How IPL at Home Stacks Up Against Other Hair Removal Methods
At this point, anyone who feels compelled to try hair removal can choose from an array of options. From depilatory creams to sugaring to old-school razors, there are more ways to eliminate hair than you could count on both hands.
IPL hair removal is one common option, which offers a more lasting result than shaving or even waxing. (In fact, it was one of the top five most popular minimally-invasive procedures in 2020, according to the most recent Plastic Surgery Statistics Report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons [ASPS].) While you may associate the treatment with med spas, numerous at-home IPL devices have hit the market, promising an alternative for people who'd rather take matters into their own hands. If you're wondering whether the ability to use the tech from your home is too good to be true, here's the full scoop.
What are at-home IPL devices?
IPL stands for intense pulsed light, the form of scattered light that these handheld tools give off. "These are devices that emit a wide spectrum of light to treat the skin," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The technology is similar to but different from laser hair removal. "Technically [IPL devices] are not lasers since lasers emit only a single wavelength of light," while IPL emits multiple wavelengths, explains Dr. Zeichner. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Trying Laser Hair Removal at Home)
IPL can be used to treat brown spots or broken capillaries and redness in addition to its application in reducing hair production. "Different filters are used to limit the light that is delivered by the device to offer a customized treatment that addresses your particular need," says Dr. Zeichner.
"[IPL] uses a big [dose] of light to capture certain targets in the skin," says Azadeh Shirazi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at La Jolla Laser Dermatology. "In terms of hair removal, the target would be melanin." (Reminder: Melanin is a natural pigment in your skin and hair.) When the goal is hair removal, IPL devices are filtered to emit light at a wavelength of 600 to 700 nanometers, which can selectively heat and destroy melanin without heating the surrounding skin, she explains. When the light heats the melanin in a hair follicle, that causes the strand of hair to fall out and kills the hair follicle, thereby decreasing regrowth. (Although it takes multiple sessions to achieve full results, which only ever amounts to a reduction of hair growth rather than permanently eliminating new growth, according to Dr. Shirazi.)
Home IPL devices — e.g. Kenzzi, SmoothSkin, and Braun IPL devices — use the same technology at lower energies compared to what the pros use, according to Dr. Zeichner. Of course, that comes with a tradeoff. "The IPL devices in the office are obviously going to be a lot more powerful and hopefully are being used by trained professionals, whereas the IPL devices at home are going to be much weaker in terms of the amount of energy that they're able to deliver so the results aren't going to be as good," says Dr. Shirazi. That said, a small study on at-home IPL devices published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology reported a 78 percent reduction in amount of hair at the one-month mark and a 72 percent reduction after three months, with participants receiving biweekly treatments with an at-home device over the course of six weeks.
What are the perks of using at-home IPL devices?
You can use at-home IPL devices on any area of the body where hair is found, whether that means treating your facial hair or giving yourself a full Brazilian, according to Dr. Shirazi. Investing in an at-home IPL device can also save you money compared to in-office treatments. Home IPL devices typically cost around $150 to several hundred dollars, while the average cost of a single session of professional IPL cost roughly $412 in 2020, according to the ASPS report. Most people need six to 12 IPL treatments to achieve full results, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Then there's the convenience factor. Switching to using an IPL at home will save you time if you normally shave. To give you an idea, Braun recommends using its Silk Expert Pro 5 once a week for four to 12 weeks, then every one to two months for maintenance. Taking matters into your own hands also eliminates any awkwardness you might feel around having a stranger treat your bikini area while you attempt to make small talk. (Related: How to Shave Your Bikini Area Without Causing Irritation)
What are the downsides of trying IPL at home?
IPL can be moderately painful. It also comes with potential side effects, which is one reason why Corey L. Hartman, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama, finds the idea of putting the technology in the hands of non-professionals unsettling. When used improperly, IPL can cause "blistering, redness, scarring, discoloration, hyperpigmentation, pain, oozing, or crusting," says Dr. Hartman. "IPL devices are not casual."
"I've seen some terrible burns and terrible scarring from IPL done in the office and done at home," echoes Dr. Shirazi. "It's tricky because you're playing around with energy and heat and if the skin absorbs all of that, you can certainly get a burn."
Additionally, both IPL and laser devices have the potential to do the exact opposite of what you want. "If you use conservative settings or low energy settings of light to try to remove hair," you can actually stimulate growth, says Dr. Shirazi. "You could end up with a condition called paradoxical hair stimulation from laser treatments. The low energy is not enough to chill the hair follicle, but it's enough to stimulate the hair follicle to grow." That's why you may have heard of low-level laser-emitting caps designed to promote hair growth.
Another major downside? IPL isn't well-suited to dark skin tones or light-colored hair. "IPL is high-risk for people with dark skin tones," who naturally have more melanin, according to Dr. Shirazi. "What happens, as the light passes through it's going to capture the melanin on the surface of the skin. The more melanin there is on the surface of the skin the more likely it is to absorb all the energy, and then you can end up with a burn." IPL device brands often provide charts on their websites indicating which skin tones should avoid using their products altogether.
All in all, is at-home IPL worth trying?
The experts interviewed for this story were divided on whether at-home IPL is worthwhile or even okay to try. If you buy an at-home IPL device, you can assume that it uses lower energy than professional devices, making it safe to use at home, says Dr. Zeichner. "The biggest potential risk associated with using IPL devices is the development of hyperpigmentation," he says. "This risk is very low with at-home devices because of the safety measures put in place that allow them to be used without professional supervision."
Not everyone gives at-home IPL devices a thumbs up. Any IPL device will be either be able to "really do some harm" or they'll be ineffective, and that there's no in-between, says Dr. Hartman. "I don't understand at-home IPL devices," he says. "I'm scared of them. I do not recommend."
IPL technology is better suited for treating brown spots, redness, and sun damage than hair removal, he adds. When his patients ask him about IPL for hair removal, Dr. Hartman steers them toward laser hair removal instead. More specifically, Nd:YAG and alexandrite laser hair removal are ideal for dark and light skin tones, respectively, he says. "They just work better, and they have more science and studies behind them," says Dr. Hartman. (Related: I Was ~This Close~ to Lasering Off My Pubes for Life—Here's What Stopped Me)
Finally, IPL is fine to try at home provided you a) don't have a dark skin tone, b) have read up on IPL, and c) have managed your expectations, in Dr. Shirazi's opinion. "I always recommend that people do a test spot, wait a day or two and make sure that your skin is not reacting in an adverse fashion," before using one of the devices on a large area, she says. Another pointer: "You have to be really careful around going around curved areas, so particularly around the bikini or contours of the face it's really important to have good contact [between your skin and] the device, because if you're at an angle or you don't have full contact of the light with the skin you could just be delivering pure heat rather than the light," preventing the device from functioning properly, she adds.
If you're after a dramatic reduction in hair growth, it's probably best to visit a pro, since they'll use a much more powerful device, says Dr. Shirazi. "I think [at-home IPL] is fine to use as a maintenance treatment but it's really not going to work as effectively as in-office IPL." And IPL in general is "much weaker" than lasers for hair removal to begin with, she adds.
One thing's for sure: If you want to remove your body hair but at-home IPL doesn't feel quite right, you've got plenty of other options to consider.