We’ve learnt already about what laser and IPL hair removal is and how it works to stop your hairs growing back. But a common question is what are the differences between laser and IPL, and which is best?
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 professional laser and IPL are different in this quick facts comparison table.
Professional laser vs IPL comparison
The key differences between professional laser & IPL are:
- how the technology works,
- how the light energy behaves,
- the cost and availability of each
The similarities between professional laser & IPL are:
- both work with a selective photothermolysis process,
- they have largely identical treatment schedules,
- and the same hair reduction results.
Here’s a handy comparison table…
|Type of light||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.|
|Mode of action|| Selective photothermolysis
The melanin pigment in your hair absorbs the light wavelength, converts to heat and damages key areas of the follicle to disrupt hair growth.
| Selective photothermolysis
The melanin pigment in your hair absorbs the multi-wavelength light, converts to heat and damages key areas of the follicle to disrupt hair growth.
|Light wavelengths||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 within the range e.g. a Diode laser at 810 nm.||IPL has wavelengths between 500nm and 1200nm. It’s filtered to 600 to 1100nm for IPL hair removal, so melanin absorbs multiple wavelengths.|
|Light direction||You can focus a laser to a single spot. It travels through your tissues. Different types of lasers reach different depths in your skin and tissues.||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) and to different skin depths too.|
|Safe skin tones||There are various types of professional laser available e.g. Diode is suitable for pale to medium skin tones and Nd:YAG laser is safe for treating darker skin types.||Professional IPL is generally suitable for light to medium skin tones only, but gentle IPL combined with other technology is safe and effective. This is called ELOS technology.|
|Suitable hair colours|| 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 may work on blonde hair if there's enough melanin present.
It's not effective on fair hair that’s very light blonde, red, grey or white.
|Treatment spot size|| Laser has a relatively smaller spot size because the energy is focussed. Treatments are slower than IPL.
No cooling gel required.
|IPL has a larger 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 for comfort..|
|Light intensity|| 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, but also risk of side effects.
Professional laser machines operate at 1 to 60+ J/cm2
|Professional IPL machines also operate at 1 to 60+ J/cm2|
|Clinical evidence||Clinical studies show laser hair removal is safe and effective with a trained and skilled operative.||Clinical studies show IPL hair removal is safe and effective with a trained and skilled operative.|
|Treatment protocol||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.|
|Cost for professional sessions|| 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.
At-home laser vs IPL comparison
At-home laser and IPL devices have the same type of light, mode of action, wavelengths and saftey parameters as their professional counterparts.
The key differences between at-home laser and IPL are:
- there is just one at-home laser hair removal device called the Tria 4X laser
- It’s more powerful than home IPL devices
- The Tria 4X is safe for light to medium skin tones only,
- Some at-home IPL devices are safe for dark skin tones too
- The Tria 4X laser can sting more than IPL
- The 4X’s small laser aperture means it’s best suited to zapping small body areas,
- Whereas IPL devices can treat a larger surface area e.g. legs, much faster
The similarities between at-home laser & IPL are:
- Both work with a selective photothermolysis process
- At-home devices are compact and portable
- They have simple controls
- Most have skin tone sensors
- Both laser and IPL are considerably less powerful versus professional machines
- Studies show long term results are similar
This table shows the key differences and similarities (excluding the technical explanations of how laser and IPL work).
|Properties||At-home Laser||At-home IPL|
|At-home availability & brands||There's only one laser device clinically-proven for safe use at home. It's the Tria 4X laser from Tria Beauty.||There are several clincally-proven IPL devices available for safe use at home from brands such as Philips, Smoothskin, Braun, Silk'n & Panasonic.|
|Clinical evidence & approvals||The Tria laser is clinically proven to reduce hair growth on your body and face. It is also CE certified and FDA-cleared for sale in the US.||The leading at-home IPL brands that I review are all clinically proven to reduce hair growth on your body and face. All are CE certified and most are FDA-cleared for sale in the US.*|
|Light intensity||The Tria 4X home laser machine operates at 7 to 22 J/cm2||Home IPL machines operate at 2.5 to 6.5 J/cm2|
|Safe skin tones||The Tria 4X is safe for light to medium skin tones I to IV on the Fitzpatrick skin type scale.||All at-home IPL devices are safe for light to medium skin tones I to IV on the Fitzpatrick skin type scale. A few are additionally safe for dark skin type V, and just a couple more are safe for the darkest tones type VI.|
|Suitable hair colours||The Tria 4X laser works on dark hair.|| All home IPL devices work on dark hair.
The more powerful may get results on blonde hair too.
And a combination energy, called Elos, also works on fair hair where melanin is not present (light blonde, red, grey and white).
|Spot size & effort|| The Tria 4X spot size/laser aperture is small at 0.5 cm diameter.
Effort is high compared to IPL because sessions require more concentration & time to cover your skin.
It's manageable for face and smaller body areas, but very time intensive for legs!
| IPL devices flash window ranges from 3 to 4.1cm2.
The effort is relatively low effort because it's quicker to cover your skin and so sessions are much faster.
You can do a whole body in 30 mins to 1 hour with the latest, fastest devices.
|Treatment protocol|| The treatment protocol for the 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.
|Results|| Results vary by individual. It may take longer to get your best results, and top-ups are critical to get longer-lasting results.
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.
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.
|Results variables|| 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.|
|At-home device cost||The Tria 4X laser costs between £219 to £350||Home IPL devices cost from £100 to £500 depending on brand, model and features.|
* Other cheaper brands without clinical evidence are available. These are typically sold via Amazon or online advertised via social media. Take care to research such brands thoroughly to check they have the right credentials and tests!
** the evidence Tria provide shows permanent hair reduction and not permanent hair removal as Tria Beauty UK claim. Learn more here.
Which works best, laser or IPL?
First up, there is PLENTY of scientific research and studies proving both laser and IPL hair removal work very well.
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.
A PubMed search for clinical trials, reviews and articles specifically addressing ‘laser hair removal’ or ‘IPL hair removal’ returns 300+ results.
- The first human study in the results dates to 1996, with several more studies following in 1997.
- Published in 1998 is a notable 2-year long study investigating the permanency of results.
- There are now hundreds more studies into the efficacy, permanency, safety and side effects.
More recently, in June 2013 a review published in Dermatologic Surgery (the official publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery), concluded that:
“in-office laser hair removal devices effectively provide a durable solution for unwanted hair removal”.‘Laser hair removal: a review‘
In addition to this, loads of professional IPL and laser hair removal machines are FDA-cleared.
FDA-clearance allows manufacturers to market their device in the US based on their machine being significantly similar to a previously cleared, or ‘predicate’ device. And over the last decade or so, several home-use IPL and laser devices gained successful 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 (called 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:
|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.
However, this is contradicts what you’ll be told by some laser hair removal providers. More on this next…
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.
However, as shown above, evidence from clinical studies doesn’t consider the mechanism of laser to be significantly more effective than IPL.
So, what’s going on here?
Consider this. 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 showing 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.
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 (that’s 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 give excellent hair reduction results once you’ve completed the start-up and done several top-ups. And home laser hair removal with the Tria 4X has some real cons. It’s not suited to larger body areas and, overall, it demands much more time and commitment compared to IPL rivals. I’ve compared the Tria 4X to the Philips Lumea Prestige so you can learn more.
If you want to check out my recommended best at home laser and IPL devices, choose from these tried-&-tested round-ups: