Chemical Peel Burns: The ugly side of beauty

Many of us are searching for instant gratification in the form of luminous, healthy skin.

It seems that a chemical peel could be the answer to your prayers for treating an array of skin conditions and boosting that ‘lit from within’ glow, and if the Google gods are to be believed, it’s minimal risk for big payoffs.

Whilst it’s true, a safely performed peel administered by a professional can make your complexion look fabulous, administered in the wrong hands, by someone who doesn’t know the complications that can arise when you paint something as corrosive as lye on your face, can have disastrous consequences. Even when performed correctly, chemical peels aren’t quick and easy makeovers.

If you have had a peel and are worried about chemical burns, this article will help you connect the dots and arm you with the knowledge to begin to repair your skin.

What really is chemical peeling?

Chemical peeling represents accelerated exfoliation which is induced by caustic agents that cause controlled damage within your skin; this is followed by the release of cytokines and inflammatory mediators, resulting in the thickening of the epidermis – which is thought to boost the deposition of collagen and reorganise structural elements in your skin.

This process decreases solar elastosis as it replaces and reorients the new dermal connective tissue, giving your skin volume and bounce. The result is an improved clinical appearance of your skin, with fewer lines and decreased pigmentary dyschromia, reduced scarring and a more youthful appearance.


Lately, we have received an overwhelming amount of emails from readers who have experienced chemical peel burns or damaged skin due to poorly performed peels, with concerns ranging from infection, orange peel texture, scarring, and pigmentation issues name but a few side effects.

Little do consumers know that professional-grade peels can, in some cases, do more harm than good. Mid to high-strength chemical peel treatments should only be carried out in a medical setting by an appropriately trained professional such as a qualified aesthetician, nurse, or doctor.

Peter from Canada wrote: I purchased a chemical peel online; I’d had a few facials in the past and was pretty confident it was something I could perform on myself at home. I wanted to treat some marks left behind by hormonal spots, which wouldn’t fade. Upon application, the product started to sting almost immediately. My skin was burning; the pain was so unbearable I started panicking and I quickly rinsed it off, but my skin remained red and blotchy for days afterwards. The area around my eyes was super sensitive as well and I couldn’t apply anything to my skin. It really hurt.


Di from Malta wrote: I had a VI PEEL chemical six months ago and it has completely ruined my skin. A week after I had the peel, my skin texture starting deteriorating rapidly. I am 35 years old, and my skin now resembles someone who looks more like 60. My whole face is filled with lines, and my inner cheeks have pores that have stretched and I had no pores before this chemical peel; My skin now has a very shiny texture, but not in a good way. It’s raised and bumpy in some areas, and it almost looks like tiny pimples in between my pores. My face texture is thick and leathery and resembles someone who has had very severe sun damage. I have lost my youthful skin and am at my wit’s end; please help.


Jasmine from New Zealand wrote: Samantha, I really want my experience to be a warning to all of those considering having a chemical peel. I had a light peel at 12% TCA performed on me around 2 months ago to remove some minor scarring. But now my skin has been destroyed its constantly inflamed, very red, crepe and with small red spots all over it and lots of thin horizontal lines and the scars are worse? It has completely affected my mental health, and I am constantly reduced to tears. I did everything by the book and am at a loss, can you help? I really hope this is a lesson to anyone considering having a chemical peel.


Suzy from Australia wrote: Pre peel, my skin was generally smooth with a few shallow soft rolling scars on my cheek because I suffered from acne breakouts as a child. Post peel, I now have massive pores, Horrible orange peel texture, and it made my existing scars DEEPER?

Everything looks so uneven now and destroyed. The peel gave me broken capillaries all over my cheeks, I can’t go outside for 5 minutes without my whole face turning red, and it’s as though everything irritates it. Before, a pimple would heal with a red mark yet it now ‘heals with a dent or shallow indentation left behind, regardless of how tiny the pimple is? So not only am I suffering the scars from the peel itself, any small breakouts I get since continues to make matters worse. In your experience, has anyone ever had this after a peel and later recovered? I wouldn’t be so devastated if I didn’t think it was permanent; I would love it if you could shed some light on this for me please.


