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No, Intense Pulsed Light and Lasers Are Not the Same

The differences between these two treatments and how they really work

Published on 04/18/2018
AestheticsCosmetics and ProceduresDevicesLights and LasersNon-Surgical Cosmetic ProceduresSkin Physics SpotlightWestern
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Quick Summary (Why You Should Care)

  • Lasers are more targeted with a focused beam of light of one frequency and affect one target
  • Intense pulsed light is less targeted and delivers a spread of light that covers many different frequencies and many different targets
  • Lasers have a lower chance of side effects because they are more targeted

Editor's note: This article is good for all skin types as lasers and intense pulsed light can be useful for many different skin types depending on how they are used. 

A Common Misunderstanding

One of the most common misunderstandings is the difference between an intense pulsed light (IPL) and a laser. IPL skin treatments are often confused with lasers because both lasers and IPLs use wavelengths to select specific targets in the skin. The two are quite alike and may be used for similar uses such as hair reduction, improvement of rosacea[1], and treatment of sun-induced aging.[2] However, which is best for each condition? Though their purpose is somewhat similar, there are major differences between the two, where, if confused by the other, can risk injury to the skin.

Skin Basics

There are two pieces of information needed: First, your skin has many chromophores. A chromophore is a molecule or chemical that has a color to it. Some examples include the pigment molecule melanin that gives the skin a brown color and hemoglobin that gives blood its red color. Lasers and IPL skin treatments have the ability to target anything with a chromophore. In the body, there are three main targets: melanin, hemoglobin, and water. Melanin is found in hair and skin pigment, hemoglobin is found in blood, and water is found in almost any part of the skin. The deepest layer is where the pigment molecule melanin is located. Below the epidermis is the dermis and this is where blood, nerves, and collagen are located. The following table outlines where chromophores tend to be located in the skin:

Table 1. Chromophores in the Skin
Skin Structure/Target Target Color Location

Cells with melanin



Lowest layer of the epidermis

Hair with melanin



Epidermis and Dermis

Hemoglobin in blood vessels




Water in superficial skin



Throughout the entire skin;

The epidermis is typically affected as it will absorb the laser first

IPL vs Laser Treatments: Major Differences

Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiations, more commonly known as LASER, is developed by shooting energy into a crystal that will then emit light purely of one wavelength. IPL skin treatments emit a beam of light using a filter, meaning they are composed of different and several wavelengths. Thus, lasers emit a concentrated beam of only one light energy, whereas IPLs emit a range of light wavelengths and energies. Because IPLs transmit a range of wavelengths and is not as focused, it gives IPL the advantage to treat larger areas. On the other hand, IPL can also lead to more side effects because it can target so many things in the skin at once.

Table 2. Comparison of IPL vs Laser
Type of Device Advantages Disadvantages

Intense Pulsed Light

1. Can target many skin structures at the same time

2. Cheaper in cost

3. Can treat a larger area with each burst

1. Not as precise with targeting as lasers

2. Can lead to more side effects from targeting


1. More precise targeting

2. Less chance of side effects

1. More expensive

2. Cannot target multiple structures of the skin at the same time

3. Longer time for treatment as the laser is delivered through a smaller opening compared to the IPL

IPL vs Laser: Which is Better?

Hair Removal

During hair reduction treatment, the melanin in your hair absorbs the wavelengths, causing the hair to heat up and burst. Lasers emit one specific wavelength, while IPLs emit several wavelengths at the same time. If IPL skin treatments emit a range of wavelengths, then other structures everywhere else in the skin will have the ability to absorb it too. Using IPLs for laser hair reduction is prone to more complications.[3] Overall, lasers may lead to better targeting of the hairs. The lasers commonly used to target hair include the Alexandrite (755 nm), Diode (810 nm) and Nd:YAG (1064 nm) lasers.


Rosacea[4] is a skin disorder encompassing signs of flushing, erythema, telangiectasia, edema, and papules. Both lasers and IPLs can be used to treat the redness seen in rosacea. Both IPL and lasers can be used to target the hemoglobin in the blood vessels that cause the redness. This heats the blood vessels, ultimately leading to their destruction. Lasers are more precise at targeting the hemoglobin and blood vessels.


Photoaging occurs as a result of several changes in the skin. Some effects of photoaging are wrinkles, roughness, uneven pigmentation, and telangiectasia.[5] In this case, treatments like IPL skin treatments may have an advantage in that it can target multiple skin structures to treat all the aspects of photoaging at once. Lasers can precisely target pigment, redness, or the dermis to improve wrinkles but no laser can target all three of these at the same time.


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