Should I buy a home IPL machine?
Updated: May 3, 2020
Sadly professional waxing and IPL treatments are off the table for a while and now looks like a great time to try out some home hair removal. Adds for DIY IPL devices are popping up on social media promising professional results at home, let's take a look at how and if they work, are they safe and they worth the money?
How IPL hair removal works
IPL hair removal uses light at a wavelength that can target the pigment in the hair cells without damaging the surrounding tissue. The heat and energy from the light are absorbed into the hair strand and drawn to the base of the hair follicle where it can damage the germ cells so that the hair doesn't grow back.
For the light to be absorbed into the base of the hair it has to be still attached to the follicle in its growth phase (anagen). Have you ever noticed how if you grow out your leg hair it doesn't get passed a certain length? That's because all of your hairs have a growth cycle that varies from area to area and person to person and is usually about a month on the legs. To be able to treat all of the hairs multiple sessions are required to account for the varying stages of growth that the hairs can be in. Sadly growth cycles rarely sync up to the same cycle in any area at once.
The light energy is drawn to the dark colour of the hair (melanin) and leaves the surrounding skin undamaged. This is easier to do if the hair is dark and the skin is light so there is a high contrast between them. The light energy can also be absorbed by the melanin present in darker skins, skin that has recently been exposed to the sun or tanned. This is one of the ways IPL can burn the skin. The same treatment settings can not be used for someone with light skin on someone with darker skin. If there is not enough dark pigment in the hair the light doesn't have enough cells to be drawn to so IPL is typically ineffective on grey, white and red hairs.
Home IPL devices usually have about 5 different settings to address skin colour as it is easy to determine yourself. The machines are also only able to produce a small amount of energy to reduce the risk of blindness and burns. The problem is using less energy to heat the hair is not as effective as a high energy treatment tailored to you personally. There is some evidence in a recent clinical study that low energy treatments could be effective in hair reduction so there is a scientific base behind the devices, but using this method requires more frequent treatments and often the result does not last after the treatments are stopped.
These temporary results are called photo-waxing and can even occur in a professional setting if the therapist not adequately trained and nervous about using strong enough settings. The hair is heated enough to damage it, forcing it from the growth phase (anagen) into the next stage (catagen) and it falls out causing a temporary effect. The low energy is not enough to damage the germ cells so the hair growth is stunted temporarily but after the treatments stop the hair growth returns. In this study, it shows that low energy IPL at-home treatments are effective in reducing hair growth short term without completely destroying the hair. It suggested that at-home devices could be used as a non-permanent form of hair reduction as an alternative to professional IPL.
There are so many different factors that go into if IPL treatments will work for you other than just hair and skin colour. The depth of the hair follicle, the thickness and location of the hair all play a role in what type of results that you can achieve.
In a professional environment, all of these factors are assessed and the best machine settings can be tailored to the individual client. These include:
The wavelength and spectrum of light used (in machines with filtered handpieces)
The amount of energy that the light produces (j/cm2).
The amount of time that the light takes to deliver the energy in one long slow wave or if it is delivered in several little pulses with breaks to allow the surrounding tissue to cool (pulse width and intervals).
This explains why when at home IPL devices are reviewed by users there is such a discrepancy. Some customers love the results and some don't experience any. The limited amount of settings combined with the low energy output means that it is impossible to predict the results from person to person.
There is potential for the machines to improve in the future offering a wider range of settings and finding a safe way to use higher light energy delivered to the hair in long enough pulse to heat the germ cells to a temperature that could destroy them and provide long term results but the science is not there yet. **(April 2020)**
The more advanced at-home IPL devices have been developed with inbuilt safety features other than just the low energy output such as:
Sensors to detect skin colour to reduce the risk of burns.
Handpieces that will not flash unless in contact with the skin to reduce the risk of blindness.
Filters at the back of the flash piece to reduce the light energy from entering the eyes during use.
They have tried to make the devices as safe as possible but in the product instructions brochures, the list of potential complications is the same as a professional treatment.
Do at home IPL devices work?
They can but not for everyone, to achieve a result the treatments will have to be done regularly and you are unlikely to last without continuous top-up treatments.
Are they safe?
Relatively, as long as you are following the treatment instructions.
Are they worth the money?
Not at this stage. ranging from $700-$100 for a device that may or may not work for you short term as a photo-waxing treatment you are much better off waiting until we resurface from quarantine and investing that money into professional treatments supporting a local clinic.
Then why do beauty blogs rave about them?
When you look at a site its important to consider the author.
Are they receiving a commission on products purchased from links on their website? Always look for an affiliate disclaimer.
How did they test the products? Receiving an item and using it a few times is very different from a long term evidence-based assessment of results. They are more likely rating ease of use, comfort level and features that the product claims.
How can they all claim to be clinically proven if they don't work?
Sadly with advertising its all about wording. In the fine print of the product brochures, none of the devices claims effective results past 12 months of the treatment course. This is because all of the clinical studies that have been done on home IPL and Laser hair removal have been limited to industry-sponsored trials with funding bias as they either paid for by the company that wants to sell the device or the study is done by researchers who have invested in, designed the product or are employed by the product company. The studies have also been only done on small sample sizes (about 20 subjects) and for short periods with no effects being looked at after 12 months. This literature review study sums up the shortfalls pretty well and also notes that the energy output (j/cm2) claimed on the packaging of the device often differs from the output of the equipment.
Conflict of interest disclosure and footnotes.
I do not offer IPL in my clinic or profit from any professional IPL treatments. I am not affiliated with any brands or manufacturing companies of IPL machines.
I did specialize in IPL treatments for a long time after completing my advanced diploma in cosmetic dermal science at AACDS and have an intense love for the science behind beauty and dermal therapy.
If you have any relevant data that I have missed bonus points if in the form of a peer-reviewed journal article please let me know at email@example.com or post a link in the comments section of the article.
Feel free to share this post to help your clients or friends but please link to the original article so they can click on the relevant links.
This post is dedicated to my beautiful client Cassandra. Thank you for asking me about DIY IPL machines and inspiring this post.
Devices I researched
Phillips Lumea Prestige BRI956/00 IPL Hair Removal Device $699
Wavelength : 565-1400mn
Pulse duration: 2.5ms single pulse sequence
Maximum light energy: 4.8-23 Jcm2 with a 30% variation.
Tria Laser 4X $499
(technically a laser because it only has one wavelength but I looked into it anyway)
Wavelength: 810 nm
Maximum light energy: 7-22 J/cm2 (claimed) but shown to be on average 38% less in this study.
The original study that the FDA based the clearance on and is referenced was written by a Tria employee, with only 13 subjects and only 12 months of follow up.
The little cheap pink or white device under many different names Happy Skin Co, RoseSkinCo etc. $59-$200
Wavelength:470nm-1100nm (so all of them 🤔)
Maximum light energy: 1.5-4.9J/cm2
I have not been able to find the details of its original manufacturer just tracing it back to many different wholesalers in china. It costs about $30 from the different importers and is probably the worst machine I came across.
Braun Silk Expert Pro5 $499
Maximum light energy: 6J/cm2
Braun wins some point with me for honesty, not in it advertising that is still misleading AF but in its Canadian version of its product brochure. It shows the hairs sleeping being temporarily disabled, has an exert from the study that they funded and clearly shows the energy output of the different settings. It still doesn't work but at least it is a bit more upfront about it. Brauns parent company also did a study to test for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark skin patches) after using the machine. So the care a bit more about safety. The results are still reversible as shown in this study that they also funded.