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Cosmetic surgery specialist warns of hazards of IPL treatments carried out by high street salons

Posted: 15/11/2016

A worrying trend across the cosmetics profession has been high street establishments, formerly known as beauty salons, seemingly reinventing themselves as medical aestheticians, offering a quasi-scientific approach to skincare. Although the treatments they provide may be far from cheap, a growing number of us are signing up for clinical therapies, such as intense pulsed light (IPL), or photo rejuvenation, as it is more commonly known. IPL was developed in hospitals, where treatment was originally given under the guidance of physicians, but independent beauty salons registered with the Healthcare Commission (England's healthcare watchdog) are now able to charge between £50-£200 a session, delivering intense bursts of red or blue light directly to the skin.

IPL is an intense, pulsed low density light used in a non-abrasive way to rejuvenate the skin. During treatment that takes approximately 30 minutes, light pulses are directed evenly over the skin. The light passes through the epidermis and penetrates deeper into the dermis where the pulsed light energy stimulates cells called fibroblasts to produce fresh collagen. Over several treatments, this new collagen smooths and softens the appearance of wrinkles, pores and textural irregularities. It is also used to treat sun-damaged skin with pigmentation abnormalities, spider veins and rosacea, which absorb the light and are damaged until they fade from view.

Descriptions of the IPL process and its possible side-effects are fairly standard across all practitioners. Typically, patients are told that it feels like a mild “pinging” on the skin and that there may be "warm tingling sensations", which all sounds rather harmless. Generally patients are advised to expect it to feel like an elastic band being snapped on the skin, but that discomfort is "momentary" and occasional small bruises will vanish with the application of arnica cream. More to the point, "downtime" is brushed aside and most beauticians claim that IPL can be undertaken in a lunch hour, and that the patient’s colleagues will be none the wiser.

However experience of IPL is often varied and some patients’ descriptions are extremely worrying. The following recent accounts provide conflicting assessments: 

“I have had the IPL laser treatment done three times and I see amazing results in my skin. Not only did my rosacea become less noticeable, my skin feels so much more smooth now. They numb the area being treated so it is a pretty painless experience. The treatment itself feels like a pin prick and just tingles a bit afterwards.” 

“Like an idiot, I did not do my research before I bought a package of three IPL treatments off Groupon because I have visible capillaries and redness on my chin and on and next to my nose that I thought was getting worse with time. The therapist used something on the right side of my face that felt like she was stubbing tiny cigarettes out on my skin. Half an hour later a huge blister popped out on my chin along with some much smaller ones on and next to my nose. Blistering burns are second-degree burns.” 

“My once pretty skin has been ruined by a series of five IPL treatments. I found out the hard way that lasers are risky to say the very least and can and in fact do cause damage. Regardless of what these so called doctors say, it is not mere coincidence that so many patients are experiencing adverse effects such as nasty skin texture, funky ugly lines, sagging skin, fat loss, enlarged pores... everything we never had prior to being zapped by these machines that rob us of the face we once knew. This is not the face I had six months ago.” 

“The technician told me she would use a strong setting to get better results. As she passed the hand-piece across my face the feeling grew hotter and hotter. By the time the device reached my neck, I could barely imagine continuing with the burning sensation. When she started on my chest the pain was intolerable and I had to ask her to stop repeatedly before continuing with what felt like torture. I'd thought of "no pain, no gain" and I soldiered on. I got dressed, with a burning hot chest and a face that looked as if I'd been pulled out of a forest fire.” 

In the most severe of cases some IPL patients have needed advice and even revision treatment from dermatologists to rectify damage caused to their skin. This has led to a campaign to have these types of treatment regulated in the UK. Dr Nick Lowe, a leading consultant dermatologist, said: “The UK is one of the few countries in Europe that does not have sound legislation. It is much more regulated in France, Spain and Italy where only trained doctors can administer these treatments. The UK has failed totally to protect the public in this arena." 

Alison Johnson, senior associate in the cosmetic surgery team at Penningtons Manches LLP, commented: “It is hugely worrying that some patients are suffering such poor results from IPL and are being left with permanent skin damage. These sorts of treatments absolutely need to be regulated. No patient should undergo treatments such as Botox, dermal fillers, laser and light procedures unless under the care of a qualified doctor.”

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