Understanding Photofacials: What You Need to Know About IPL Laser and LED Treatments
Everybody wants to have younger, smoother skin, but not everyone is prepared to deal with the risks or recovery time associated with some of the more intense cosmetic procedures, like microdermabrasion or laser skin resurfacing.
Because photofacials offer a safer alternative, with the added bonus of little to no downtime, it’s no wonder so many individuals are flocking to these relatively new treatments.
Photofacials, (aka photo rejuvenation), employ light to influence the skin on a molecular level so there is no need for any incisions or injections. Sound too good to be true? It certainly could be. That’s why we carefully researched the procedure to provide some definitive answers as to how photofacials are alleged to improve the texture and pigmentation of skin.
The following are among the most frequently asked questions we receive about this procedure.
What are the different types of photofacial procedures?
There are a variety of photofacial procedures, but the two most common incorporate intense pulsed light (IPL) and light emitting diode (LED). The names refer to the nature of the light being used in the procedure.
IPL photofacials, aka Pulsed Light Therapy, involve a handheld device that emits pulses of broad spectrum light through direct contact with the skin. It acts on the deeper layers of skin, making it ideal for treating broken capillaries, sun damage and other impurities. While relatively simple, the procedure should still always be performed by a medical professional, ideally a board-certified plastic surgeon, in order to get the very best — and safest — results.
LED photofacials involve handheld devices or lamps that emit various colors of LED light. The effects of this procedure are believed to be influenced by the color of the light. For example, blue light treats acne by killing acne-causing bacteria, while red light stimulates collagen production which in turn treats fine lines and wrinkles.
Generally speaking, LED photofacials act on the epidermis, making the procedure better suited to treating surface blemishes like acne than its IPL counterpart. LED photofacials are so simple that they’re not only performed in licensed medical facilities but, also, in spas and occasionally even at home.
But as with IPL photofacials or any serious cosmetic procedure, safety needs to be of paramount concern, hence hiring a board-certified plastic surgeon for the job is key. This just isn’t the place to try and save a few dollars. Besides, as often as not the cost difference between a board-certified, fully qualified medical doctor and a beautician with no discernible qualifications other than the ability to read instructions, is essentially non-existent. Don’t be fooled.
How do photofacials work?
Both IPL and LED photofacials involve light being absorbed into the skin. The more intense nature of the IPL photofacial light pulses allows this light to be absorbed more deeply.
IPL photofacial light is soaked up by the hemoglobin (red blood cells) and melanin (pigmentation) in the skin, intentionally damaging these areas. The damaged melanin breaks up and is absorbed by the skin, decreasing its appearance on the skin’s surface, while the damaged hemoglobin stimulates blood flow, causing the melanin to be absorbed more efficiently.
LED photofacials work a little differently, depending on the light color in question. Green light works similarly to IPL photofacials, breaking up melanin for easier absorption. Other colors, like the aforementioned blue and red light, act on different aspects of the skin.
What are photofacials used for?
Generally speaking, photofacials are used to treat skin blemishes and pigmentation issues. However, there are several specific conditions that fall under these categories. Both IPL and certain LED photofacial treatments can be used to treat the following:
- Broken capillaries (blood vessels)
- Sun damage (aka sun spots)
- Liver spots (aka age spots)
- Spider veins
- Fine lines
IPL photofacials are typically more effective at treating the above conditions, while LED photofacials alone are most effective for acne. According to recent studies, IPL treatments effectively treat port wine stains, vascular lesions, and even remove unwanted hair.
What is getting a photofacial like?
LED photofacials tend to be rather straightforward. You spend a set amount of time either facing an LED lamp or holding a handheld device to your face. The process may vary somewhat depending on the device being used, but always involves wearing protective eyewear and sitting very still.
IPL laser photofacials, on the other hand, are slightly more complex. First, the physician or nurse will apply a cool gel to your face and supply you with dark glasses to protect your eyes from the light.
Once you’ve been prepped, the person administering your treatment will take a handpiece with a cold smooth surface and run it along your skin as it pulses light. Afterward, you’ll be provided with moisturizer and a cold pack to prevent swelling.
How long do photofacials take?
