Trying IPL: What to Know

Illustration by Sydney Has for Refinery29

I just finished two rounds of IPL, or intense pulsed light therapy–something I’ve always wanted to try, given the fact that I have some brown spots from sun exposure. Here’s what to know before you try it too!

Let me start off by saying that each person will have a different experience. While–as you’re about to see–it wasn’t a majorly transformative experience for my skin, other women have seen pretty incredible results. And that’s based on a few factors. So let’s dive in!

Let’s talk first about the thing that most people want to know right away–if it hurts! My verdict?

It hurts, but not that bad

On a scale from 1 to 10, I would say it’s about a 3.5, but that’s with the topical anesthesia.

The anticipation was SO much worse than the actual pain! As you can see from my video below, I was actually sweating with nerves before we started, and there were also definitely some F-bombs when the treatment first started. But after the first zap, it was exponentially easier.

One tip: Definitely do the topical numbing cream if you can!

Also, the pain depends on how high the tech is cranking the power. The first time I did it, it was a 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10; the second time it was about a 5.

…So wait, what does it feel like then?

Like touching a hot stove, if you touched a hot stove with your face. A quick, burning sensation.

I’ve heard other people describe it like getting snapped with a rubber band. That’s not exactly how I would describe it, but it’s definitely similar!

The areas that tend to hurt the worst are the ones that don’t have so much fat underneath. The forehead–particularly, the sides of the forehead–hurt the worst, followed by the corners of my nose and right above my lips.

The cheeks weren’t that bad at all!

You’ll probably need more than one session

Like I said in the video, the results from just one session are good, but not astounding. I would say that I saw about 15-20 dark spots “disappear”–as in, flake and then fall off, as they’re supposed to do.

As for the second session, you “lose” a few more spots and you definitely get clearer. Most practices recommend at least two treatments to see noticeable results.

What does your skin look like right after?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so see below! And please hide young children in your vicinity.

There’s (obviously) lots of redness immediately after the session, but it goes down within about three hours.

My girl recommended this Avène mineral-rich water spray and super restorative moisturizer to calm it, and put me under strict orders to not use any retinol or acids right away. (She told me a week, but my skin is pretty thick and healed relatively quickly, so I put some on two days after my treatment. Shhh! Don’t tell her!)

The next day you should expect some minor swelling, and residual redness. The second day after your treatment is when you’ll start to see those little “coffee grounds”–aka the spots that are peeling away–begin to surface. Don’t touch them! Let them fall off on their own.

From that point on, those coffee grounds will continue through about a week, before they peel off and reveal clearer skin below.


Here’s the big takeaway

If you don’t have lots of darker spots to begin with, you might not see that much of a result. But if you’re a person who wants to address sun damage involving darker spots, this treatment is most definitely for you.

If you don’t have lots of darker spots to begin with, you might not see that much of a result. But if you’re a person who wants to address sun damage involving darker spots, this treatment is most definitely for you.

Just remember: Lighter-colored freckles or spots won’t flake off as easily as dark ones. Why? The laser works by targeting contrast, and the darker the spot, the more likely it will “find” it. The lighter spots are more difficult for the laser to remove.

So here’s the takeaway: If your big problem is lighter freckles or spots, you may not see as drastic results as someone who has darker ones.

I definitely thought I would see a more noticeable difference after two sessions. And while I definitely have clearer, brighter skin overall, the end results wasn’t as Wow as I thought it would be. I just wanted to share that, in case you’re starting from a similar point as me, to moderate your expectations.

You can see in the video below the types of spots and issues I’m starting with; and although this video only takes us through the first session, the results weren’t majorly or noticeably better after the second, at least for me.

Again, this is just my experience, but there are tons of people who have lots of luck with this process.

Now let’s check out the video for more details!


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