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Dr. Karen M. Horton Emily Sespaniak, NP Plastic Sugery • Aesthetic Surgery • Non-Surgical Aesthetic Treatments

IPL Treatments – How many, how often, and why??

To get the very best results from IPL therapy, we recommend that our patients do 5 IPL (intense pulsed light) treatments, performed 4 weeks apart.

Why 5 treatments? Because each treatment builds upon the next one and allows me to treat your skin gradually to see how you will react. With the IPL machine we have (Lumenis M22) we are able to toggle the settings to reach pigmentation and blood vessels at different depths of skin, so that with each treatment we are able to target a specific area.

Why 4 weeks apart? Because skin cells turn over about every 30 days or so, so we want to give the skin enough time to recover and return to its normal state before we treat it again.

Spacing the treatments out too far apart leads to issues with patients not completing their IPL series, and people have a tendency to forget what their skin looked like when we started (but of course we have photos to present to you to show your results). IPL treatments work on both brown and red areas of the skin.

Brown spots on the skin (known as “sun spots” or “age spots”) occur because under the skin there are cells called melanocytes (melan= pigment, cytes= cells). As their name implies, these cells have the potential to cause pigmentation on the skin, and things like age and chronic sun exposure cause these melanocytes to produce pigment.

When we “zap” the skin during IPL treatments, we are treating the pigment that is on the surface of the skin, but it does not treat the underlying cause, which is the presence of melanocytes. You cannot remove these cells unless you have them cut out, which would essentially cause a scar, which is not an acceptable alternative to having a brown spot!

IPL helps treat these brown spots by selectively heating up the pigment (but leaving the surrounding tissue alone and unharmed), then lifting that heated, “damaged” area to the surface of the skin where it is removed by the body’s natural exfoliation process. The brown spots that have been effectively treated typically will get darker initially over the next 24 hours, then slowly fade away over the next 1-2 weeks.

Arms before and after IPL 2

Before and after IPL (intense pulsed light) treatment of brown spots on the arm

Red areas on the face typically are caused by vascular issues, meaning they are little blood vessels are visible on the surface on the skin, though not necessarily a “broken capillary” as many people call them. These vascular areas can be caused by genetics, aging, lifestyle choices (sun, smoking, alcohol use), or trauma to the skin (this includes picking at the skin!).

Rosacea is a skin condition that can cause redness in the skin, and when you look closely you may see tiny little blood vessels present just under the surface of the skin. While rosacea is a chronic skin condition, IPL can help improve the redness associated with it.

IPL works on blood vessels by heating up the red blood cells within the vessel, causing them to coagulate microscopically and preventing blood from flowing through that tiny vessel. This is not harmful to the body (like a deep vein blood clot would be) because the blood will end up flowing through a neighboring blood vessel instead of the one that has been treated. It can take up to a month for the redness in the treated area to improve, and it may appear slightly darker or more purple in color as it is healing.

IPL chest before and after

Before (top) and after (bottom)- 1 IPL treatment. 4 more treatments planned, but off to a good start!

Patients often ask “Are the results from IPL permanent?” and the answer is “Yes and no.” We are constantly aging, and even despite our best attempts at sun protection, most of us still get incidental sun exposure throughout the year. Treated brown spots can return if whatever caused them in the first place (sun, age) recurs.

For that reason, we recommend completing a series of 5 treatments, and then getting a “touch up” treatment once a year in the winter to remove some of the signs of sun damage and aging that they may have accumulated over the past year.

Sometimes a specific brown spot that resolved with IPL treatment may come back months or years later. This does not mean the treatment did not work, but rather, the treatment worked and the spot returned due to aging and lifestyle factors, and it should respond well to another treatment.

IPL treatments work very well to reduce and remove brown and red spots on the skin and create an overall better complexion. However, as this treatment has “minimal or no downtime”, it is necessary to do 3-5 treatments to achieve the very best results.

Staying out of the sun for at least 2 weeks before and after the treatment is an absolute requirement so as to avoid any adverse reaction related to the treatment, which is why we generally advise patients start their treatment series in the fall or winter so that they are done before summer and can be well-protected from excess sun exposure.


To learn more about IPL treatments and to schedule a consultation to learn if a series of IPL treatments is right for you, call 415-923-3067 or contact us via email today!

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