IPL photofacials are performed in a series, with each treatment lasting from approximately 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the amount of skin being treated. Typically, patients receive between 3 and 6 treatments spaced roughly one month apart.
LED photofacials are also performed in a series, albeit a longer series than with IPL treatments. Typically, individuals undergo as few as 5 treatments or as many as a dozen for optimal results. The length of each treatment varies widely depending on the tool being used and the volume of skin being treated.
How do I prepare for a treatment?
For starters, with IPL photofacials you need to be tan-free. Tans can prevent the machine from accurately detecting the specific blemishes you want addressed and put you at greater risk of being burned. You also need to avoid aspirin, ibuprofen, anticoagulants, alcohol and/or anything else that thins the blood. Further, be sure to notify your doctor if you’re taking antibiotics or any supplements.
LED photofacials have no such requirements. Simply make sure your face is clean and dry prior to each treatment.
What parts of my body can I have treated?
Most people get photofacials to treat their face, neck, shoulders, back and hands, essentially areas that are frequently exposed in public. But photofacial treatments can be performed on any part of the body except the eyelids and the area just above them. Photofacials have the potential to be very bad for the eyes, so treating areas too close to them is heavily discouraged.
Do photofacials hurt?
There is no pain whatsoever with LED photofacials. They’re simply too low impact to cause any discomfort, whereas IPL photofacials can be mildly painful. Some patients have likened the brief stinging pain of the pulsating light to a rubber band flicking them in the face. Patients have also reported feeling like they have a mild sunburn in the treated area for several days after treatment.
How will my skin look after a treatment?
After a single treatment, your skin may feel smoother and appear to have a more evenly distributed tone. However, results only appear gradually and multiple treatments will be required for them to become truly dramatic.
How long does it take to recover from a photofacial?
Whether you’re getting an IPL or an LED photofacial, there’s no real recovery time to speak of. With IPL photofacials, there may be some side effects immediately after the procedure that take up to a week to diminish. Nevertheless, expect to resume normal activities immediately after treatment, including applying your usual facial creams and makeup.
What are the side effects?
Because they’re so low impact, LED photofacials have no significant side effects, whereas IPL photofacials generally do come with some mild ones. Most show up immediately after the procedure and will persist anywhere from a few hours to one week.
- Mild swelling – You’ll be given a cold or ice pack to prevent this, but it may develop regardless.
- Redness – This is fairly common. It’s a sign of irritation and generally goes away after a few hours.
- Brown spots – If you underwent the procedure to treat dark spots and are suddenly faced with darker ones, don’t fret. This is normal. The dark spots may last for up to a week but will then fade.
- Crusting – Some of the dark spots you’ve treated will grow hard and begin to flake. This is normal and temporary.
- Bruising – This side effect is fairly uncommon and mild when it does occur.
- Tiny blisters – Reminiscent of sun blisters, they too fade with time.
Remember that it will take several weeks (and several treatments) before you start seeing truly significant results.
Are there any potential complications?
Complications, as opposed to side effects, are not part of the normal healing process. IPL photofacials can be accompanied by complications, but they’re rare and typically the result of a poorly trained individual administering the procedure.
- Blistering – Yes, we’ve already mentioned blistering. But blistering as an actual complication and not a predictable side effect can be extensive and painful.
- Burns – This is the most common complication. You may not feel heat while undergoing the procedure, but the light is powerful and can burn your skin when not handled properly.
- Scabbing – Not to be confused with flaking. Flaking occurs when melanin hardens, whereas with scabs it means the epidermis has been damaged, something that shouldn’t happen with IPL photofacials.
- Hyperpigmentation – This is when patches of skin become darker than the surrounding skin. Not to be confused with dark spots getting temporarily darker.
- Hypopigmentation – This occurs when patches of skin become lighter than the surrounding skin, a complication which tends to be much more common among darker-skinned individuals. Consequently, people with dark skin aren’t typically considered good candidates for this procedure.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because the procedure appears harmless enough. Do your research when choosing a facility for your IPL photofacial. As with all cosmetic procedures, it’s crucially important that you hire a board-certified plastic surgeon, not only because of the all-important safety concerns, but for the quality of the work and to get the best bang for your buck.
How long do the results last?
