Everything You Need to Know About Safely Using IPL Hair Removal Devices At Home
Is shaving, waxing, and threading every couple weeks bogging down your beauty routine? Then laser hair removal might be for you. Thanks to massive improvements in the safety and affordability of intense pulsed light (IPL) hair removal devices, you can save hundreds of pounds by doing your own laser hair removal method in the comfort of your home.
It's key to note that while these devices are safe and easy-to-use, they are not for everyone. That's why we got in touch with Dr. Tina Alster, affectionately known amongst beauty editors as "the queen of lasers", for a beginner's guide to IPL hair removal — with special care for very deep and very fair skin tones.
Dr. Alster is the founding director of Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. She helped to create the laser hair removal technology used in some IPL devices that you'll find on the market. A little background: IPL is a broadband pulsed light source, which means it uses a broad spectrum of light with multiple wavelengths to target the melanin in the hair follicle, eventually destroying it after repeated use. It is important to note that IPL is different than the in-salon laser treatments, which use a monochromatic coherent light source, or a single spectrum of light. When done professionally, IPL energy is scattered and weaker than laser hair removal; the IPL devices that consumers can buy are even weaker, making them safe for at-home use.
According to Alster, the best time to attempt IPL hair removal is when your sun exposure is extremely limited — like in the autumn and winter months (or while in lockdown from the coronavirus). Regardless of skin tone, sun exposure stimulates the melanocytes in the skin, which are what scattered light is targeting; this can then lead to unwanted side effects — things like redness, burning, and discolouration.
After the melanin is targeted and the hair follicle is safely destroyed, you'll see finer hairs or reduced hair production in the area of application (no laser or IPL can promise permanent hairlessness). How many applications you'll need and at what intensity you should be using your device depends on the combination of your specific skin tone and type, hair colour, and hair thickness. Before you DIY, keep reading ahead for everything you'll need to know about safely performing IPL hair removal at home — and what to do if you mess up your skin.
How to Know If IPL Laser Hair Removal Is Safe For You
Skin Tone: "The ideal candidate for IPL is someone with lighter skin and darker hair," says Alster, because "laser light, no matter at what intensity or wavelength, only targets dark pigments. If you have a very deep skin tone or very light hair, none of these lasers, whether they're in office or at home, are going to work."
Skin Type: "The other issue here is the actual skin type of the individual. We want to target the pigment inside the hair shaft rather than the pigment on the skin. The pigment in the skin serves as an umbrella or shade over the hair shaft that you're trying to treat," says Alster. You'll want to be extra careful if you have very dark skin, lighter skin with a tan, or skin with tattoos, birth marks, or hyperpigmentation before you attempt IPL.
"If you do have pigment in your overlying skin, the laser or light energy will be absorbed inside that pigment and may cause unwanted blistering or scabbing, which can lead to scarring or discolouration of the skin. It's a delicate balance between trying to target pigment that is deep in the skin versus the pigment that's in the melanocytes that gives you your colour on the skin surface."
How to Safely and Effectively Perform IPL Hair Removal
1. Avoid the Sun: "The main thing is, regardless of somebody's skin type, that they haven't had any recent sun exposure," says Alster, who notes that "sun exposure can be as little as dining al fresco at lunchtime."
2. Shave or Trim the Hair, Don't Wax: "The laser can't see what's not there, right? So you have to have the hair inside the hair shaft," says Alster. "You can shave or trim it. You don't need to have the hair long on the surface of the skin, but the hair has got to be in the skin for the laser or the light to see it."
3. Patch Test Your Skin Sensitivity: Test the IPL device in an area that you don't want to actually treat, and make sure that the chosen test area is not already irritated. "Avoid sensitive skin areas with eczema, acne, or that otherwise have an infection, like a cold sore or impetigo," says Alster. "Anything that is red or otherwise not in good shape or an open area, you do not want to use the device on top of that. If you're treating on an area that has a tattoo, or a brown spot, you can potentially change the tattoo or pigmentation of the skin because some of that wavelength will be absorbed within the pigment of the tattoo or the birthmark."
It's also key to note that "lasers and light, just like with the sun, has the tendency to induce cold sores, whether it's around the mouth or anywhere else. If you're treating around the mouth, you've got to be sensitive about that. Also, if you have a lot of dental work and you're treating on the upper lip, you might want to place your tongue over your teeth, while you're treating there."
4. Stick to Once-Monthly Treatments: "If you don't destroy the hair follicle completely, it will have a tremendous capacity to reform and produce more hair," says Alster. "The hair that is produced is typically slower growing, it's thinner, it may be a little bit lighter in terms of the amount of pigment that's in there, which is good and bad. It's good because you may not see it as much, but it's bad in terms of if you keep hitting the hair too many times and you take out all the ability to produce pigment, then the laser light has no target."
"We typically do repeated treatments in the office once a month. With these home devices, we tell people to use them similarly, but many times people will use them more often because they think more is better. That's the reason why these devices are lower energy and have a bunch of safety factors in there, so they won't discharge if there's too much pigment in the overlying skin. So, in many IPL devices, there's an indicator that tells you that somebody's skin is too dark for it to be treated, and it just automatically shuts off."
5. Be Diligent About Aftercare: "After treatment, you will end up being a little bit pink or red, so you want to cool down the area with ice, or cool water contact, and apply some over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream," says Alster. As for the actual device, "make sure you clean the head after each use with alcohol or diluted bleach, and never use vinegar."
How to Avoid and Care For IPL Burns
IPL might be easy but it is not foolproof, especially for darker skin tones. As I learned the hard way, you're going to want to be very careful not to treat one area more than twice in a row, and ensure that you use a very low setting — even if you don't have sensitive skin.
I have a typical medium or golden tan skin tone in the makeup foundation world, with very dark and corse black hair. I used my Laziskin IPL Hair Removal device (£95) on the second highest setting, and it resulted in first degree burns — despite the instructions advising against this for my skin type and hair colour combination. Luckily, the scars from the burns are healing and completely disappearing after six weeks, and going forward I will be using it on the second lowest setting, which didn't cause any burning.
If you're curious about what I used to quickly heal my IPL burns and scarring, plus the best devices available online for a broad range of skin tones, keep reading ahead.