Laser vs IPL hair removal: which is best?

Which is best: laser or IPL hair removal?
We’ve learnt about what laser and IPL hair removal is and how it works in this 101 article. There’s also this crazyily-detailed explanation of what happens to your hair to stop it growing back. Check them out if you haven’t already.

The differences between IPL and laser hair removal

This article spells out the key differences and similarities between both professional and home laser and IPL hair removal. It then looks at the clinical results and proof for each.

First, let’s see how they’re different in this quick facts comparison table.

  • The key differences are how the technology works and how the light behaves in each.
  • The similarities are the selective photothermolysis process, largely identical treatment schedules and results. There’s more about the results from each in the following sections.
Laser IPL
Laser is monochromatic (a single colour) coherent light (i.e. where all the peaks and troughs of the waves align) Intense pulse light is a quick flash of multi-spectrum (many colours) non-coherent light.
For successful hair reduction, Melanin in your hair absorbs the laser energy, converts to heat and damages key areas of the follicle to disrupt hair growth. It's called selective photothermolysis. IPL uses the same selective photothermolysis process for successful hair reduction.
You can target melanin with a single, specific wavelength of light from a laser. Melanin has a broad absorption peak of light energy. You can target it with a range of wavelengths from an IPL flash.
Melanin absorbs energy at a range of different wavelengths (600 to 1100 nm). A laser is a single wavelength, so hair removal lasers can have different wavelengths e.g. a Diode laser at 810 nm. IPL has wavelengths between 500 nm and 1200 nm. It’s filtered to 600 to 1100 nm for IPL hair removal.
You can focus a laser to a single spot. Different types of lasers reach different depths. A Xenon lamp generates the IPL. It’s directed through a transparent glass block (i.e. quartz or sapphire) onto the skin. You can’t focus this light. It travels in many directions so it’s diffuse.
There are various types of professional laser available e.g. Diode is suitable for pale to medium skin tones and Nd:YAG laser is for treating darker skin types. IPL is generally suitable for light to medium skin tones. When combined with Radio Frequency (RF) or Galvanic energy it’s safe for darker skin tones too.
Laser is most effective on dark hair.
It's not effective on fair hair that’s light blonde, red, grey or white.
IPL is most effective on dark hair and can work on blonde hair.
It's not effective on fair hair that’s very light blonde, red, grey or white.
Laser has a relatively smaller spot size because the energy is focussed. Treatments are slower than IPL. Cooling gel is not usually needed. IPL has a large treatment area, the same size as the flash windows outlet on the IPL machine. Treatments are very fast and may be done with a cooling, conductivity gel.
The power density in J/cm2 of the machine determines the damage done to the hair follicle. The higher the intensity the greater the damage and risk of side effects.
Professional laser machines operate at 1 to 60+ J/cm2
Professional IPL machines operate at 1 to 60+ J/cm2
There's only one laser device clinically-proven for safe use at home. It's an FDA-cleared Diode laser from Tria Beauty. There are several clincally-proven IPL devices available for safe use at home from brands such as Philips, Smoothskin, Silk'n & Panasonic.
Clinical studies show laser hair removal is safe with a trained and skilled operative. Clinical studies show IPL hair removal is safe with a trained and skilled operative.
The treatment protocol for professional IPL matches laser with 6 to 8 treatments at 4 to 6-week intervals. The professional laser protocol is 6 to 8 treatments at 4 to 6-week intervals.

For professional laser cost is typically:
Course of 6 large area sessions: £1,920
Deals available of up to 50% off
Yearly top-ups recommended to maintain your results, but you may need them less frequently.

For professional IPL cost is typically:
Course of 6 large area sessions: £400
Deals available of up to 70% off
Yearly top-ups recommended to maintain your results, but you may need them less frequently.

The Tria 4X home laser machine operates at 7 to 22 J/cm2
It's best suited for facial and small area treatments. It's very slow on legs and large areas.
Home IPL machines operate at 2.5 to 6.5 J/cm2
The best are fast and treat your whole body in under 1 hour.
The treatment protocol for home laser (Tria 4X) is 8 sessions, one every 2 weeks, taking a total of 3 months. Then do less regular top-ups or spot-zaps to stay smooth as you need them.
The treatment protocol for home IPL machines is between 4 to 12 sessions. Some you do weekly and others every 2 weeks so the start-up sessions range from taking 6 to 12 weeks.
When your skin is smooth you do less regular top-up sessions to stay smooth at 1- or 2-month intervals.
The effort for home laser hair removal is high compared to IPL because sessions require more concentration & time.
It's manageable for face and smaller body areas, but very time intensive for legs!
The effort for home IPL hair removal is relatively low effort because sessions are much quicker.
you can do a whole body in 30 mins to 1 hour with the latest, fastest devices.
Results vary by individual. It may take longer to get your best results, and top-ups are critical to get longer-lasting results each time.
Tria say after 12+ sessions you should get permanent* results.
Results vary by individual. It may take longer to get your best results, and top-ups are critical to get longer-lasting results each time.
A study shows after a year of top-ups every 6 weeks, you'll have smooth skin for at least 1 year without further sessions.
Things that affect your results are:
Your skin & hair colour combination (results generally take longer on light hair and / or dark skin), hair thickness, your genetics, hormones, & conditions like hirsutism (excessive hair growth) & PCOS, how thoroughly you cover your skin, the number of sessions / top-ups completed
The same things affect your results with IPL hair removal.
The Tria 4X laser costs between £219 to £350 Home IPL devices cost from £100 to £500 depending on brand, model and features.