This is a tricky question. With so many factors acting on the skin, like sun exposure, age and genetics, it’s difficult to guarantee any specific amount of time.
Typically, however, the results of an IPL photofacial will be apparent for 6 months to a year. Dermatologists recommend maintenance treatments every 6 to 12 months to help prolong results. According to a 2013 study on the anti-aging effects of IPL photofacials, 2 to 3 treatments a year are enough to develop overall younger looking skin with renewed collagen growth.
LED photofacials are less certain. After the initial series of treatments, maintenance sessions may be required every couple of months.
What can I do to prolong results?
Whether you’re looking to IPL or LED photofacials, the answer is simple. Avoid things that damage your skin. That means limiting direct exposure to the sun, wearing sunscreen and taking optimal care of your skin with moisturizers and face washings. And of course, keeping up with your scheduled maintenance treatments won’t hurt either.
How much do photofacials cost?
IPL photofacials aren’t cheap. A single IPL photofacial treatment typically ranges from $400 – $600. If you receive four sessions as part of your initial treatment, you’re looking at paying somewhere between $1,600 and $2,400. And that, of course, does not include future maintenance sessions.
LED photofacials are more complicated when it comes to pricing. An LED session at a spa or clinic can range from as little as $30 to as much as $200, depending on the style of treatment. Prices for at-home devices are equally as varied, ranging from roughly $170 for a handheld device to $350 for a light panel.
If there’s something you’d like to change about your skin, thanks to photofacials you can now consider using light for the job. With only the most minor side effects and little to no recovery time required, photofacials make the most sense for people who want a little boost to their complexions without having to take time off from work.
At-Home IPL Photofacials: The Light-Based Beauty Trend
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) photofacial treatments use high-intensity bursts of a wide spectrum of light used to treat a variety of skin conditions. IPL has many applications, including hair removal, but it’s recently gained ground as a photofacial treatment. As the name suggests, photofacials use light to influence the skin on a molecular level, rejuvenating it without the need for surgery or downtime.
Because of the wide spectrum of light that IPL employs, IPL photofacials can treat a variety of skin conditions, including fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, birthmarks, spider veins, and rosacea. To learn more about the particulars of IPL photofacials and how they work, check out our complete guide.
IPL photofacials can costs between $300 and $600 per session when done professionally, and multiple sessions may be necessary depending on how many problems you’re trying to address.
At-home IPL photofacial devices have begun to hit the market, offering a cheaper, DIY alternative to professional sessions. We’ve outlined some things to consider before deciding whether you’re a good candidate for at-home IPL photofacials. We’ve also explored the devices currently on the market to help with your purchase, should you decide it’s right for you.
Am I a good candidate for at-home treatments?
Generally speaking, IPL photofacials can’t treat deep lines and sagging facial muscles. However, it can be beneficial for men and women hoping to address more superficial skin concerns, such as fine lines and pigmentation.
The ideal candidate has light-toned, untanned skin that maintains some elasticity. Unfortunately, IPL photofacials are not a great choice for those with tanned or naturally dark skin, as they can cause permanent skin color changes through hyper- or hypo-pigmentation. This happens because there’s not enough contrast between the unwanted skin markings (such as age spots) and the skin itself.
If you’re taking Accutane for severe acne, you should reconsider getting a photofacial, as Accutane makes the skin extremely sensitive to all light (not just IPL). Other conditions that might make you a poor candidate for IPL photofacials include lupus, a history of keloid scars, porphyria, and extreme light sensitivity.
As always, consult a medical professional before trying an IPL photofacial, either at home or in the doctor’s office.
Which photofacial device is right for me?
While IPL can be used to treat all sorts of skin and hair conditions, most at-home IPL devices are specifically designed for laser hair removal — not exactly a device you can use for a photofacial!
There are plenty of other photofacial products available for purchase, but most of them use LED (light emitting diode) technology, not IPL. LED photofacials definitely have benefits, but they usually employ only one wavelength of light — for example, blue light to treat acne or red light to treat wrinkles, but not both — instead of the full spectrum, which is what distinguishes IPL photofacials from other light-based treatments.
If you’re shopping for an at-home IPL beauty product, whatever you want to use it for, make sure you’re actually purchasing an IPL device and not an LED one if that’s specifically what you’re looking for.
