IPL vs laser hair removal—an expert explains the pros and cons to both

An expert breaks down IPL vs laser hair removal to help you decide on the right one before parting with your hard-earned cash

model with smooth legs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

At one time shaving and waxing reigned supreme, but there are now many ways one can de-fuzz their limbs, including techier and longer-lasting options. But in the IPL vs laser hair removal debate, which is actually better in terms of both affordability and results?

Before splashing out on treatments at the top end of the market, it’s worth noting that the best at-home IPL hair removal devices serve up different results to in-clinic lasers. To help you understand the pros and cons of both, we asked a consultant dermatologist to explain what you need to know about both treatment options.

Meet the expert on IPL and laser hair removal

Dr. Jinah Yoo

Dr. Jinah Yoo is a consultant dermatologist trained in clinical dermatology, immunology & immunogenetics, and skin aging & aesthetic medicine. She has explained the differences between these two treatments to help you decide which one is better for you. 

IPL vs laser hair removal: how does each method work?

Diode laser technology is a long-lasting form of hair removal, and targets the active follicles that lie beneath the skin.  "Lasers use one single narrow wavelength of light to selectively damage the hair follicle without affecting the surrounding skin," Dr. Yoo explains.

"The melanin [natural pigment] in your skin, then absorbs this light energy and converts it into heat, ultimately damaging the hair itself. The eventual outcome will be a reduction in the amount and thickness of the hair."

IPL works in the same way, but with a broad spectrum of light instead of one pointed wavelength.

What's the difference between IPL and laser hair removal? 

IPL and laser hair removal both use light to heat hair follicles, and prevent regrowth. But that’s where the similarities end, as Dr. Yoo clarifies. "Unlike laser, which has one densified beam of light, IPL uses a broad spectrum of light with multiple wavelengths, meaning that its energy tends to be scattered, and much weaker," she explains. 

It’s worth noting that the majority of at-home laser hair removal devices rely on IPL. The only FDA-cleared at-home hair removal laser available on the market is the Tria Hair Removal Laser 4X, which claims to reduce up to 70% of hair growth after two treatments. 

According to Yoo, there’s a very simple reason why laser hair removal is generally best left to the professionals: safety. "Lasers, if operated inappropriately, can cause considerable harm to your eyes and skin," she tells us. "If you are interested in laser hair removal, it’s important to do your research and choose a qualified medical practitioner."

So, while IPL may be generally safe for home use, laser hair removal should always be done in a professional setting, by a professional.

Which hurts more, IPL or laser hair removal?

Unlike hair removal creams, IPL and laser are arguably two of the more painful hair removal methods. When each follicle gets zapped during laser hair removal or IPL, it might sting—a sensation not unlike a rubber band being snapped against the skin. 

Typically though, IPL is considered to be less painful than laser hair removal, due to the built-in cooling that many IPL machines have. As such, it might be the better option for those with a lower pain threshold. 

Dr. Yoo recommends a minimum of six laser treatments over the course of six to nine months, with a top-up treatment once a year to maintain the best results.

Do IPL and laser hair removal work on all skin types?

“For laser treatment to work, there has to be a big color contrast between skin and hair, which is why dark hair and light skin tones traditionally see the best results," Dr. Yoo explains. 

"Problems arise for very dark skin tones because some lasers become confused and target the melanin in the skin instead of the pigment in the hair, which results in burning, pigmentation, and scarring.”

As such, laser hair removal is still very much possible for people with dark skin tones, but it's important to find a medical professional who will use the right laser for your complexion in order to avoid damaging it. For example, Dr. Yoo likes to use the Lutronic Clarity II laser, as it’s safe and effective at treating almost all skin and hair types. "With dark skin, the laser settings are adjusted accordingly to protect the skin surface. It’s precise and only targets the hairs," she adds. 

However, the majority of IPL devices can’t be used on darker skin types. As such, they aren't the best hair removal options for dark skin—read our guide for more about the suitable options. 

 IPL vs laser removal: which is better?

As with electrolysis vs. laser hair removal, there are ultimately pros and cons to each technology. 

Nothing beats the convenience of an at-home IPL device, especially given how science-led the latest iterations are. The Philips Lumea IPL 9000, for example, can be used both as a hair removal option for face and body, and has a built-in sensor that automatically selects the right setting for your skin tone (from very light to dark brown) and sensitivity. Meanwhile he Jovs Venus Pro has cooling technology to numb the area you’re treating, and can even be switched to red-light mode to improve collagen production for plumper, smoother skin over time.

There is also the price to consider. Though they aren't as advanced, IPL hair removal devices work out to be significantly cheaper than a course of in-clinic laser hair removal and, of course, they are yours to keep should fluctuations in hormones cause fresh unwanted hair to grow. Getting to new hair growth early can also minimize the risk of any ingrown hairs. Laser hair removal can be pretty pricey, and experts estimate that you need around three-to-six treatments for the results to be as effective as possible. 

Ultimately, though, the scattered light emitted by IPL is weaker, meaning more treatments are required, whereas laser hair removal has higher success rates for keeping limbs silky smooth for longer. And going to a professional is also best if you want to remove pubic hair without shaving. If you're wondering how long do hair removal methods last, laser is a longer-lasting solution, meaning you should only need to go back for a top-up after a year or two.

Fiona Embleton

Fiona Embleton is a multi-award-winning beauty editor who has tested over 10,000 products in her 10 years +  of writing and shooting beauty stories. For the past four years, she was the Senior Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, having previously worked in the role of Beauty Editor at both Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has recently gone freelance and alongside My Imperfect Life, she has written for titles including ELLE UK, ELLE Canada, Buro 247, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Scandinavia, and ES Magazine. Beauty journalism allowed her to marry up her first-class degree in English Literature and Language (she’s a stickler for grammar and a self-confessed ingredients geek) with a passion for make-up and skincare, photography, and catwalk trends. She loves jumping on the latest internet-breaking beauty news, dissecting the best red carpet looks, and having the crème de la crème of dermatologists, make-up artists, and hairstylists on speed dial so she can tap them for the best advice. She’s a discerning beauty shopper and knows it can be confusing trying to navigate what’s hype and what really works. So if she really likes something, you can trust that she has reached that opinion by vetting it against everything else she’s ever tried. Her career highs? Interviewing Cate Blanchett and winning a Jasmine Award for the deeply personal feature Cancer Stole My Mother’s Scent.