Read Me If You're Considering IPL for Sun Spots and Broken Capillaries
Now that I’m in my 30’s, I’ve learned a few things — namely that my mom was right about skincare (sorry, Mom). While Asian mom Darth Vader visors used to be something to poke fun at, now I’m kind of itching to get my hands on one (but, you know, a chic one, like the one Charlotte Cho from Soko Glam sports in this video). Unfortunately, while I slather on SPF religiously now, the damage from all those years in my 20’s I spent sunbathing is catching up to me, and I have a couple of sun spots starting to rear their ugly heads. Also, since I am a human being, I also have a couple of broken capillaries around my nose and cheeks.
While hydroquinone, vitamin C, and licorice are all good at fading discoloration, the only verifiably effective remedy for broken vessels is laser treatment or a photofacial, AKA IPL. Also, sometimes, you need something with greater impact for fading hyperpigmentation, and so I decided take the plunge. IPL, which stands for Intense Pulsed Light, is a form of light therapy that targets brown pigmentation and redness. And while it’s pretty good at what it does, it’s not instantaneous. Even with my mild pigmentation, I will likely need several treatments. It’s also not for everyone.
After doing my research, I decided to go to LaserAway for my procedures. Before I could make my first appointment, I had to first go in for a consultation. While each clinic has a different IPL machine and thus the rules could vary a bit (mine was a Harmony Alma), LaserAway recommends the IPL only for Fitzpatrick Skin Types One through Three. If you’re not sure what that means, you can check out the whole skin type chart here. IPL is most effective on pale, untanned skin, and for folks who have more melanin or a tan, IPL can cause unsightly white blotches. While I’m a Type 4, I was approved for treatment likely because these days I’m vampirically pale from hiding from the sun.
IPL should also be avoided by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as the lidocaine in the optional numbing cream offered by some clinics could cross over into breast milk. It’s also not a good option for people on Accutane and other oral acne medications. You’ll want to stop usage at least six months ahead of time, as Accutane can cause a delay in healing and scarring. Also, if you are diabetic or have any disorders that impede with healing, you’ll want to consult your doctor first. IPL is also not great at treating hormonal related melasma as IPL will heat up the skin, and heat is a trigger for melasma.
Here’s what you should know before you go.
Before you go
No tanning. For four to six weeks ahead of your appointment, you’ll want to avoid tanning or sun exposure. The reason is because the IPL specifically targets pigmentation in the skin, and if you’re tan, it can have trouble working effectively. And yes, this applies to self-tanners.
Layoff the retinoids and glycolic acid. Don’t apply any retinoids and glycolic acid for two weeks beforehand. You’ll also want to avoid exfoliating your skin chemically or physically for two days ahead of your appointment. These could all irritate your skin when compounded with IPL.
Avoid blood thinners and ibuprofen. Stay off of aspirin and other blood thinners for 10 days and ibuprofen for five days before, as they can cause extra redness. Also, they can render the treatment useless against ridding your broken capillaries. Ibuprofen has also been observed to cause slight photosensitivity.
Go with a clean face. While your practitioner will likely have you wash your face before treatment, you really want to make sure your face is bare. Any makeup, oils, or products can burn on your skin during treatment.
Know the risks. IPL can trigger cold sores in infected areas. If you know you’re at risk for that, let your doctor know ahead of time so they can put you on oral anti-virals three days before treatment.
Shave treatment areas. IPL is also used for hair removal, but as it just singes the hair, the hair usually grows back. While it’s relatively painless, the few times it stings a little is when it singes a hair. Men should shave their face twice beforehand. Don’t worry, brows and lashes are protected ahead of time.
Know the costs. This is certainly not a cheap procedure, and since most people need multiple visits, the dollar signs really rack up. Depending on where you are in the country and what areas you hope to treat, the cost is anywhere between $150 to $600 per treatment.
What to expect
After you clean your face, your doctor or nurse will wipe down your face with an alcohol wipe to really ensure that all oils and products are gone.
Then, your practitioner will protect your eyes with either sticky eye covers or goggles and cover your brows with microfoam tape that in impenetrable to light.
Next, an ultrasound jelly is spread all over your face. The jelly serves two purposes: to keep your skin cool and also to help focus the light on the targeted area. In my case, each pulse covered a three by three centimeter treatment area.
Ideally, your doctor will test the IPL on a small part of your face to see if you have an adverse reaction. If you’re cleared to go, they’ll then begin zapping your face in sections. Even though your eyes are covered, you can expect a very bright flash of light, some warmth, and sometimes a little zing like you’re being snapped by a micro-rubber band. It can be a little startling, so you might jump.
Some clinics offer a numbing cream for those who need it. Personally, my pain tolerance is pretty high, and on a scale from one to bikini wax, IPL fell around a two. The only times that I flinched a little was when the light caught a hair follicle.
The whole procedure takes around 10 to 15 minutes. With prep and after care, I was in and out of the room in a half an hour.
Expect some redness. While redness and swelling are the most common after effects of treatment, they usually subside quickly. Your clinic might offer ice packs or cortisone to help cool the skin and ease the swelling. My nurse gave me a cool vitamin C sheet mask and some aloe gel. Some folks with lighter skin might even have a slight sunburn.
Be religious about sunblock. You’ll want to wear at least SPF 50 in the weeks following, and especially right after. It’s also recommended that you reapply every two hours. The reason is because after IPL, you skin will have taken a lot of light and heat and you’ll burn very easily afterwards. No tanning goes without saying.
Avoid heat and sweat. Sorry, Classpassers, you’ll have to avoid working out and excess heat for 48 hours after treatment. This also includes saunas and hot tubs. However, you can apply makeup immediately afterwards as long as there’s no blistering or scabbing, which are rare side effects.
Be gentle. Continue staying off retinoids, glycolic acid, and physical and chemical exfoliants for another week. You’ll also want to avoid microdermabrasion, chemical peels, and facial extractions for two to three weeks after.
It gets worse before it gets better. After treatment, your spots could darken and your blood vessels could take on a purplish hue, but don’t worry. As long as you’re applying sunblock, this will fade in around two weeks.
Space apart your treatments. It’s recommended to give your skin four weeks of healing time between treatments. During that time, avoid the sun as much as possible and take it easy with your skin.
Featured photo by Aiony Haust/Unsplash