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A chemical peel is a skin treatment that can reduce acne, scarring, wrinkles, and sun damage to give the skin a clearer appearance.
There are many types of chemical peel. Alternately, a person can try products that contain ingredients in chemical peels but are safe to use at home.
In this article, we explore the types of peel, how they work, and the difference between a professional chemical peel and a product for home use.
Chemical peels are cosmetic treatments that involve the careful exfoliation of the skin using an acid.
The acid removes a uniform amount of damaged skin cells across the treatment area. When done appropriately, this allows the skin to heal, with minimal scarring or color changes as a result of the treatment.
Chemical peels affect two layers of the skin: the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis is the visible outer layer, and the dermis sits just beneath. This deeper layer contains nerve endings, sweat glands, and hair follicles.
A chemical peel removes a controlled amount of skin cells from the epidermis. A stronger peel may also remove a small part of the dermis.
Dermatologists may use chemical peels for skin conditions such as:
During a chemical peel, a dermatologist applies the exfoliant acid first to the thicker areas of skin, such as the chin, nose, and cheeks, before applying it to the thinner areas around the eyes and mouth.
After the chemical peel, the dermatologist may use cool saline compresses to remove any remaining exfoliant.
They may recommend various ways to help the skin heal, such as applying a weak vinegar solution or unscented emollient to the face for a few days after the treatment.
Chemical peels often cause redness and peeling, which may take 1–2 weeks to go away. It is important to keep the face dry and not to shower or use face wash for the first 24 hours. People should not use any makeup until the skin has healed.
There are three types of chemical peel, based on how deeply they exfoliate the skin:
- superficial peels
- medium-depth peels
- deep peels
The best chemical peel will depend on a person’s type and shade of skin.
Many dermatologists use the Fitzpatrick scale to decide on the best type of peel. This scale classifies skin by 6 types:
- white skin that always burns and never tans
- white skin that usually burns and does not tan easily
- darker white skin that may burn slightly and tans
- moderate brown skin that rarely burns and tans easily
- darker brown skin that very rarely burns and tans very easily
- black skin that does not burn and tans very easily
People with type one, two, or three have a lower risk of a chemical peel changing the color of their skin or causing scarring. This means that any type of peel may be safe.
People with type four, five, or six skin have a higher risk of a peel causing lighter patches of skin or scarring. However, superficial chemical peels do not usually cause these issues.
A chemical peel can involve different types of acid, including:
- Alpha-hydroxy acids: Among these are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid. Manufacturers often include alpha-hydroxy acids in at-home exfoliating treatments.
- Beta-hydroxy acids: Salicylic acid is one example, and it is especially beneficial for acne-prone skin and enlarged pores.
- Trichloroacetic acid: Dermatologists typically use this in medium or deep chemical peels.
- Phenol: This powerful chemical agent is useful in deep skin peels.
Some chemical agents in peels cause the skin to develop a white coating, which the dermatologist may refer to as “frosting.”
There are three levels of frosting:
- patches of white coating over red skin
- a white coating with redness underneath
- a complete coverage of white coating with almost no redness
Frosting is an end stage of a peel. The presence and extent of it helps the doctor tell whether the peel has been sufficiently effective.
Dermatologists recommend superficial peels if skin issues only affect the top layer of the skin.
Because superficial peels do not penetrate the deeper layers, they involve a lower risk of side effects and a quicker recovery.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), superficial peels take 1–7 days to heal. It is important to wear sunscreen after the treatment to protect the new skin as it heals.
As superficial peels are much gentler on the skin than other peels, it may take 3–5 professional treatments for people to see the results they want. People can have superficial peels every 2–5 weeks.
Dermatologists recommend medium-depth peels for:
- fine wrinkles
- sun damaged skin
- minor hyperpigmentation
- minor acne scars
Medium-depth chemical peels reach an area called the papillary dermis. This is the upper second layer, closest to the surface of the skin.
The AAD say that medium-depth peels take 7–14 days to heal. This type of peel causes swelling that will get worse for 48 hours after the treatment and may cause blisters.
The dermatologist will provide a solution, and it is important to use it as they recommend. Also, avoid sun exposure during healing.
The dermatologist may also prescribe an antiviral medication, which the person takes for 10–14 days. People can wear makeup after 5–7 days.
Dermatologists do not usually use deep peels, as laser therapy often provides better results in the deeper layers of skin.
However, a dermatologist may recommend a deep peel if a person has:
- moderate to severe sun damage
- moderate to severe wrinkles
- moderate to severe hyperpigmentation
The AAD note that deep peels take 14–21 days to heal. The person will need to recuperate at home, take antiviral medication for 10–14 days, and avoid sun exposure for 3–6 months.
The dermatologist will recommend washing the skin between four and six times a day with a special solution, then applying an ointment for 14 days. The person will then have to use thick moisturizer.
A person who has a deep chemical peel should not wear makeup for at least 14 days after the procedure.
The side effects of a chemical peel are usually mild. However, some people may develop long-lasting adverse effects, such as:
- redness that lasts for months
- temporary dark patches of skin
- permanently lightened patches of skin
- scarring, which is very rare
The best way to avoid these issues is to visit an experienced dermatologist and follow their aftercare instructions carefully.
Many commercial products contain the same agents used in chemical peels. However, they contain lower concentrations of acid, and so exfoliate the skin gradually over time.
Products with the following ingredients may exfoliate the skin in a similar way to a professional peel, but with less dramatic results:
- Glycolic acid: This can treat surface-level pigmentation, mild signs of aging, fine lines, and sun damage.
- Lactic acid: This is also useful for minor sun damage, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. It is similarly effective to glycolic acid.
- Mandelic acid: This acid is effective for treating superficial redness and an uneven skin tone.
- Salicylic acid: This can help with oily or acne-prone skin.
It is important to choose a dermatologist that has plenty of experience with chemical peels. This is especially important for people of color, whose skin can be more prone to side effects of chemical peels.
An experienced dermatologist will be able to explain what type of peel is best for a person’s skin. They will also recommend or prescribe specific medications and products that support the skin’s healing.
People with more severe skin conditions may get better results from professional treatment than an at-home product because dermatologists use higher concentrations of acid.
However, chemical peels can be expensive. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost of a chemical peel is $669. Insurance companies do not cover the cost, as chemical peels are cosmetic treatments.
At-home treatments are cheaper, but they contain weaker solutions of chemicals. These may be better suited for people with milder skin concerns, such as early signs of aging or minor sun damage.
Also, at-home products require no downtime for healing. However, it is still important to avoid sun exposure.
Strong acids can cause serious side effects, even when professionals use them. A person should never use professional-strength chemical peeling agents at home.
Chemical peels reduce skin damage, giving the skin a more youthful or unblemished appearance. Depending on a person’s concerns and their type of skin, a dermatologist will recommend the most appropriate chemical peel.
Superficial peels are the safest for all skin types. However, having any type of chemical peel requires some downtime for recovery. Any peel may also cause side effects, such as redness, peeling, and sensitivity to sunlight.
At-home products contain weaker versions of the agents in chemical peels. They are much cheaper than professional peels, but they take longer to give results.