How to Treat Acne Scars with IPL

January 13, 2021

Woman who has had IPL Treatment for acne scars

Acne scars often develop in noticeable places, and they can be an added source of insecurity for patients who struggle with acne. At U.S. Dermatology Partners, we offer multiple solutions to diminish the appearance of acne scars and other types of scarring, including intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments. According to Dr. Young McMahan of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Waco, Texas, “It can be frustrating for patients who have finally gotten their acne under control to have constant reminders of their breakouts in the form of acne scars. Many people think that the only solutions are invasive or painful dermatologic procedures, but intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment is a conservative and comfortable treatment option to address acne scarring.” Keep reading to learn more from Dr. McMahan about how to treat acne scars with IPL.

Why Do Acne Scars Form?

Scarring occurs as a result of the body’s natural healing response to any kind of trauma. When the skin is cut, burned, infected, or otherwise damaged, the body begins to produce collagen to repair the injured area. Increased production of collagen is usually considered a good thing. Collagen helps the skin retain moisture and gives it a smooth, firm, youthful appearance. When the skin is damaged, over-production or under-production of collagen will lead to scarring. According to Dr. McMahan, “Acne scars are typically raised or pitted. Raised acne scars occur when too much collagen is produced and pitted acne scars develop when there isn’t enough collagen produced after the skin is damaged.”

If you’ve struggled with acne, you likely already know that not all pimples lead to scarring, so it’s important to understand why acne scars develop. In most cases, acne scars will develop in one of the following situations:

  • A pimple becomes infected
  • A secondary breakout begins before the current breakout clears up
  • Patients have cysts and other forms of pimples that develop deeper in the skin
  • A patient has a history of irregular scarring or response to injuries
  • A patient pops or picks at pimples

What is IPL?

Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments use waves of light to address a range of skin concerns like acne scars, active acne breakouts, rosacea, skin discoloration, broken capillaries, and hyperpigmentation. You may hear this treatment referred to as an IPL photofacial or IPL photorejuvenation. Many patients with acne schedule IPL photofacials when they are experiencing active breakouts with numerous, deeper pimples (papules, pustules, cysts) and these patients are thrilled to hear that the quick, comfortable treatment can also be used to reduce the appearance of acne scarring.

According to Dr. McMahan, “It may sound counterintuitive, but to improve the appearance of scarring, we actually use IPL to create a controlled version of the inflammatory healing response in the body that caused the scar in the first place. When skin is scarred, the new collagen and skin cells have a different shade or texture compared to surrounding skin, so IPL photofacials and other treatments for acne scarring trigger a healing response in the body that removes the existing collagen and produces new, smoother layers of skin. There are a number of different treatments like microdermabrasion, chemical peels, and dermaplaning, that physically exfoliate the skin to stimulate the growth of new, healthy skin cells. However, these options may sometimes cause discomfort during treatment and require time for recovery after. IPL treatments can trigger the same healing response without discomfort during treatment and healing.”

How is IPL Used to Treat Acne Scars?

IPL treatment is often mistaken for a laser therapy. Both procedures use light energy to stimulate new skin growth, but the treatments work in different ways. Lasers are concentrated rays of energy focused on a single wavelength of light. IPL photofacials use numerous wavelengths of light delivered in a short pulse. The difference is in how the light impacts the skin. Different types of skin cells and components of tissue absorb light in different ways. A laser only uses one type of light, and it can only effectively target a specific group of skin cells and tissues. The multiple wavelengths of light from the IPL treatment mean that a larger number of skin cells can be targeted for a more impactful treatment without the need to use multiple lasers to address various layers of skin and types of cells and tissues. For this reason, traditional laser treatment can be very complicated. Patients who have an acne scar that is pitted and has created discoloration will need at least two different treatments to address the collagen production issue as well as the hyper or hypopigmentation issue caused by the scarring. IPL treatments address both types of skin damage from acne scars simultaneously.

In addition to the multiple wavelengths of light energies, IPL treatment uses short pulses that offer maximum effect for the targeted tissues while minimizing negative impact outside the treatment area. According to Dr. McMahan, “A single treatment that can address skin redness, texture issues, active breakouts, and scar tissue sounds like it shouldn’t be possible, but IPL photofacials give dermatologists the ability to carefully address a wide range of issues associated with acne in shorter visits that are very comfortable. It’s really an innovative and effective treatment option I recommend for many of my patients.”

The procedure itself is relatively short. Depending on the treatment area, most patients are treated in under an hour at the dermatologist’s office. A handheld device is used to direct the light at the targeted area, and patients describe the sensation that accompanies the IPL light application as being like a warm pinprick. With only mild side effects that diminish in a few hours, patients can also return to their daily routine immediately after their appointment.

Am I a Candidate for Treatment with IPL?

According to Dr. McMahan, “Because IPL is non-invasive and uses multiple wavelengths of light energies, it’s really a good option for just about any patient who wants to reduce the visibility of scarring or skin discoloration as well as for those who generally want to create an even skin tone and texture.” While IPL is effective for most patients, very dark-skinned patients are at risk for hyperpigmentation after treatment, so they should discuss options and possible adverse responses with their dermatologist before beginning IPL treatment. Additionally, patients who have light-sensitive skin, especially those with sensitivity caused by the use of certain medications, including recent Accutane treatment for acne, may not be good candidates for IPL photorejuvenation.

What Results Should I Expect After IPL Treatment for Acne Scars?

IPL photorejuvenation can help to improve the skin’s tone and texture as well as reducing visibility of scarring, broken capillaries, and other irregularities in the skin’s appearance. However, this procedure does have its limitations. Those who have more advanced treatment needs may want to consider a combination of cosmetic dermatology solutions to achieve their desired results. For instance, IPL photofacials combined with chemical peels can be a good option for patients who have acne scarring that forms large bumps. It’s also important for patients to remember that photofacials can be used to help reduce the duration and severity of current acne breakouts, which may help to prevent the formation of scar tissue.

Get Started with a Consultation at U.S. Dermatology Partners

If you’re interested in learning more about IPL for acne scars or any other dermatologic treatments, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team would love to hear from you. With multiple locations across several states, there is likely to be a U.S. Dermatology Partners practice in your area. To get started, simply complete our online appointment request form to contact the office location nearest to you. One of our team members will be in touch to confirm your appointment details.

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