The Difference Between IPL and Laser Hair Removal – When is IPL the better choice?

Smooth legs with no hair because of IPL hair removal treatments

The Difference Between IPL and Laser Hair Removal – When is IPL the better choice?

There is a lot of confusion about IPL and laser hair removal methods and much debate about which technology is superior. We’ll start by stating that both are effective and neither is “better”. In skin aesthetics, there are probably tens of thousands of online articles comparing techniques and technologies where the author argues that one technique is superior to the other for addressing a particular aesthetic concern. If only comparisons were that easy! As is the case when comparing many aesthetic treatment methods, it’s usually not a matter of “better” but a case of “better under given circumstances”.

We hope that by the end of this article, you have a clearer understanding of IPL and laser and why you might choose one over the other for your hair removal needs.

Hair Removal & Hair Growth Stages

Any discussion of how laser and IPL hair removal work must begin with an overview of hair growth stages, as follows:

Anagen: The active growth phase which can last 2-8 years. About 90% of hairs are in the Anagen phase. Anagen hairs have the most amount of melanin (darker pigment). Darker objects absorb more light, which is key to how lasers work. The darker melanin in hairs absorb the laser’s intense beam of light, which is converted to heat that damages or destroys the hair.

Catagen: A transitional phase between Anagen and Telogen that lasts about two weeks. Hair growth slows in the Catagen phase.

Telogen: A resting phase lasting 2-3 months.

Exogen: The end of the Telogen phase and a transition back to Anagen. New hairs push out old hairs until finally the old hair sheds.

Source for hair growth stages: “Integrative and Mechanistic Approach to the Hair Growth Cycle and Hair Loss”, Nicole Natarelli, Nimrit Gahoonia, and Raja K. Sivamani, Feb 2023, PubMed, National Library of Medicine.

Both laser and IPL work on the principle of selective photothermolysis (SPTL) – a means of using light as a source for heat to destroy target cells. The difference between laser and IPL is in how the target hairs are “selected”.

Laser Hair Removal: dark pigment dependent

For effective laser hair removal, hairs must be targeted in the Anagen phase when they’re actively growing and contain the highest amount of melanin. Why melanin? As we’ve mentioned above, laser relies on selective photothermolysis (SPTL) – a means of using light as a source for heat to destroy cells. Laser uses a single-beam of concentrated light in a very narrow wavelength. Because darker pigments absorb more light than lighter pigments, laser can effectively target the darker-pigmented melanin in Anagen hairs while minimizing damage to surrounding (lighter) tissue. Because of this reliance on pigment to “select” Anagen hairs, darker hair colours respond better to laser treatments while lighter pigmented hair (white, blonde) does not.

Source for “selective photothermolysis”: “Laser hair removal”, Wikipedia.

Intense Pulsed Light Hair Removal: diffuse wide-targeting

Intense Pulsed Light also uses selective photothermolysis, though how it “selects” targets is different than that of laser. IPL uses a broader spectrum of light, usually in the visible light spectrum. IPL also uses “cut-off filters” that can be changed to filter out different wavelengths of light to select treatment areas more narrowly. Because of this diffuse targeting and ability to filter, IPL can be used to treat a wider demographic, including people with light coloured skin and hair, while also causing less damage to surrounding tissue.

While some people believe that laser is always superior to IPL, science would disagree. A 2006 study “A comparison study of the efficacy and side effects of different light sources in hair removal” found that there was no statistical difference in the effectiveness of IPL, alexandrite lasers or diode laser treatments, although there were more side effects from diode laser. In the study, six-months post treatment hair reduction was 68.75% for alexandrite lasers, 71.71% for diode lasers, and 66.96% for IPL.

Consistent Course of Treatments is Vital

Many laser or IPL hair removal clients wonder why aestheticians recommend multiple treatments. It’s not to make more money! Because hair grows in stages, IPL and laser hair removal will require multiple treatments for optimal results. You can’t expect a “one ‘n done” experience. Regular sessions at intervals recommended by a clinician should be undertaken for the most effective and long-lasting results.

Why You Would Choose IPL Over Laser

Treats wider demographic of patients
Because IPL uses broad spectrum light and can target many hair and skin colours, it is an effective hair removal treatment for a more diverse range of people.

Because IPL uses multiple wavelengths simultaneously it can treat a wider area in a shorter period of time than laser. If you’re busy and want quick hair removal treatments, IPL is for you!

Because IPL uses diffuse light, it causes less damage to surrounding tissue than laser. This means IPL treatments are less painful. Many patients describe the feeling of IPL as being like that of a small rubber band snapping against your skin. Because IPL causes less tissue damage than laser, IPL post-treatment discomfort and recovery time are greatly reduced when compared to laser.

Long-Term Results
Consistent IPL sessions yield significant and long-lasting hair reduction.

More Economical
IPL treatments usually cost less per session than laser. While pricing varies widely depending on the clinic and the number of areas being treated, you could pay much less for IPL. According to RealSelf – a clearing house of cosmetic treatment information for patients –  the average IPL treatment cost is $650 compared to $950 for the average laser treatment. The average costs stated by Real Self are derived by averaging the costs reported by hundreds of RealSelf members who have had the treatment.

Why You Would Choose Laser Over IPL

You’re Not Concerned About Longer Recovery Times
Laser hair removal treatments often require more recovery time than IPL, because laser’s single, focused beam causes more surrounding tissue damage than IPL. According to a WebMD article on IPL “IPL therapy is gentler on the skin and usually requires more sessions than laser therapy for comparable results. Laser treatment is more intense and recovery is longer.”

You’re Not Concerned About Cost
Laser treatments are often more expensive than IPL, though IPL may require more treatments in some cases. Overall, though, a course of IPL treatments is often less costly than laser.

May Be More Effective for Coarse Dark Hair
Because laser is so effective at intensely targeting melanin pigment, it can work better for dark, coarse hair. If your hair is dark and coarse and doesn’t respond well to IPL treatments, you may want to consider laser.

Laser Hair Removal Treatments are Sometimes Faster than IPL
Although IPL can treat more areas more quickly than laser, laser treatment sessions are sometimes faster. Both IPL and laser session duration largely depends on the number of areas being treated and the skill of the technician.

Potential for Fewer Sessions
In some cases, depending on the area(s) being treated, laser hair removal may require fewer sessions than IPL to achieve desired results.

IPL at Halcyon Cosmetic & Skin Clinic

If you’d like to discuss how intense pulsed light treatments would work for you, first read about IPL hair removal at Halcyon Cosmetic & Skin Clinic then book a free, no-pressure consultation. Our clinic is located in Port Moody and convenient to Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam.

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