IPL Photofacial Benefits, Pain, Recovery, Results - RealSelf (2023)

An IPL (intense pulsed light) photofacial is a versatile skin rejuvenation treatment.

  • The first IPL device was FDA approved in 1995, to treat dilated blood vessels called telangiectasia, aka spider veins.
  • IPL photofacials can also treat vascular lesions and pigmented lesions.
  • Dermatologists frequently use it for photorejuvenation, to decrease brown spots from sun damage.
  • It can also minimize broken capillaries and redness, including rosacea, acne, and acne scars.
  • Though not its main indication, an IPL photofacial treatment can also stimulate collagen production and improve signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles.
  • While it can be used to reduce unwanted hair, this treatment option is not as effective as laser hair removal.

An IPL device works by delivering an arc of light energy that penetrates all levels of the skin, without harming the surface (the epidermis), so there’s little to no downtime afterward.

This light treatment can be performed on the face, hands, neck, chest, and legs. The size of the head of the IPL device is usually larger than most laser spot sizes, which allows for rapid treatment of large body areas.

Most people need a series of IPL photofacial treatments to see optimal results. They’re typically performed three to four weeks apart.

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  • IPL photofacials are best used to treat excess or uneven pigmentation, helping to reduce age spots, sunspots, freckles, and melasma (aka hyperpigmentation), according to Dr. Lorrie Klein, a dermatologic surgeon in Laguna Niguel, California.
  • The treatment is also effective at reducing redness caused by broken capillaries, rosacea, and general facial flushing—something only a few other light-based modalities can do.
  • IPL can also be helpful at reducing discoloration from acne and acne scars.
  • It can also improve skin texture, including fine lines and wrinkles. In one study, nearly 60% of patients experienced at least moderate improvement in skin around the eyes after three monthly IPL sessions.
  • This skin treatment is often less expensive than laser treatments that address the same concerns. However, multiple sessions are usually required for the best results.
  • IPL treatments bypasses the skin's surface, so recovery time is minimal. You usually can return to your routine immediately after your treatment.
  • The risks of IPL are lower than those of some other light-based procedures.


  • It works best on fair to medium skin tones, Fitzpatrick skin types I–III. Because the melanin (pigment) in skin absorbs light energy, deep skin tones are more likely to burn and, potentially, scar. “IPL for African American skin can be challenging,” says Dr. Christopher Weyer, a Tucson, Arizona, dermatologist. “Typically, I treat patients with dark skin tones with topical treatments and a series of chemical peels, before laser or IPL devices.” Treating tanned skin, even from self-tanning lotion, can cause burns, which can cause permanent hypo- or hyperpigmentaton.
  • The treatment can hurt, with a sharp prickling, snapping, or stinging sensation. Most providers apply an anesthetic cream beforehand can numb the skin, which should make it tolerable.
  • It’s much less effective at hair removal than laser treatments.

RealSelf Tip: Doctors on RealSelf recommend staying out of the sun and direct sunlight for at least a week prior to your IPL treatment, to avoid possible complications like burning. Avoid even self-tanners for two weeks prior to your appointment.

  • Average Cost:
  • $510
  • Range:
  • $89 - $1,700

The price you pay will depend on the size of the treatment area, number of treatments you have, and a few other key factors.

See our complete guide to IPL costs

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During your initial visit, your provider will make sure you’re a good candidate for intense pulsed light therapy. They may even perform a spot test beforehand, and they’ll give you instructions on what items to avoid for up to two weeks before your first IPL appointment. These could include waxing, tanning or sun exposure, peels, and topical creams that contain retinol or glycolic acid.

When it’s time for your treatment, your skin will be cleansed and an ultrasound gel applied. This cool gel serves several purposes: it helps protect the skin, allows the laser to smoothly glide over the skin, and reduces reflection of the IPL waves from the skin, making the treatment more efficient. Both you and your provider will wear protective eyewear.

The handpiece of the IPL device will be held and moved against your skin, and the light pulses will be emitted with the trigger of a button.

Some people describe the sensation as the snapping of rubber bands, though Dr. Klein cautions that the experience can be more intense. “It can feel very hot and painful, unless a topical anesthetic is used,” she says.

The length of treatment depends on the size of the area, but it typically lasts 20 to 30 minutes. After the treatment area has been covered, the gel is removed and sunscreen may be applied.

You’ll be able to apply moisturizer and makeup immediately after the treatment.

There's little to no downtime after an IPL photofacial, but your skin will still go through a healing process that takes about a week. Your skin may be red and swollen for a few hours or the rest of the day, but you should be able to go back to your regular activities or work, using ice packs or a cool washcloth on the treated area if you need to ease the discomfort.

Consider skipping exercise for a couple of days to prevent swelling, which can slow healing.

