- Microdermabrasion and chemical peels are both exfoliative treatments that can improve skin texture and tone.
- Chemical peels are more effective for treating acne-prone and sensitive skin, but microdermabrasion is safer for darker skin tones.
- Alternative treatments include laser therapy and at-home treatments.
Microdermabrasion and chemical peels are cosmetic procedures that exfoliate skin, resulting in a number of benefits including tightening skin, erasing fine lines, evening out skin tone and minimizing acne scars. Both can be performed in-office by a clinician or at home.
While the two treatments yield similar results, they do not exfoliate in the same way. Microdermabrasion works as a physical exfoliant, meaning it scrapes away the topmost layer of skin cells; a chemical peel uses an acid solution to peel away layers of skin.
Chemical peels and microdermabrasion are not suited to all skin types. When deciding between the two treatments, it is important to know which option is best for your skin type and tone, as well as the skin concerns you are seeking to address.
What Is Microdermabrasion?
Microdermabrasion is a procedure that uses a vibrating diamond-tipped or crystal-based device to remove the top layer of dead cells from the skin. This treatment removes dull, dead skin cells which improves the skin’s appearance in many ways including brightening, erasing fine lines and reducing hyperpigmentation. It is safe for all skin types and has little risk of complications.
Microdermabrasion can be performed at home, but at-home devices are not as effective as professional ones as they have less powerful motors and therefore cannot penetrate as deeply into the skin.
What Is a Chemical Peel?
A chemical peel exfoliates through the application of acidic solutions that create chemical reactions that damage the topmost layers of skin, causing them to peel off. This reveals the newer, healthier and undamaged skin below.
Chemical peels are performed at three strengths: light, medium or deep. A light peel addresses irregular pigmentation, acne scars and fine lines, and may cause stinging and redness that resolves after a few days.
A medium or deep peel can treat deeper wrinkles, scars and sun damage. These peels may require following a prescribed skin care regimen for the weeks leading up to your appointment. Postprocedure side effects include swelling, peeling and blistering, with a downtime of several weeks to two months.
Chemical peels can be performed at home using lower concentrations of the same acids used in professional treatments. Glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid are the most common acids used for both at-home and in-office treatments.
Glycolic acid exfoliates and lightens hyperpigmentation. Salicylic acid is effective in treating acne because it is lipophilic, meaning it dissolves in oil and can break down pore-clogging debris. Lactic acid has milder effects and is therefore a good choice for sensitive skin.
Key Differences Between Microdermabrasion and Chemical Peels
While microdermabrasion and chemical peels both improve the skin’s appearance, they differ in terms of degree of efficacy, recovery times and possible side effects.
Microdermabrasion has similar benefits to a light chemical peel. Both can treat superficial skin issues such as:
- Acne and acne scars
- Fine lines
- Skin roughness
For both procedures, several sessions may be required to achieve desired results. However, microdermabrasion is more limited in the degree of benefits it can provide compared to chemical peels. Chemical peels will be more effective, particularly in treating severe hyperpigmentation and deep acne scars.
A microdermabrasion treatment has little to no recovery time, with improvements in skin tone and texture immediately visible: The act of physical exfoliation removes dead and damaged skin during the treatment.
Additionally, during this treatment, damage to the skin is usually very minor; one study found patients’ skin barriers had fully recovered two days after receiving treatment.
Conversely, a chemical peel takes time to achieve its full exfoliative effects; the chemical process will continue to cause exfoliation after the treatment is complete. During that time, the skin will be sensitive, red and may flake or itch for several days until the treated skin has completely peeled away. There is also more damage caused to the top layers of skin, which requires a more extended healing process.
Recovery time varies depending on the type of peel you undergo. For light peels, recovery lasts about a week, but this can extend to over a month in the case of medium or deep peels. During this time, abrasive skin care products or techniques must be avoided to allow the skin time to heal properly.
Chemical peels also cause skin to be more sensitive to sunlight. Ensure you apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 before going outdoors to allow your skin to properly heal, and to protect it from the sun’s damaging rays.
Microdermabrasion has few side effects. Skin may be slightly irritated for a few days and there is a rare, but possible, risk of infection.
Common side effects of chemical peels include redness, swelling and flaking. The skin will be sensitive to sunlight for several days or weeks until it has completely healed.
In the case of deeper peels, the side effects can be severe and carry a risk of infection and scarring. Peels performed on darker skin tones carry a risk of skin discoloration and demarcation between treated and untreated skin.
Which One Is Right for You?
Whether microdermabrasion or a chemical peel is best for you depends on your skin type, the skin concern you are addressing and your desired results.
If you have active acne, a chemical peel is preferable to microdermabrasion, as microdermabrasion physically damages skin, which can irritate acne lesions and cause further infection.
Instead, a salicylic acid chemical peel will gently exfoliate dead skin cells while drying up excess oil and discouraging sebum production to reduce further breakouts. Salicylic acid is safe for all skin tones.
