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What’s a chemical peel?
A chemical peel is a higher strength skin exfoliant with a pH that’s generally around 2.0. When most people think about chemical exfoliation, they’re probably familiar with the lower strength stuff like Paula’s Choice 2% BHA, or the COSRX BHA (my personal favorite).
These types of exfoliants differ from chemical peels for two reasons:
- They have a higher pH.
- There’s less overall acid inside the product.
When you’re looking at which chemical peels to buy, make sure your chemical peels have a pH of around 2.0. When the pH of a solution is at 2.0 or below, it means the entire percentage of that acid in the product is “free” to exfoliate your skin. However, when the pH is even slightly raised, less of that product will actually work.
For example, say we have a 5 percent salicylic acid product with a pH of 2.0 — that 5 percent would be completely “free” to work its exfoliating magic. But when the pH of that salicylic acid is raised slightly, less of that 5 percent is actually active.
If you want the full effect of the chemical peel, then make sure your product has a pH of around 2.0. If all that’s a little confusing, just know that a chemical peel is simply a stronger version of over-the-counter chemical exfoliating products, and as such requires a lot of caution when using at home.
It makes your skin (and you) sexy!
Joking aside, chemical peels have a lot of benefits! These include, but aren’t limited to:
- deep chemical exfoliation
- treating hyperpigmentation and other skin discolorations
- facial rejuvenation
- unclogging pores
- getting rid of acne
- reducing the depth of wrinkles or acne scarring
- brightening skin tone
- enhancing the absorption of other skin care products
In other words, have a problem? There’s a chemical peel out there with your name and solution on it.
In terms of strength, there are three varieties:
1. Superficial peels
Also known as “lunchtime peels” — because they involve little to no downtime — superficial peels penetrate minimally, exfoliate gently, and are best suited for mild skin problems like minor discoloration or rough texture.
Examples: Peels using mandelic, lactic, and low-strength salicylic acid normally fall under this category.
2. Medium peels
These penetrate more deeply (middle layer of skin), target damaged skin cells, and are best suited for moderate skin problems like superficial scarring, fine lines and wrinkles, and troublesome discoloration, like melasma or age spots.
Medium peels have even been used in the treatment of precancerous skin growths.
Examples: High-percentage glycolic acid, Jessner, and TCA peels fall under this category.
3. Deep peel
As the name implies, these penetrate the middle layer of skin very deeply. They target damaged skin cells, moderate to severe scarring, deep wrinkles, and skin discoloration.
Examples: High-percentage TCA and phenol chemical peels fall under this category. However, you should never do a deep peel at home. Save that for the top-of-the-line professionals.
Most skin peels done at home will fall into the superficial category. Extreme caution should be taken with medium-strength peels.
In terms of ingredients, there are a lot of different options to choose from. Because we’re all about simplicity here, here’s a list of common chemical peels, listed from weakest to strongest, with quick summaries of what they do.
This is the lightest peel of the bunch and is considered a “natural” option because it’s a fruit derivative. It’s especially great for people with sensitive skin or people who can’t tolerate acids.
But unlike alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), it doesn’t actually increase cellular turnover. Instead, enzyme peels work to remove dead skin and refine pores in a way that doesn’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Mandelic acid improves texture, fine lines, and wrinkles. It’s beneficial for acne and helps hyperpigmentation without the irritation or erythema (redness) that glycolic acid can induce. It’s more effective on your skin than glycolic acid when used in combination with salicylic acid.
Lactic acid is another good starting peel because it’s considered lightweight and gentle. It smooths skin, provides a glow, helps with minor wrinkles, and is better than glycolic acid in treating hyperpigmentation and general skin discolorations. In addition, it’s more hydrating.
This is by far one of best peels for treating acne. It’s oil-soluble, meaning it’ll effectively get into the crooks and crannies of pores to dissolve any congestion and debris.
Unlike glycolic acid and other AHAs, salicylic acid doesn’t increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, which could in turn lead to UV-induced erythema. In addition to treating acne, it’s great for:
- photodamage (sun damage)
- lentigines (liver spots)
- warts or excess dead skin buildup
- malassezia (pityrosporum) folliculitis, better known as “fungal acne”
This one is a bit more intensive, and depending on its concentration, can fall into the “medium peel” category.
Glycolic acid increases collagen production, refines texture, brightens and refreshes skin tone, reduces wrinkles, and is a particularly excellent chemical peel for acne scars. And when I say acne scars, I mean the actual indentations left behind in the skin from old breakouts.
This is a medium-strength peel that’s made up of three primary ingredients (salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol). It’s a great peel for hyperpigmentation and acne-prone or oily skin, but should be avoided if you have dry or sensitive skin because it could be fairly drying.
This peel will cause frosting, when parts of your skin turn white during the peel due to the surface of your skin being exfoliated away by the acidic solution. Downtime could last anywhere from a couple days to a week.
TCA peel (trichloroacetic acid)
TCA is a medium-strength peel, and the strongest of the bunch listed here. TCA peels are no joke, so take this one seriously. Scratch that, take all of them seriously!
This peel is good for sun damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, stretch marks, and atrophic acne scars. Like a Jessner peel, this will have downtime (typically 7 to 10 days).
The side effects you may experience largely depend on the strength, intensity, and type of peel you use.
For lightweight peels like 15 percent salicylic or 25 percent mandelic acid, there’ll be little to no side effects. A little bit of redness post-peel will occur, but should subside in an hour or two. Skin peeling may occur within two to three days. However, this is pretty uncommon with light superficial peels.