* the evidence Tria provide shows permanent hair reduction and not permanent hair removal as Tria Beauty UK claim. Learn more here.

Does laser hair removal work? Clinical studies prove it does

Hundreds of clinical studies over decades prove laser and IPL hair removal safe and very effective. Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash

The first clinical studies into IPL and laser hair removal published in the late 1990s. There are now hundreds of studies documenting the safety, side effects and results of many professional grade systems.

PubMed search for clinical trials, reviews and articles specifically addressing ‘laser hair removal’ returns 300+ results.

  • The first human study in the results dates to 1996, with several more studies following in 1997.
  • In 1998, a notable 2-year long study investigating the permanency of results was published.
  • There are now hundreds more studies into the efficacy, permanency, safety and side effects.

More recently, in June 2013 and published in Dermatologic Surgery (official publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery), ‘Laser hair removal: a review‘ served to appraise the literature to date on laser and IPL hair removal and concluded that:

 “in-office laser hair removal devices effectively provide a durable solution for unwanted hair removal”.

In addition to this, loads of professional IPL and laser hair removal machines are FDA-cleared. FDA approval is stringent for manufacturers to market their machine. FDA-clearance permits marketing based on the new machine being significantly similar to a previously cleared, or predicate device.

US Food & Drug Administration logo
The FDA has approved & cleared many professional and home-use laser and IPL hair removal devices.

Over the last decade or so, several home-use IPL and laser devices have successful clinical tests and FDA-clearance proving they work and are safe for home use.

About the clinical studies

The clinical studies themselves use varying parameters such as the device itself, power intensities, differing participant skin and hair colouring, body areas (or sites), number of treatments and intervals between treatments.

They measure the hair-count reduction at specific intervals following the last treatment and record any side effects. The studies confirm effective hair reduction results or permanent hair reduction, with the amount of hair reduction varying from person to person.

But they don’t conclusively prove either IPL or laser to be better.

For example, one 2006 clinical study with 232 participants compared the hair reduction results from IPL, Alexandrite and Diode lasers at 6 months after the last treatment. Here are the results:

Alexandrite Diode IPL
Hair reduction % 6 months after last treatment 68.75% 71.71% 66.96%

The differences shown above are not considered big enough to be clinically significant. Therefore, although IPL shows the lowest percentage reduction it can’t be confidently said IPL is less effective than laser hair removal.

Several further studies confirm this small percentage difference between the hair reduction results of IPL and various laser machines.

Is professional laser hair removal superior to IPL?

Many medi-clinics and skin clinics say laser hair removal gives superior results to IPL. Therefore, they only offer professional laser vs IPL sessions.

Their rationale is: IPL pulses light in many directions therefore it’s not focussed. Laser is most effective because the laser concentrates light energy to a single point, therefore exerting increased energy on the hair.

Professionals claim laser focusses more energy on the hairs for greater effect.But clinical studies show insignificant differences in results.

However, as shown above, clinical studies don’t evidence the mechanism of laser to be significantly more effective than IPL.

So, what’s going on here?

Laser machines are generally more expensive than IPL. Therefore, medi-clinics perhaps offer this service to differentiate themselves from cheaper beauty spas offering IPL treatments. They can then charge a premium.

Most professional IPL and laser hair removal machines have clinical proof you can get up to 90% hair reduction after a course of treatments. And depending on the machines, both IPL and laser generally work at similar power intensities. So, the machinery and technology alone doesn’t suggest either is superior.

One thing most professionals agree on is this; it’s the skill of the operator and the treatment parameters selected that determine the clients results, comfort and safety. So, more important than the type of treatment laser vs IPL, is the experience and track record of your provider. Choose wisely.

Related: learn more about professional laser & IPL hair removal treatments

What about home laser vs home IPL?

In contrast, home laser with the Tria 4X does promise greater effect than home IPL rivals. That’s because on the highest intensity, it’s 3 times more powerful than the most powerful IPL device at 6.5 vs 22 J/cm2 . The more powerful the intensity, the longer lasting your results.

However, don’t decide on this alone. Both home IPL and laser hair removal machines give excellent hair reduction results following the regimen and after several top-ups. But the reality is home laser hair removal demands much more time and committment overall vs IPL devices, to achieve the same results.

Learn more about the pros & cons of both home laser and IPL here in this comparison:

Related: home laser hair removal (Tria 4X) vs home IPL Lumea Prestige device

Learn even more about home laser vs IPL in this Tria 4X vs Lumea Prestige comparison.
Head-to-head: Tria 4X vs Lumea Prestige IPL
Load More Related Articles