- Chemical peels can be light, medium or deep.
- Lighter peels reduce acne and mild acne scars, brighten and smooth skin texture.
- Medium peels can treat deeper scars, hyperpigmentation and fine lines.
- Deep peels can address severe sun damage, scars and wrinkles.
Chemical peels involve applying a chemical solution to the face to improve the skin’s appearance in a number of ways. They are available in varying strengths, using different types of acids, some of which are better suited for some skin types than others. However, all strengths provide chemical peel benefits.
Knowing the available options available can help you choose a chemical peel that will effectively address your skin concerns while minimizing the risk of unwanted side effects.
Types of Chemical Peels
Chemical peels are categorized into three strengths: light, medium and deep. The ingredients in your peel together with the length of time it is on the skin determine its strength, how much downtime it requires and what kind of results you can expect.
Some acids are used for only one type of peel, while others can be used for multiple types depending on the concentration used.
Some of the most common acids and the strengths they are used for include:
- Mandelic acid – light
- Salicylic acid – light to medium
- Glycolic acid – light to medium
- Jessner’s solution – medium
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) – medium to deep
- Phenol – deep
Light Chemical Peel Benefits
A light chemical peel penetrates the topmost layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, to improve the skin’s appearance on a superficial level. The ideal candidate is someone who wants to resolve minor issues with little to no recovery time required.
A light peel can reduce the appearance of small acne lesions in the skin. Salicylic acid in low concentrations is the best peel to treat this particular issue.
Just one light peel can reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation such as dark spots or freckles. A few days after the peel, skin will appear clearer and smoother.
If you choose a salicylic acid peel, your skin will gain the extra benefit of temporarily producing less sebum, the oil that contributes to acne formation.
Fast recovery time
After a light peel, you may experience a day of redness and light sensitivity. However, the side effects are mild enough that you should not have to take time off from your regular activities.
Risks and side effects of light chemical peels
Light peels carry few risks: compared to stronger peels, the likelihood of infection is very low.
Side effects include temporary redness, mild peeling and light sensitivity that resolve after a few days. If you have sensitive skin, these side effects may be more pronounced.
Medium Chemical Peel Benefits
Medium peels penetrate the papillary dermis, below the epidermis, to treat deeper skin concerns that can’t be resolved by light peels.
A good candidate for a medium peel is someone with skin issues such as acne scarring, melasma, hyperpigmentation or any of the various signs of aging.
Reduces acne scarring
A medium peel reduces small or shallow scars that develop due to acne lesions. It is most effective for rolling or boxcar scars and can significantly improve skin smoothness.
Medium peels cannot, however, treat deep ice pick scars or raised, keloid scars.
Sunspots, freckles, melasma and other forms of hyperpigmentation can be treated with a medium peel with greater results than a light peel can offer. A medium peel effectively reverses sun damage for a more youthful appearance.
Helps reduce wrinkles
Medium peels reduce wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. TCA or Jessner’s solution can each be administered separately for this purpose, but recent research has determined that they are most effective when used together.
For best results, the peel can be repeated after a few months, but a considerable change in appearance can be achieved after only one treatment.
Risks and side effects of medium chemical peels
Because they penetrate more deeply into the skin, a medium peel carries a higher risk of infection than a light peel; however, they are still considered quite safe.
The severity of side effects depends on the strength and length of the peel. They include redness, swelling, crusting, itching and peeling. These side effects should resolve after about two weeks.
Occasionally, medium peels can cause redness lasting several months. In some instances, they may lighten the skin by exfoliating dark spots, but it is also possible for a peel to darken skin by triggering post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Peels can also cause a flare-up of the herpes virus, which causes cold sores. If you have had cold sores in the past, you may be prescribed an antiviral before your procedure.
Medium-depth peels have usually been contraindicated for people with darker skin tones. because of the risk of permanent skin discoloration. However, one 2017 study established an application protocol for medium TCA peels that is safe for all skin tones.
Consult with your dermatologist to determine whether a medium peel is suitable for your skin.
Deep Chemical Peel Benefits
Deep peels penetrate the lower part of the dermis, known as the reticular dermis. The ideal candidate for this peel has skin issues such as deep scars or wrinkles that cannot be treated by milder peels or other skin resurfacing techniques.
