Certain skin issues, like stubborn acne and hyperpigmentation, can be difficult to tackle at home. Enter the in-office chemical peel, which many people swear by for improving their biggest skin concerns.
While chemical peels have the potential to work wonders for certain skin problems, they’re not a magic solution for everyone and can even come with some side effects.
Before you book an appointment, we’re answering the most common questions about this popular skin care treatment.
What is a chemical peel?
A peel is a form of exfoliation that uses different acids to remove the outermost layers of the skin, explains Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician and founder of SkinLab in Los Angeles. The type, strength, and pH of the acid used during a peel will determine how much or little skin is removed, he adds.
What are the types of chemical peels?
“There are a lot of different peels that can target various skin concerns such as acne, fine lines, pigmentation, pore size, wrinkles, and sagging skin,” says Ross.
Choosing the right acid for your particular skin concern is key. Ross outlines which types of chemical peels are best for specific skin concerns:
- Glycolic acid: mature and aging skin
- Lactic acid: sensitive skin
- Salicylic acid: acne-prone and oily skin
- Mandelic acid: thick and oily skin
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA): pigmentation
Marie Hayag, MD, dermatologist and founder of Fifth Avenue Aesthetics in New York City, says certain peel strengths are also better for some skin problems than others.
“Superficial and medium peels can be used to treat fine lines, acne, scarring, and uneven skin tones,” she says. “Deep peels aren’t used too commonly but can be used to reduce moderate lines, age spots, scarring, and even precancerous growths and lesions.”
What are the benefits of chemical peels?
Chemical peels come with many potential benefits.
“Whether you receive a chemical peel to diminish signs of aging or treat a skin condition, you can see fewer lines and wrinkles, more even skin color, a brighter complexion, and smoother skin,” notes Hayag.
Who should avoid chemical peels?
While chemical peels are a good option for some people, there are others who should proceed with caution or avoid altogether.
“Darker skin types do need to be more careful when it comes to peels,” says Ross. “If peels are too aggressive they can cause PIH, which is post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, a darkening of the skin.”
If you’re recently been on isotretinoin, an oral acne medication, you shouldn’t get a peel.
“Pregnant women should also stay away from chemical peels,” says Hayag. She adds that anyone with recurring cold sores should avoid peels too because they can reactivate the sores. Those with a history of keloids should be wary of peels as well.
“Ultimately, it’s important to consult a doctor before getting any sort of chemical peel,” says Hayag.
Who should you see for a chemical peel?
It’s crucial to pick the right expert to administer your peel.
“Most peels are done by an aesthetician, however some dermatologists and nurses also perform peels,” says Ross. “The most important thing is to do a thorough consultation to really vet the person.”
What happens during a chemical peel?
At your appointment, your aesthetician or dermatologist will start by thoroughly cleansing your face.
“Depending on the type of peel you are having, he or she may also cover your eyes using goggles or a protective ointment,” says Hayag. “Your hair will also be pulled back from your face, if necessary.”
If you’re getting a light peel, then you won’t need any sort of pain management. If you’re getting a deeper peel, though, you might be offered a painkiller or sedative, says Hayag.
Next, your peeling pro will use a degreasing solution of either alcohol or acetone.
“In general, we don’t recommend placing these items on your skin,” says Ross. “However, during the process of the peel, it’s really important to remove the lipid barrier to allow the peel to penetrate into those medium-depth levels—especially for a more advanced peel, like a TCA peel.”
Once you’re cleansed and toned, it’s time to do the peel.
“Your dermatologist will apply whatever chemical agent is being used to your face with a cotton applicator or piece of gauze,” says Hayag.
The technician will leave the peel on anywhere from one to 10 minutes depending on the type of peel.
“They’ll constantly be monitoring your skin during this time to make sure there’s not any negative reaction,” says Ross. It’s normal for your skin to have an overall pinkish hue, but if it starts to look blotchy or any areas begin to frost (meaning they turn white because the skin cells are damaged), they’d stop the peel ASAP.
When the time is up, your technician will apply a neutralizing solution made of baking soda and distilled water.
“This will help neutralize the acids,” says Ross. They may also apply a cooling gel to ease any stinging or burning you experience, adds Hayag.
Finally, they’ll slather you in moisturizer and sunscreen.
“If it’s a more advanced peel, then you might leave the skin bare,” says Ross.
What’s the recovery process like?
“After a chemical peel, your skin will be red, and depending on the level of the peel, you may experience burning and swelling as your skin heals,” says Hayag.
Typically, your skin will start to peel one to three days afterward (or three to five days if you’ve had a more advanced peel.
“It usually starts around the chin and jaw area and then will open outward,” says Ross.
Within about two weeks, new skin will have replaced your previously damaged skin, says Hayag.
How should you take care of your skin post-peel?
The best thing you can do for your skin after a chemical peel? Leave it alone.
“Your skin naturally knows exactly what to do,” says Ross. Don’t pull, pick, or tug at your skin—and avoid exfoliation until you’re fully healed.
You’ll also want to be diligent about sunscreen, says Ross. That’s because removing the outer layers of skin leaves you more vulnerable, and sensitive, to sun damage.