Within a week post-treatment, pigmented spots will appear to rise to the surface of your skin before falling off a few days to a week later, according to Dr. Klein. The brown, freckled areas can look like little coffee grounds or pepper flakes.

Your skin may feel sunburned and hypersensitive for a couple days following, so treat it gently until you’re completely healed.

Use mild skincare products: Steer clear of scrubs and other abrasive products and instead use gentle cleansers and moisturizers.

Skin will be more vulnerable to sun damage after an IPL treatment, so avoid sun exposure and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater on the treatment area at all times.

An IPL treatment plan is typically slow and steady, using a series of up to 6 treatment sessions to achieve full results.

Patients often see some improvement in redness within two weeks of their first session, but it may take three to four treatments to see significant results, particularly for more severe dark spots.

An IPL facial can make your skin look better, but it can’t stop future aging. "IPL can be very effective, but the results are not permanent," says Dr. William Groff, a dermatologist in San Diego.

This can be especially true for freckles, which tend to recur after most types of treatment, according to Dr. Brian Biesman, an ocularplastic surgeon in Nashville. "However, you can often achieve significant improvement in the appearance of freckles and many patients find these treatments beneficial."

To maintain the benefits, you'll likely need follow-up sessions on a regular basis. "Scheduling routine visits for your skin is just as important as scheduling routine visits to your dentist," says Dr. Groff. "Your first few sessions should be spaced about every eight weeks, and then I recommend you follow up with treatments every six months."

Every person and skin type is different, so consult with a provider with extensive experience in IPL, who can give you a better idea at how often you'll need treatment—and who can ensure the most successful results.

RealSelf Tip: “Protecting the skin by applying sunscreen daily is very important after IPL and will prevent future sun damage,” says Dr. Gregory Turowski, a Chicago plastic surgeon.

In general, when performed by an experienced provider on the right candidate, IPL is extremely safe and well tolerated. "However, there are some real complications that can occur if people are not cautious and stay conservative with treatment parameters," says Dr. Daniel Straka, an oculoplastic surgeon in Columbus, Ohio.

These can include bruising, blistering, a change in skin color, increased melasma, or even infection.

Dr. Klein agrees that provider error is the real risk when it comes to negative side effects. “The device can easily be used incorrectly by poorly trained staff, and patients can experience burns and, possibly, permanent discoloration of their skin,” she says.

To avoid complications, make sure the person performing your treatment has a strong track record of happy patients with good results—and that your skin isn’t tanned before your treatment.

As mentioned above, IPL treatments are not suitable for everyone: it works better on light skin tones. "Skin that has more pigment is more prone to developing both hyperpigmentation and hypopigmention (unwanted darkening or lightening of the skin) that may be permanent. Also, dark skin types may be at higher risk of burns from the treatment," says Dr. Edward Miranda, a plastic surgeon in San Francisco.

Related: The 5 Best In-Office Treatments for Dark Skin, and the Ones to Avoid

While most laser treatments deliver one intensified wavelength of light in a focused, localized beam, IPL delivers broad-spectrum visible light at multiple wavelengths, painting the area in broad strokes.

According to Dr. Klein, this means IPL “can attack several different skin problems at the same time, such as brown spots and red areas, while lasers focusing on a specific wavelength attack only one problem more intensely—brown spots or redness, etc.”

Light from IPL is also more scattered, so it’s able to treat your skin without damaging the top layer, resulting in quicker healing.

Related: Laser vs. IPL:Which Is Best for Treating Sun Damage?

IPL is, first and foremost, an effective way to treat uneven skin discoloration—to reduce unwanted brown pigmentation and minimize redness.

Because it boosts collagen production, it may also help improve skin texture. But everyone responds differently to IPL, which is why a "test spot" performed prior to treatment is recommended.

Most people will need multiple rounds of the treatment before they see it working. "Some patients might see improvement in visible vessels right away, while others need to wait a few weeks to enjoy their results," says Dr. Douglas Wu, a dermatologist in San Diego. "It's often helpful to compare before and after photos to see that the device is really working."

RealSelf members give laser resurfacing a notably higher Worth It Rating than IPL photofacials.

While most laser treatments deliver one intense wavelength of light in a focused, localized beam, IPL delivers broad-spectrum visible light at multiple wavelengths, painting the area in broad strokes.

According to Dr. Klein, this means IPL “can attack several different skin problems at the same time, such as brown spots and red areas, while lasers focusing on a specific wavelength attack only one problem more intensely—brown spots or redness, etc.”

Light from IPL is also more scattered, so it’s able to treat your skin without damaging the top layer, resulting in quicker healing.

However, laser treatments can be more intense, delivering more noticeable results.

Related: Laser vs. IPL: Which Is Best for Treating Sun Damage?

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Published November 24, 2020 Updated May 24, 2023

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