Note: Just because you don’t peel, doesn’t mean it isn’t working! Don’t underestimate the strength of a chemical peel, even if you feel it didn’t do much.
As for the higher strength products, there’ll most definitely be skin peeling and redness. This can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days, so make sure you’re doing these peels when you can afford to stay at home and hide away for a while. (Unless you’re okay with looking a bit like a lizard in public — and if you are, more power to you!)
Rare side effects include:
- change in skin color (more likely to happen with people of color)
- scarring (very rare, but possible)
- heart, kidney, or liver damage
Heart, kidney, or liver damage is really only a concern with phenol peels, which you should never do at home. These are even stronger than TCA peels.
We’re almost at the exciting part — but first, we need to go over the things you’ll need.
|Ingredient or equipment||Why|
|baking soda||to neutralize the peel — you should never be using baking soda directly on your skin as its high in alkaline, but it’s perfect for neutralizing acidic peels|
|fan brush||to save product and allow for a smooth, controlled application|
|Vaseline||to protect sensitive areas of skin that the chemical peel shouldn’t touch, like the sides of the nose, lips, and eye sockets|
|stopwatch or timer||to keep track of when to neutralize the peel|
|gloves||to protect your hands when handling the chemical peel|
|shot glass (or small container) and dropper dispenser||all optional, but recommended for saving product and making the entire application process a lot easier|
Before we start, please be aware that it’s possible to experience negative side effects. These ingredients are very strong and shouldn’t be used casually on a daily basis or more than once a week.
As always, it’s best to consult with your primary healthcare professional first before deciding to do a chemical peel at home. This information is for educational purposes to ensure that if you choose to do a chemical peel, you have the accurate know-how.
With whatever peel you start with, patch test first! For a patch test:
- Apply a small amount of product on your skin in a discreet area, like the inside of your wrist or your inner arm.
- Wait 48 hours to see if there’s a reaction.
- Check the area at 96 hours after application to see if you have a delayed reaction.
Incorporate it slowly into your routine. Your patience will be rewarded, and safety is of utmost importance. More isn’t necessarily better here!
Now, if you still want to take the plunge for healthier skin, follow these steps precisely to mitigate any potential hazards.
It may not seem like enough, and to be honest, it probably isn’t — but when you’re starting out, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Ideally, you’d increase the time you leave it on your face by 30 second increments every session until you’ve reached the maximum five-minute limit.
For example, say you were starting off with a 15 percent mandelic acid peel. The first week you’d leave it on for only 30 seconds. The next week, one minute. The week after that, 1 minute and 30 seconds — so on and so forth, until you’ve worked your way up to five minutes.
If you’ve reached the five-minute mark and feel like your chemical peel still isn’t doing enough, this would be the time to move up in percentage. In other words, rather than using a 15% mandelic acid peel, you’d move up to 25% and repeat the whole process, starting again leaving it on for 30 seconds for the first application.
With all that said, as soon as you apply the peel onto the skin, keep track of your timer until the time you’ve allotted has passed (30 seconds minimum, five minutes maximum).
And that’s it! You’ve now successfully completed your first chemical peel!
For at least the next 24 hours, you want to make sure you aren’t using active ingredients like tretinoin (Retin-A) or products that include any acids, like glycolic or salicylic acid, in your skin care.
Don’t use for 24 hours
- prescription tretinoins
- vitamin C serums with ascorbic acid
- low-pH serums
- any other chemical exfoliates
After you’ve completed a peel, you should follow up with a very bland, simple skin care routine. Incorporating a hyaluronic acid product can help hydrate the daylights out of your skin, and research has shown hyaluronic acid plays an important role in wound healing — two things which you should definitely be focusing on after a peeling session.
You also can’t go wrong with using moisturizers that strengthen and repair the moisture barrier. Look for ingredients like ceramides, cholesterol, and hyaluronic acid, which function as skin-identical ingredients that repair barrier damage and strengthen the moisture barrier.
CeraVe PM is a favorite moisturizer because it comes with the addition of 4 percent niacinamide, an antioxidant that:
- brightens skin tone
- increases collagen production
- has anti-aging benefits
However, CeraVe Cream is a close second and better suited for people with drier skin.
Another good and inexpensive product to use after chemical peels is Vaseline. Contrary to popular belief, petrolatum is noncomedogenic. Its molecules are simply too big to clog pores.
Petroleum jelly is the most effective ingredient on planet earth at preventing transepidermal water loss (TEWL), which keeps the skin hydrated and moisturized. If you want to speed up the recovery time of a chemical peel, make sure you’re using petroleum jelly!
Lastly, but not least, make sure you wear sunscreen and protect your skin from the sun immediately following your peel. Your skin will be very sensitive.
And that does it for doing chemical peels at home! Keep in mind that incorrectly applied chemical peels can leave you scarred for life. Many individuals have had to seek emergency care due to not being cautious.
Make sure you purchase your products from a reliable source and know exactly what it is that you’re applying. Be safe, have fun with it, and welcome to the world of wonderful skin.
This post, which was originally published by Simple Skincare Science, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
F.C. is the anonymous author, researcher, and founder of Simple Skincare Science, a website and community dedicated to enriching the lives of others through the power of skin care knowledge and research. His writing is inspired by personal experience after spending nearly half his life suffering from skin conditions like acne, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, malassezia folliculitis, and more. His message is simple: If he can have nice skin, so can you!