The Use of Intense Pulsed Light for Treating Skin Discolorations

Light energy can target multiple parts of the skin

Credits: ​Lea Dubedout at

Intense Pulsed Light (also known as IPL, Phototherapy, or BBL – which stands for BroadBand Light), can be used to treat several conditions of the skin. Most notably, it is used to treat skin discolorations, such as dark spots and redness.[1]

Dark spots are often referred to as hyperpigmentation, meaning “excessive pigment.” This category of dark spots include sun damage (some refer to these as sun spots), freckles and birthmarks. Sun spots and freckles are essentially the same thing, only different sizes. They are both caused by the rays of the sun. Certain skin types, in particular those with more fair skin, are predisposed to create these more so than others. This makes sense from a biological standpoint, because a person with darker skin already has a protective shield from the sun, whereas a person with lighter skin does not. In essence, our bodies make freckles and sun spots in an attempt to create protection from the sun. However, every skin type is susceptible – to a greater or lesser extent – to damage from the sun.

Redness is another skin condition that IPL can be used to treat.[2] This category includes tiny blood vessels that can be seen with the naked eye (sometimes referred to as telangiectasias), and other types of diffuse redness such as rosacea, or what is often referred to as “flushing and blushing.”

IPL is a safe and comfortable technology that works by introducing different wavelengths of light into the layers of the skin.[2] Some wavelengths travel to greater depths through the skin than others, while some may stay more superficial and closer to the surface. Different wavelengths are used because certain skin conditions (like sun spots or rosacea) tend to stay on different levels inside of the skin. For instance, let’s imagine the layers of your skin as a 2-floor apartment building: The highest floor would correspond to the surface of your skin, the lower floors would represent the deeper layers, and colors are the tenants. Texture is found on the rooftop. Sun spots and freckles would rent out the 2nd floor, and redness would inhabit the 1st floor. (As a side note, we also have basement that is full of wrinkles, hair follicles, and fibroblasts, which make collagen and support the plumpness and elasticity of the skin. Both the rooftop and basement can also be affected with IPL treatments, which we will detail in a later discussion).

Since each wavelength travels to varying depths through the skin, each has a certain propensity to “attack” a specific target. These targets are called chromophores. A chromophore is defined as “an atom or group whose presence is responsible for the color of a compound.” Certain chromophores tend to inhabit different layers, and that’s why IPL uses varying degrees of depth for light to travel through the skin.

To address brown and red colors, the target chromophores of IPL are melanin and hemoglobin, respectively.[2] Melanin is a brown pigment that our skin forms in response to sun exposure but can also be formed even in the absence of sun exposure, such as with many birthmarks. Hemoglobin is a protein in the blood, which is what is focused on during treatments for telangiectasias, rosacea, and “flushing and blushing.”

Depending on the skin condition (or target chromophore) being addressed in treatment, a certain wavelength will be selected to travel to the correct floor of the apartment building. IPL applies wavelengths that travel through the many layers of skin to attack their target chromophores (melanin and hemoglobin), eventually reducing their appearance. The end result is a more even skin tone, which creates a vibrant and youthful appearance, as light reflects off of an even colored surface more uniformly and brightly than it does off uneven colors.

By selecting the appropriate wavelengths and filters, your practitioner will be able to effectively treat a broad range of skin conditions. IPL is most commonly used to treat discoloration of the face but is also often used to treat other areas of the body, including the neck, chest, hands and other areas too. 


Who Can Use an IPL Device?

  • Dermatologists and other medical physicians can use IPLs.
  • Naturopathic doctors can use IPL in any state where they are licensed medical doctors, which currently includes 19 states in the US (you can see the full list here).
  • Physician assistants and registered nurses can use IPLs under the supervision of a physician. 

Before deciding if IPL is right for you, please be sure to consult with a physician or a qualified health professional to discuss treatment options that best suit you and your individual skin care needs.

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  1. Li D, Lin SB, Cheng B. Intense Pulsed Light: From the Past to the Future. Photomed Laser Surg.2016;34(10):435-447; PMID: 27697004 Link to research.
  2. Wat H, Wu DC, Rao J, et al. Application of intense pulsed light in the treatment of dermatologic disease: a systematic review. Dermatol Surg.2014;40(4):359-377; PMID: 24495252 Link to research.