Real Talk: What is an IPL, Who Should Get One – and How Much Does It Hurt?

I’m continuing my journey for my best skin ever – and breaking out the big guns. Enter the IPL photo facial. You already know I love a good face mask and have a knack for finding awesome beauty products, but sometimes you just need to get down to the real issues.

For me, one of those issues is sun damage. Growing up in the South, tans were just a part of life. I’d get super sunburned every year, but be super tan (and still freckled) by the end of the summer. I even used tanning beds on some occasions! Something clicked when I reached my mid-twenties and realized the parts of me that were looking not-so-perfect happened to be the parts that saw the most sun.

I got in touch with my favorite beauty pro in Chicago, Claire from SpaDerma, who you might remember from when she gave me the details on getting gorgeous, glowy skin.

Real Talk about IPL Facials: Who should look into getting them, what to expect during treatment, and is it worth it?

What Is An IPL?

IPL stands for Intense Pulsed Light, and is also referred to as a photofacial. It heats the damaged cells with a pulsed light to yield a therapeutic effect, improving skin tone and surface imperfections that come from aging and sun damage.  The treatment can be administered by doctors (in California, only doctors can do the treatment) or a trained esthetician/nurse.

Who Can Benefit from an IPL?

IPLs are used to treat skin redness, little visible veins (common around the nose), brown spots, and sun damage. You know, all the cute stuff happening under your foundation. If you have freckles that have developed, broken capillaries, redness, or other discoloration, you could be a good candidate for an IPL.

An IPL is only for people who are fairly fair-skinned, though! The difference in pigment is needed to get a safe (and amazing!) result.

My IPL Results

Ready for some cringe-worthy pictures? Check out this post-gym face series with no makeup, before and after style.

The Before Photo: What to expect from an IPL, and my results Right after an IPL, sun damage will turn darker and eventually flake off. Click through to see final results! One week after an IPL photo facial, skin is smoother and sun damage is less noticable.

+ The first photo is immediately before I went in for an IPL. You can see a lot of redness and some sun damage.

+ The second is right after the treatment, where my sun damage is “peppering.” My little spots will turn darker and eventually flake off. During this stage, I didn’t feel like I had to stay home or cake on a ton of makeup. Unlike a chemical peel, it’s pretty subtle!

+ The final photo is about a week after my IPL. My skin tone looks more even and all the peppering is gone. To get the best results, several treatments are usually needed. You can see I still have some of my freckles, but I’m so much happier with my skin tone.


What to Expect from an IPL

Does An IPL Hurt?

What I really wanted to know before I went in was…”Is this going to hurt?” Some people said it was no big deal, others said it was the most painful beauty treatment ever. I wouldn’t describe an IPL as painful, exactly, but it’s definitely uncomfortable. This isn’t your casual facial with some essential oils diffusing and Enya playing, you know? It’s a legit medical treatment!

The sensation was mostly warm, but with a little zap. Certain areas hurt worse than others. My cheeks were totally fine, while my upper lip (which she kindly saved for last) stung extra. Claire said most people jump from the light and being startled by each zap, which I totally agree with. You’re wearing medical grade goggles to protect your eyes the whole time, so it’s easy to feel a little vulnerable and easily startled.

I’ve heard that some places use numbing cream before an IPL, and was curious as to the reasons why/why not. SpaDerma does not use numbing cream – and for good reason! Almost all IPL horror stories (usually about permanent burn marks all over your face) originate from

1. Someone having a tan when going in for the photo facial.


2. The machine being set incorrectly or not maintained well.

If you’re numb, you can’t tell the treatment provider that the pain is unbearable – a pretty good clue that something is wrong.

Other Things to Know

Your treatment provider should give you the details on pre- and post-treatment, but here are the ones that stuck out to me the most:

  • + No working out 24 hours before or after
  • + Avoid harsh products for 1-2 weeks before and after treatment
  • + You absolutely CANNOT have any kind of suntan
  • + Get serious about sun protection after the treatment – hats, sunscreen, the works!

You want to use a super gentle cleanser and moisturizer after your treatment (I like this moisturizer and this cleanser). This sunscreen was a life saver too!

If you aren’t in Chicago, my #1 tip is to go to a reputable dermatologist or medical spa. You want a machine that has been maintained well and a treatment provider that has done a lot of IPLs. For reference, Claire at SpaDerma does several hundred of these each season!


Anything else about IPLs you want to know? Would you get one? Let me know in the comments!




*SpaDerma offered me this service complimentary, and I’m super lucky because they’re the best in Chicago!