Elizabeth from Australia wrote: I had a deep peel, and when I came around, I was groggy from the pain and medication. After 48 hours the tape came off, and I had a thick scab over my entire face; this was apparently normal but hadn’t been clearly explained to me, so understandably, I was extremely alarmed, and by this time, I realised I hadn’t thought this procedure through very clearly beforehand. My face was burned, red, and so swollen to the point I could hardly open my eyes, and I couldn’t open my mouth to talk, my skin formed a thick crust, and when the dressing came off I could not recognise myself. Finally, after three months the swelling has gone down, but I am experiencing terrible skin which has really scared me.

These genuine and very frightening side effects are not unusual. In a survey of 588 plastic surgeons, 21 per cent reported that phenol scarred significantly, especially around the mouth and chin. It was found that Trichloroacetic acid in strong concentrations is even more likely to leave scars than a phenol peel.

What are the dangers of a chemical peel?

Inflammation, scabbing and swelling: Normal healing from a chemical peel involves your skin being inflamed after treatment which can last a few months.
Changes in skin colour: A chemical peel can cause treated skin to become darker than normal, known as hyperpigmentation. In some case, it may also cause your skin to go lighter than normal referred to as hypopigmentation; this is more common after a deep peel.
Infection: A chemical peel can lead to a bacterial, fungal or viral infection, such as a flare-up of the herpes virus — the virus that can cause cold sores to occur. The compromised state of your skins barrier function after a chemical peel may contribute to the spread of infection to the area that has been treated.
Heart, kidney or liver damage. In extreme cases, deep chemical peels that traditionally used phenol can damage the heart muscle and cause your heart to beat irregularly. Phenol peels have also been known to harm the kidneys and liver. To limit this exposure to phenol, deep chemical peels are usually carried out a portion at a time, in 10 to 20-minute intervals.
Increased risk for pigmentation: The major risk factor for pigmentation problems is high in moderate to highly pigmented skin types (skin phototypes III to VI ).
Increased risk for poor wound healing: Caution is necessary for medium-depth or deep chemical peeling if you have medical conditions that may inhibit normal wound healing after the procedure. Contraindications include other factors that may also impede healing. These include Accutane®, Retin-A®, or other medications within the last 6 months that could potentially exfoliate or thin your skin, a history of radiation therapy in the treated area, and certain medications like systemic glucocorticoids or diseases that impair wound healing such as diabetes may also be a contraindication.
Increased risk for hypertrophic or keloidal scarring: Those with a history of keloidal or hypertrophic scarring may be at risk following a peel. We consider a history of keloidal scarring on the face a contraindication for those having a chemical peel treatment.
Pre-existing skin disease: Relative contraindications include active inflammatory skin conditions, such as rosacea, eczema, and acne vulgaris in the treatment area and skin disorders including flat warts, lichen planus, psoriasis, and vitiligo.

Complications of peels

  1. Scarring
  2. Allergic reactions
  3. Textural changes
  4. Acneiform eruptions
  5. Lines of demarcation
  6. Persistent erythema persisting for more than three weeks after a peel indicates early scarring and should be treated with potent topical corticosteroids.
  7. Pigmentary changes – postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation. These can be very persistent and often difficult to treat.
  8. Infection such as bacterial (Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Pseudomonas ), or viral (Herpes simplex) and fungal infection (Candida). They should be treated aggressively and appropriately.
  9. Toxicity Although rare, it may occur with resorcinol, salicylic acid and phenol peels.


As we can see, chemical peeling is a serious procedure used to treat pigmentation, photo ageing, superficial scarring, premature ageing and more. Irritation, inflammation, redness, scarring, and pigmentation are just some of the complications that may present on your skin, which is why we can’t stress enough how important it is that you ensure you are having a chemical peel carried out in a medical setting by an appropriately trained professional such as a qualified aesthetician, dermatologist, nurse, or doctor.

Various depths of peels, superficial and medium depth peels, are by far the safest. Still, the type, depth and concentration of peel being used on your skin will be selected according to the pathology of your particular skin condition, which your treatment provider will determine.

They will provide you with a thorough consultation, advice on pre-treatment procedures to prime your skin whilst giving you supportive medical therapy and thorough postoperative home care, all of which must be considered to guarantee a safe and satisfactory outcome.

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