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The Difference Between IPL and Fractional Laser

Woman receiving laser treatment on chin

If you’ve been considering skin rejuvenation, anti-aging, or tackling stubborn pigment, you may have wondered which therapy works best. Nowadays, we have more options than ever before for light-based skin treatments; so many options that even experts sometimes find it challenging to keep up with the latest and greatest technology. Two of the mainstays that have been used safely and effectively for facial skin treatments for over a decade are Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and Fractional Lasers. While very different, these two technologies provide some overlapping benefits for your skin health and appearance. So how do you choose which one is right for you? The best treatment for your skin might be based on your goals, the cost, or the downtime and side effects of one intervention over another, so it’s always best to get educated before deciding!

Let’s start with the differences between these two modalities: First and foremost- IPL is not a laser. It uses light to affect skin cells, but this light is not monochromatic. Instead, it has a broader spectrum and is diffusely distributed into the skin as it gets delivered. That being said- it is intense! The light can cause damage to your eyes, which is why you and your provider will wear protective glasses/goggles during the procedure. IPL is typically less expensive than laser but may require more sessions to achieve desired results. IPL also has a broader range of uses, some of which we will discuss below.

On the other hand, fractional lasers create tiny columns of thermal injury to the skin; after healing, the regeneration and rejuvenation effects can be seen and felt. There are some similar benefits between the two approaches- including maintaining healthy, youthful skin and promoting collagen regeneration to decrease wrinkles.

The History and Use of IPL

IPL was developed in the mid-1990s to treat vascular lesions, such as angiomas, telangiectasias (spider veins), and port-wine stain birthmarks. Soon after, it was found to be useful in hair removal as the intense light targets chromophores in the skin-including melanin and hemoglobin. The melanin in the hair follicle is selectively destroyed with minimal thermal damage to the surrounding skin. This translates to less downtime with IPL than with fractional laser treatment. If a rapid recovery is essential, IPL may be your best option.

Besides treating vascular issues and hair removal, IPL is an excellent option for skin rejuvenation or photodamage from the sun. Much like how IPL targets the pigment in hair follicles, it can also target dyschromia. IPL doesn’t just treat the stain in the cells either; it can modify the deeper cells in the dermis, improving their ability to regenerate, promoting firmness, and helping reverse the early signs of sagging, wrinkles, and skin laxity.

Some studies have suggested that while IPL may reduce pigment caused by melasma in the short term, it might not be the best option since it is likely to recur. For stubborn discoloration caused by melasma, the fractional laser might be a better option.

IPL has even been used to treat acne. While somewhat effective for certain types of acne, a recent meta-analysis showed other more effective treatment options.

IPL can treat a broad range of conditions using specialized filters. As such, it is essential to have IPL performed by a well-educated provider like Dr. Boger or Anna Politi, both of whom are experts in the device’s various settings. If the wrong filter is used, the expected results are unlikely to be achieved.

The History and Use of Fractional Lasers

Fractional lasers began their use in the mid-2000s with the introduction of Fraxel for skin resurfacing, acne scars, and melasma. These days, many options and types of fractional lasers on the market. The two main types are ablative vs. non-ablative, with the latter requiring less downtime. Fractional lasers can improve many of the same problems as IPL but use a different and more aggressive mechanism in doing so. Creating channels of thermal damage allows the skin to heal without explicitly targeting coloration. This means fractional lasers can be safely used in a broader range of skin tones, including darker skin. This is not to say that fractional lasers come without risks, but they may be a better option for those prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and hormonal melasma.

Skincare Products

Since fractional lasers are a much more aggressive treatment than IPL, it is important to consider skincare products during recovery. This may include specific moisturizers, sun protection, and post-laser creams recommended by Dr. Boger to ensure your skin heals properly. As with most skin treatments, avoiding UV exposure, using non-irritating sunscreens, and staying out of the sun are critical following any laser treatment.

Fractional lasers require topical numbing ointment before the treatment to minimize the pain or discomfort experienced. The fractional ablative lasers are even more invasive and may require mild sedation, and IPL typically does not need any numbing unless you are particularly sensitive.

Combination Therapies

Fractional laser and IPL treatments can be combined or “stacked”; we call it a 3-for-me treatment. This provides the pigment reduction qualities of the IPL treatment with the skin tightening and rejuvenation characteristics of the fractional laser in one treatment setting. Finding the best laser for your skin can be a real challenge. Since there are over a dozen different ablative and non-ablative fractional lasers on the market, determining which one is right for your skin concerns is a decision that is best made with the help of a medical doctor like Dr. Boger who is knowledgeable about the various options and has extensive anatomical training.

For more information and a complimentary consultation with Dr. Boger for a skincare regimen, we encourage you to contact our office. We also encourage you to speak to our aesthetician, Anna, who can work with you to create a tailored skincare plan that combines products with maintenance procedures like facials, microdermabrasion, and microneedling.