- Chemical peels can improve the overall appearance of facial skin.
- Strengths vary from light (no downtime) to deep (several weeks of downtime).
- Different chemical combinations are used to treat different skin issues.
- Alternative exfoliating treatments can treat the same issues but with less results.
Chemical peels use acid to improve the skin’s appearance and reverse the signs of aging. There are many types of acids in a variety of strengths to address skin concerns ranging from age spots to acne.
What Is a Chemical Peel?
A chemical peel is a procedure in which a chemical solution is applied to the face to remove the uppermost layers of skin. The new skin that replaces the removed layers is smoother and free of dark spots, wrinkles and fine lines. The skin is also temporarily less oily and acne-prone.
Who is a good candidate for chemical peels?
Generally, people with fair skin make good candidates for any kind of chemical peels. People with darker complexions should avoid certain types of chemical peels, as they are more likely to experience uneven skin tone afterward.
You may not be a good candidate for a chemical peel if you have recently taken retinoids for acne or if you have keloid scarring. People with heart problems are not advised to have deep peels that require sedation. Lastly, certain chemical peels are not safe if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant in the next year.
Types of Chemical Peels
Chemical peels are grouped into three broad categories based on the level of intensity: light, medium and deep.
Light chemical peel
A light or superficial chemical peel lasts only a few minutes and requires no downtime or follow-up visit. This peel removes the topmost layer of skin to reveal fresh skin beneath and encourages collagen production.
Medium chemical peel
A medium chemical peel uses a stronger acid, resulting in swelling and crusting for up to a week and requires a follow-up visit. These peels remove the top layer of skin as well as the middle layer.
Deep chemical peel
A deep chemical peel fully penetrates the middle layer of skin to remove damaged cells. They can be used to correct deep wrinkles and precancerous growths.
Chemical Peel Benefits
Chemical peels are used to treat a wide range of skin issues and the signs of aging, including:
- Fine lines
- Age spots
- Sun damage
Light and medium chemical peels are most effective with multiple treatments: each peel removes small amounts of sun damage and the signs of aging as they accumulate. Typically, people wait at least a month between appointments for light peels and longer for medium peels.
A deep chemical peel, however, can only be performed once in a lifetime as the results are long-lasting and significantly increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.
Which Chemical Face Peel Is Best for Your Skin Type?
The chemical peel you choose will depend on your skin type and the severity of the problem you’re addressing. A dermatologist or aesthetician will need to evaluate your skin to determine which peel will work best for you.
Fair-skinned people can usually tolerate all of the chemicals commonly used in peels. For light peels, this often means AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids). Some examples of AHAs used in chemical peels are glycolic acid, citric acid and lactic acid.
Medium peels using trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or Jessner’s solution are also safe for fair skin, as are deep peels using phenol.
For light peels, people with brown or black skin should avoid AHAs and opt instead for beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) which are milder than AHAs and less likely to cause permanent skin discoloration. Glycolic acid is the exception to this rule and is considered safe.
Medium peels are generally considered safe for darker skin as they use TCA or Jessner’s solution, a combination of lactic acid, salicylic acid and resorcinol. Neither of these treatments cause changes in skin color.
Deep peels should be avoided altogether as the risk of skin discoloration and scarring is high.
Salicylic acid (SA) is an effective peeling agent for those with oily, acne-prone skin. It is oil soluble, meaning it can effectively penetrate clogged pores to clear up acne and prevent further breakouts.
Glycolic acid is another popular peel for oily skin as it too can temporarily reduce oil production in the skin.
If you have dry skin, a lactic acid peel can help slough off dead cells while soothing the skin. Generally, AHAs work better than BHAs on this skin type as they won’t cause skin to dry out further.
Sensitive skin is best treated by TCA or lactic acid, or a combination of the two. However, you shouldn’t use lactic acid if you have eczema or psoriasis; those conditions are better treated with SA.
Mature skin has usually had time to accumulate a fair amount of sun damage over the years. The most effective way to treat this damage is with a medium or deep peel.
Common medium peels that treat mature skin are TCA and Jessner peels. While light peels such as glycolic acid can also improve mature skin, the results won’t be as dramatic, as light peels cannot erase deep lines and wrinkles.
Chemical Peels for Acne
Light chemical peels using salicylic or glycolic acid can be used to treat active acne. These chemicals can slow oil production and prevent the growth of Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria that causes acne. Eliminating dead, pore-clogging skin cells can prevent future breakouts.