Two types of acne scars can be treated with both procedures: postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and atrophic or indented scars.
Microdermabrasion has little effect on atrophic acne scars but can reduce PIH over multiple sessions. For faster results, a medium chemical peel can reduce PIH in just one session – but some downtime is required.
Atrophic scars—commonly called icepick or boxcar scars—are most effectively treated using trichloroacetic acid (TCA) in a specific peeling method known as the CROSS technique. TCA is technically considered a medium peel which has associated side effects. However, CROSS TCA peels’ side effects are limited because this technique applies the solution only to scarred tissue and not to the entire face.
Lastly, these treatments are not recommended to treat all types of scarring. Because chemical peels and microdermabrasion are known to promote collagen growth, and hypertrophic (raised) scars are caused by excess buildup of collagen, these scars are better treated with other methods such as laser treatments.
Dark spots: hyperpigmentation and melasma
A medium chemical peel can significantly lighten hyperpigmentation in just one session, but requires up to two weeks of downtime. For similar results with fewer side effects, you can opt for a series of microdermabrasion sessions to treat superficial hyperpigmentation or a series of light peels to address darker spots.
Both treatments reduce the appearance of dark spots by removing the darkened cells in the top layers of skin, allowing new cells to replace the damaged ones. While melasma is treated the same as other forms of hyperpigmentation, this condition is caused by chronically overactive melanocytes that continuously produce excess melanin, therefore, dark spots will recur.
Microdermabrasion and light chemical peels are equally effective at reducing fine lines, because they promote the growth of new collagen, which helps maintain skin firmness. Both procedures require multiple sessions to see results.
Deeper wrinkles are best addressed with medium or deep chemical peels; microdermabrasion is not a strong enough exfoliator to significantly reduce wrinkles.
The effects of sun damage vary, but can include sun spots (dark spots), sagging skin and wrinkles. Light peels and microdermabrasion can treat mild sun damage with similar results due to their ability to promote collagen growth to help improve skin quality. More severe sun damage can be treated with a medium or deep chemical peel.
Both microdermabrasion and light chemical peels reduce the appearance of large pores. Although it is not possible to actually reduce pore size, regular exfoliation can reduce pore dilation due to excess oil and make them appear smaller.
Skin type considerations
Some of the chemical solutions used for peels carry a risk of skin discoloration for those with darker skin tones. If you have a darker skin tone—classified as skin types IV–VI in the Fitzpatrick skin type scale, avoid high intensity microdermabrasion treatments as well as medium to deep chemical peels.
However, multiple sessions of low intensity microdermabrasion or several light peels are considered safe for these skin types and can provide similar results to a deeper peel without this risk.
Can You Get a Chemical Peel and Microdermabrasion at the Same Time?
Yes you can, but it’s not recommended for those with sensitive skin, and microdermabrasion must be done first.
Many clinicians recommend a short microdermabrasion session to be performed just before a chemical peel to prepare the skin for treatment. The exfoliation from the microdermabrasion helps the peel penetrate more deeply and evenly into the skin for greater and more uniform results.
Conversely, after having a chemical peel, the skin is highly sensitive and needs time to recover. If you want to try microdermabrasion after having had a chemical peel, wait at least several weeks.
What If Neither Treatment Is Right?
If neither microdermabrasion nor chemical peels are good choices for you—for instance, if you have sensitive skin—there are several alternatives to consider.
Hydradermabrasion is a treatment similar to microdermabrasion that uses a stream of water and oxygen to gently exfoliate and is unlikely to cause irritation for those with sensitive skin.
Hyperpigmentation can also be treated at home with topical skin lightening treatments containing ingredients such as hydroquinone, arbutin and vitamin C.
Ablative laser skin resurfacing treatments use heat to remove the uppermost layer of skin, reducing fine lines, acne scarring and hyperpigmentation. However, laser treatments may cause hyperpigmentation in very dark skin tones. They should also not be performed if you have severe eczema or rosacea: those symptoms should be resolved before attempting to treat other skin issues.
Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments also provide many similar benefits to chemical peels and microdermabrasion, including evening out skin tone, as well as reducing scars and fine lines. IPL is beneficial for those who also want to reduce redness and eliminate spider veins and broken capillaries. However, IPL treatments do run a risk of causing hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones.
When addressing superficial skin issues such as hyperpigmentation, fine lines, minor sun damage and large pores, a typical microdermabrasion session offers similar benefits to a light chemical peel.
Concerns such as acne scarring and wrinkles cannot be addressed with microdermabrasion and instead require a medium or deep peel to achieve noticeable results.
If neither chemical peels nor microdermabrasion are options for you, you can consider laser treatments or hydradermabrasion to achieve similar outcomes. Hyperpigmentation can also be treated at home with over-the-counter products containing ingredients such as hydroquinone, arbutin and vitamin C.
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