Some manufacturers’ language isn’t always clear about the difference between IPL and LED, so look for the wide spectrum of light (multiple colors) and a wide range of beauty applications when shopping for an at-home IPL device. As always, whenever treating yourself with photofacial products at home, use caution and wear goggles to protect your eyes.
There aren’t as many consumer products available for IPL photofacials as there are for other at-home treatments, but there are a few devices currently on the market — and more will surely become available as the photofacial trend continues to grow.
We did the research for you, and identified the most popular options for at-home IPL photofacials here.
DEESS IPL Photon Skin Rejuvenation
This device uses IPL to encourage fibroblasts to produce new collagen and elastic fiber, which in turn improves skin’s elasticity and helps fight signs of aging. The warmth from the light also encourages blood circulation, which helps to keep you looking youthful and radiant.
Overall, the device can help reduce wrinkles, lift skin, shrink pores, and otherwise rejuvenate the face over time. Five different levels of light intensity allow you to adjust the treatment as needed.
It can be purchased with two extra attachments besides the skin rejuvenation treatment: one for hair removal and another for reducing acne and pimples. Each of the lamps provides 350,000 flashes before it runs out. If you just want the skin rejuvenation treatment, you can just buy the standalone device, which is slightly cheaper. If you want to use all three attachments, it’s a better deal to buy everything together than to buy the extra attachments separately at a later date.
To rejuvenate the skin, DEESS recommends a minimum of 10 treatments, with at least one treatment weekly. If you’re simply looking to maintain results or prevent signs of aging, you can do one treatment every 1-2 weeks.
VISS Advanced At Home IPL Skin Rejuvenation System
As the name suggests, the VISS device is designed to mimic the design of professional machines, although it offers a lower power level than photofacials you’d experience at your doctor’s office.
There are three levels of intensity: low level (1-3), which offers 16-19 Joules of energy; middle level (4-6), which offers 20-22 Joules of energy; and high level (7-8), which offers 23-25 Joules of energy. Depending on the power setting, a cartridge will last 30,000 flashes (low level), 15,000 flashes (middle level), or 8,000 flashes (high level). Once a cartridge is exhausted, you can simply pop it out and replace it with a new one.
The base unit stays on your counter, while the actual IPL device nestles in the top to charge and connects to the base with a cord, so this device isn’t very portable. The cartridge provides a relatively large treatment area of 3 cm by 2 cm, and the kit comes with protective goggles so you can cover your eyes while you treat your face. The skin sensor ensures you won’t accidentally zap something you don’t want to.
At nearly $500, the VISS isn’t a small investment, but it’s the closest comparison to a professional IPL photofacial machine on the consumer market right now.
HoMedics IPL and Skin Rejuvenation Hair Remover
Like the DEESS product, the HoMedics IPL device comes with three attachments — one for facial hair removal, one for body hair removal, and one for skin rejuvenating photofacials — and each cartridges lasts up to 30,000 flashes.
The kit also comes with goggles to protect your eyes during treatment. With large buttons and a simple light display, the device is easy to use, though it’s not cordless, so you’ll have to be near a power outlet to use it.
It only takes a few minutes to treat your entire face or neck, so this device is an easy addition to your beauty routine. HoMedics recommends treating your face every day for a week to start, then transition to using it as needed. As with any at-home IPL photofacial product, it will take time to see results, so consistent use of the HoMedics Skin Rejuvenator is key to improving your skin.
Should you buy one?
IPL’s wide spectrum of light allows the technology to treat an equally wide array of skin and hair conditions, from hair removal to hyperpigmentation to anti-aging rejuvenation. Patients looking to treat a wide variety of concerns with one convenient procedure should consider investing in an at-home IPL photofacial device or look into getting it done professionally.
Remember, however, that at-home treatments simply can’t match the power of professional treatments for both safety and cost, so they take more time to produce results.
Bear in mind that not everyone is a good candidate for IPL photofacials, and the procedure can’t address certain conditions that go beyond the skin, such as droopy muscles. If you’re not sure if you would be a good candidate for at-home IPL photofacials or think you might need to get them done professionally, read more about skin care on our forums or ask a doctor for more information.
Updated, March 2018
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