Deep peels require sedation, have a long recovery time and carry risk of complications, but they offer dramatic results for issues related to scarring and sun damage.
Wrinkles, crow’s feet, marionette lines and age spots can all be reduced or eliminated by a deep peel. The peel penetrates deeply into the skin to remove accumulated damage.
Removes precancerous growths
Apart from its cosmetic uses, a deep chemical peel can be used to remove precancerous growths from the skin.
Reduces deep scars
While a deep peel can reduce deep scars caused by acne, it is not the most appropriate solution for this skin concern due to the permanent skin changes associated with the procedure.
Instead, other treatments are recommended such as laser therapy and microdermabrasion. These therapies offer similar results with far fewer side effects and risks and no post-procedure skin sensitivity.
Risks and side effects of deep chemical peels
After a deep peel, you will experience burning, throbbing, redness and severe swelling. Your eyelids may swell shut and cysts and white spots can appear on your skin.
By two weeks after the procedure, new skin will cover the treated area. This new skin will be sensitive to sunlight and may be temporarily darker or lighter than your natural skin tone.
Deep chemical peels carry the highest risk of infection. You’ll schedule several follow-up visits with your doctor to ensure that the healing process goes smoothly.
Your new skin will remain sensitive to sun exposure and likely lose the ability to tan. Therefore, your skin must be regularly covered with sunscreen for life.
Due to the risk of permanent skin discoloration, deep peels are not recommended for people with dark skin.
Which Chemical Peel Is Best for Your Skin?
The efficacy and safety of a chemical peel is determined by your Fitzpatrick skin type, a system that categorizes skin by its tendency to burn or tan.
As a rule, types I–III (lighter skin) react well to all peel levels. Types IV–VI have a higher risk of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation or permanent skin lightening and should avoid deep peels.
Once you have established which peels are safe for your skin, you can choose one according to the benefits it offers.
|Light-medium||Glycolic acid||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, at 30–70% strength|
|Light-medium||Salicylic acid||Yes, at 50% strength||Yes, at 20–30% strength||Yes, at 20–30% strength||Yes, at 0.5–10% strength|
DIY Chemical Peels
Chemical peels can be performed at home; however, administering a peel without professional guidance is not without risk.
The safest at-home options are products found in pharmacies or beauty supply stores. Commonly found in the form of wipes, masks and serums, these products typically contain low concentrations of glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid.
Although results from at-home products are not as dramatic as those from a professional peel, these products are less expensive than an in-office treatment and can improve your skin’s appearance if consistently incorporated into your skin care routine.
Avoid products from untrustworthy online distributors labeled professional strength. These products have not been approved for safe at-home use and carry a high risk of chemically burning your skin.
On the other end of the spectrum, DIY recipes such as applying milk to your face for the lactic acid are essentially harmless, but may take months of consistent use to see results.
Chemical peels are effective in improving the skin’s appearance by reducing acne scars, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles. Whether you choose a light, medium or deep peel depends on the severity of the skin issues you want to address.
Light peels offer milder results but have no downtime. Medium peels can yield more dramatic results but may require up to two weeks of downtime, while deep peels are a more serious treatment that can call for sedation, regular follow-up visits with a doctor and more than a month of recovery, plus the possibility of permanent changes to your skin’s tone and inability to tan.
As an alternative to professional chemical peels, you can try at-home peeling agents found at pharmacies and beauty supply stores. These products require consistent use to see results but have a much lower cost than an in-office treatment.
Consult with a dermatologist to find out what strength of chemical peel can best address your skin’s needs.
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- Fanous, N., & Zari, S. (2017). Universal Trichloroacetic Acid Peel Technique for Light and Dark Skin. JAMA facial plastic surgery, 19(3), 212–219. doi:10.1001/jamafacial.2016.1666
- Rendon, M. I., Berson, D. S., Cohen, J. L., Roberts, W. E., Starker, I., & Wang, B. (2010). Evidence and considerations in the application of chemical peels in skin disorders and aesthetic resurfacing. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(7), 32–43. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921757/
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