to a temperature high enough to destroy it without damaging the adjacent normal tissue.

What’s the difference?

The difference between the two is that a laser emits a single frequency of light that is coherent. This means all the light waves are travelling in the same direction, allowing the target tissue to absorb the maximum amount of heat. The target tissue is all-important when treating skin problems with a laser. The target tissue for pigmentation is melanin, for spider veins it is blood and for wrinkles it is water. Each of these target tissues absorbs a different wavelength of light, meaning a different laser is needed for each specific problem.

Unlike lasers, IPL devices produce a broad spectrum of light in a range of wavelengths. While IPL can be used for many different types of skin concerns, such as pigmentation and sun damage, it is not specifically designed to treat any of these conditions. In other words, lasers tend to be very specific to the conditions they treat, whereas IPL devices are more generalist in their offering.

Intense pulsed light uses light wavelengths that target either melanin or haemoglobin in the skin. It can be utilised to permanently reduce unwanted hair growth, fade brown spots and cauterise enlarged or broken capillaries and port wine stain birthmarks. Some treatments have been developed specifically to treat rosacea.

The advent of fractionated laser – where microscopic columns of skin are treated while surrounding skin is left intact – made it possible to achieve results comparable to traditional CO2 laser resurfacing (which aims to take up to 10 years off your appearance) with fewer side effects and significantly less downtime.

Fractional laser technologies break up light beams to allow columns of untreated tissue to activate healing mechanisms beneath the skin’s surface, treating skin conditions ranging from scars and birthmarks to wrinkles. These lasers work by creating microscopic thermal injuries that trigger collagen production, stimulating cell renewal and plumping out the tissues. The anti-ageing benefits of fractional laser technology include improving evenness of skin tone and texture, reducing pore size and the appearance of lines and wrinkles, and helping to reverse the effects of sun damage.

A more mild treatment may take several sessions, while one procedure is usually sufficient for a more aggressive treatment. PicoSure is one of the latest advances in laser skin treatment, using picosecond technology to remove unwanted pigment, wrinkles and acne scarring. Unlike lasers in the past, this is a more comfortable treatment with less downtime.

Another difference between laser and IPL is the size of the area that can be treated in one session. Generally IPL treatment heads are up to eight times larger than the small spot size produced by lasers; so treatments are quicker, but not as targeted as laser and typically require more treatments.

What’s right for me?

When it comes to choosing between laser and IPL, it’s important to keep in mind that what works best for one person isn’t necessarily what works best for the next. An experienced practitioner will advise you what is most suited to your specific needs, and should offer a variety of treatment options to select from (including both IPL and laser devices).

It is also important to be aware that IPL systems are available in different strengths and vary in how high the energies can be set. Many IPLs in the non-medical marketplace are not capable of reaching energies necessary to treat certain conditions adequately – and may even lead to burns and other avoidable complications. So always ensure you are in the hands of an experienced and accredited practitioner in a medical-based clinic. The newest IPL addition to the Australian market is Lumecca, which is more refined in its ability to target different skin conditions.

In a nutshell

IPL is most commonly used for:

  • Superficial pigmentation, such as age spots and freckles
  • Lightening and reducing redness, rosacea and spider veins
  • Overall skin rejuvenation for mild to moderate sun-damaged skin
  • Hair removal

Laser is most commonly used for:

  • Pigmentation, including melasma
  • Tattoo removal
  • Acne and surgical scars
  • Improving skin texture, pore size and skin firmness
  • Rosacea and broken capillaries, port wine birthmarks
  • Wrinkles
  • Hair removal.