Chemical Peels for Acne Scars
To treat atrophic or pitted acne scars, a medium TCA peel can be used. Although TCA has been used for decades, a newer application method called the CROSS technique targets individual depressions in the skin to reconstruct scar tissue.
Professional Chemical Peels
Chemical peels are best performed by professionals, as peels require precision in application and removal. Moreover, they’re more effective than at-home solutions, as licensed practitioners can use the chemicals in higher concentrations than are available in OTC products.
What to expect during the treatment
If you’re receiving a medium or deep chemical peel, the first step is a consultation with your doctor or dermatologist to determine what treatment you will undergo.
Deep peels require a pretreatment skin care regimen to prepare the skin for the procedure and speed up the healing process afterward. If you have frequent cold sores, you may be prescribed an antiviral medication before your procedure to prevent a flare-up.
To perform the chemical peel, the clinician first cleanses your skin. They then apply the chemical solution with a brush or cotton applicator. You’ll feel a mild burning or stinging while the acid is on your skin. After a few minutes, the acid is neutralized and then wiped off. Some peels don’t require neutralization and are left on the face.
Next, the clinician may apply a compress to your face or give you a hand-held fan to cool down the skin. If you’re having a medium peel, the doctor applies an ointment to protect the skin.
If you’re having a deep peel, the doctor will apply a dressing to the treated area. You’ll need to arrange for a ride home as you won’t be able to drive; a deep peel requires sedation.
Your recovery time depends on the strength of your peel. Light chemical peels result in dry, flaking skin and redness for a few days afterward.
Medium peels cause swelling, redness and peeling that subsides after about 2 weeks.
Deep peels result in severe redness, throbbing and swelling. Your eyes may swell shut and the treated area will crust over before peeling. As the skin heals, you may develop cysts and white or gray patches.
After a deep chemical peel, many people prefer to stay home for up to 2 weeks. Getting a deep peel also requires vigilantly wearing sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure to prevent damage to the newly uncovered skin.
Chemical Peel Before and Afters
Chemical Peel Risks and Side Effects
The biggest risk of chemical peels is skin discoloration. What’s more, the darker your skin, the higher the risk of this and other complications.
Side effects of chemical peels include redness, stinging and swelling that resolves after a few days to a few weeks, depending on the strength of the peel.
In rare cases, medium and deep chemical peels can lead to fungal or bacterial infections of the skin.
Chemical Peel Cost
Chemical peels have a wide price range that will vary depending on the area you live in. As they are considered cosmetic treatments, they are not covered by private insurance.
Typically, a light peel costs between $100 and $300. Medium peels cost between $1,000 and $3,000, while deep peels may cost up to $6,000.
At-Home Chemical Peels
An at-home chemical peel can improve your skin, but the effect is usually milder than that of a professional treatment. Only low-strength acids are available OTC, so the results are roughly comparable to using a physical exfoliant, such as a facial scrub.
Even though they are less concentrated, at-home chemical peels carry a higher risk of irritation than professional treatments. Without proper training, you are more likely to apply the solution incorrectly or choose the wrong chemical for your skin type.
Chemical Peel Alternatives
If you choose not to have a chemical peel, there are other measures you can take to fight the signs of aging.
Mechanical exfoliation with a facial scrub or cleansing brush removes dry skin and can result in a brighter complexion. However, at-home exfoliation can’t remove dark spots or reduce wrinkles.
Microdermabrasion is a procedure that uses tiny crystals or a diamond-tipped mechanical device to buff and polish the skin. Performed in-office or at home, it can penetrate the skin more deeply than regular exfoliation.
Chemical peels, when performed by a professional, are an effective means of reversing sun damage and the signs of aging. They can also treat acne scars and improve active acne.
Professional peels are available in a variety of strengths and can be customized to your needs.
Light chemical peels require no downtime, while medium and deep peels can require several weeks of recovery. The clinician or dermatologist will determine what level of peel and what types of chemicals are best suited for your skin type.
Side effects of chemical peels include temporary stinging, swelling, and redness. Deeper peels also carry a low risk of skin infection. Additionally, people with brown or black skin should exercise caution with chemical peels, as not all chemicals are safe to use for darker skin types.
Although it’s possible to perform a chemical peel at home, this carries a greater risk of damaging skin versus a professional procedure. While gentle at-home treatments with mild chemicals such as AHAs and BHAs are generally safe and can improve the skin’s appearance with consistent use, stronger at-home treatments using TCA or phenol should be avoided.
If your skin does not tolerate chemical peels well, there are other options such as mechanical exfoliation and microdermabrasion that can keep your skin looking healthy and younger looking.