Peels are touted by many as the secret to glowing skin, with rejuvenating effects being evident after just one session.
But with so many chemical peels available, there are certain nuances to be aware of — namely, the options available, your skin type and associated conditions being treated, and potential side effects.
If you are new to peels, it can be daunting to figure out what you need. So many times, we get stuck on simple questions like:
- what is a chemical peel?
- how soon will I get the results I want?
- what are the benefits of having a peel?
- what is the weakest to strongest peel?
- can I cause permanent damage to my skin?
There is a great deal of science and logic behind peels; the stronger peel is not always the better, and what works for some may not work for others, especially when it comes to different skin types. It’s about finding the right solution that fits your skin.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution – we really need to focus on identifying your condition and getting you educated on what chemical peels and techniques will most likely work for your skin concern, which is the real goal with this article.
That being said, let’s framework this article on what a chemical peel is by starting with our content map so you can find your spot and pull all of the data together in the right order.
What is a chemical peel?
It’s a chemical solution applied to your skin that penetrates the uppermost layers, removing cells from the skin’s surface to correct imperfections.
They can range in depth from superficial to medium and deep chemical peels. Superficial chemical peels gently exfoliate only the outermost layer of your skin, whilst medium and deep chemical peels exfoliate into the upper and mid-dermis.
Superficial chemical peels are hydrating, can help with texture, and even out skin tone. Medium to deep chemical peels are effective for skin tightening, lightening stubborn patches of pigmentation, removing scars, and diminishing fine lines and wrinkles.
Here’s how a chemical peel works
Chemical peels are acidic solutions with a significantly lower pH level than your skin’s natural pH, which is usually around 4.5 – 5.5. When used on your skin, they dissolve desmosome junctions: the adhesive substance that holds the layers of dead skin together, allowing them to build up. Within a few days of using a peel, the dead skin begins the process of peeling off your face, allowing new skin to regenerate, smoothing and deeply hydrating, lessening wrinkles and evening skin tone.
When trauma occurs within the skin tissues, the cell’s natural response is to fire up fibroblasts that stimulate new collagen formation; thus, your skin becomes visibly thicker, plumper, and smoother. It also speeds up collagen production to give you vibrant, smoother skin.
The stronger phenol peels create a controlled wound, which allows the skin to regenerate itself; these are often used for severe acne scarring and deep ageing lines, working deep within your dermis to force your skin into creating a whole new layer. However, because of their intensity, redness, and swelling, full-skin shedding occurs and they will require a downtime of one to two weeks.
Those with sensitive, reactive skin are advised to steer clear of most peels, other than using light enzymes, which you can read about here.
The benefits of a peel
Anti-ageing: The acid breaks down the skin on the surface, helping your skin regain the thickness and sturdiness people have in their youth. Peels can help to stimulate fibroblasts to produce the collagen and elasticity in your skin that helps your skin look and feel younger.
Acne: Peels help remove dead skin build-up and keep pores free of debris. Keeping your pores clear is the ultimate key to controlling acne, and peels encourage this by flushing out the pore, getting rid of the layers of dead skin and build up that is at the root of acne breakouts.
Scarring: On the scarring side of the equation, you have things like the TCA and Jessner peels which can help reduce the severity of scars over time. They slowly remove the layers of dead scar tissue, which can help your skin back to a smooth appearance.
Pigmentation: From an even skin tone perspective, peels can help to remove layer upon layer of damaged skin, helping you find and expose the “normal” and healthy skin below. But please note it is not without risks; there are occasions where the underlying skin can be pigmented, which may come to the surface after a chemical peel.
How many applications does it take?
Let’s nip this myth peel in the bud before you undertake your first peel. The real truth is that several applications will be required over the course of weeks, months, or even years to address skin concerns.
Using a chemical peel to get rid of acne, treat acne scars, or achieve ageless skin requires repeated use – like anything in life, it takes effort and consistency to get results.
A “Treatment Series” is usually comprised of between 6-8 peel treatments performed at 1-2 week intervals, and often more than one treatment series is needed to remove deeper skin problems. Many of our clients often move to a monthly or quarterly peel routine to keep their face looking young over time.
Chemical peel strengths: what you need to know
It can be confusing comparing different acids and their percentages because a low percentage in one acid can actually be a great deal stronger than a higher percentage in another acid, so you need to ensure your treatment provider really understand peels before they perform it on your skin.
- 30% in glycolic acid, for instance, does not = 30% in trichloroacetic acid.
- glycolic 30% is one of the mildest acids
- 30% TCA is one of the strongest acids
The depth and strength of the peels used are really important, otherwise, you could end up with chemical burns, which we discuss here.
How deep can a peel penetrate my skin?
This is obviously a big concern when trying to fix skin conditions; pigmentation, for example, can run very, very deep in your skin, all the way down to the dermis, and acne can also run deep.
Different types of acids, and layers of acids, can penetrate different depths into your skin, so it is best to have a thorough consultation when choosing any acid to target your particular skin concern.
An example of your skin’s layers and how deep the acids can penetrate:
For instance, if you have only mild pigmentation, you can use any hydroxy acids. However, if you suffer from a condition such as dermal melasma that has been very problematic and won’t budge, you will need to use a multi-layered approach and most likely combine it with other modalities and products containing melanin inhibitors to reach the depths where it lies. This may also help to explain why your lightning moisturiser may not be working for you.
Level 1: Very superficial peels: lactic acid
Level 2: Superficial peels: salicylic, glycolic, mandelic
Level 3: Medium depth peels: TCA 10% and above, up to 30% at multiple layers
Level 4: Deep peels: TCA 50% and intense phenol peels
Which chemical peel is best for me? What is my peel tolerance?
The steps below will help you determine which peels work for your particular skin type, condition, and experience. Let’s get started.
Level 1: This is an excellent choice if you are using peels for the first time. A level one peel will only give a light tingle or itchy feeling. Many people with a high tolerance will feel nothing at all.
Level 2: This is the best option for those who are requiring more than what the mildest acids can provide, and may give you a light itch.
Level 3: If you are receiving professional peels or looking to move up in strength, this level can be intense, starting with stinging, and your skin may become inflamed and hot.
Selecting the right peel
Lactic acid: An alpha hydroxy is a milder irritation acid that will give subtle to no visible peeling; therefore, it is excellent for those looking for a very hydrating “light” peel. Lactic is shown to inhibit tyrosinase enzyme activity directly, so it is a key peel to use when dealing with light hyperpigmentation issues. In addition, it is known to help to improve chronically dry skin due to its hygroscopic properties, so it is great for mature, dull, dry skin types.
Glycolic acid: A light alpha hydroxy glycolic has the ability to create a dramatic or minimal result, which all depends on the strength used. It falls into the very superficial to superficial peel category. Glycolic has a small molecule that penetrates the epidermis easily. It is a water-soluble molecule often used to treat anti-ageing issues, and it can improve mild sun damage and generally improves the overall health and look and feel of your skin.
Mandelic acid: An alpha hydroxy acid, it is a milder irritation acid with excellent results on mild acne, dark spots, fine lines, and melasma without risks of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Mandelic is a larger molecule that penetrates the epidermis slowly and evenly. It is an excellent acid choice for all skin types and can even be used on younger skin for acne control. It is a safe peel, so it can even be used weekly.
Salicylic acid: A beta-hydroxy, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and is beneficial to those with combination-oily skin concerned with clogged pores and acne. It also has some anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Salicylic is well-tolerated in all skin tones and types. It is extremely effective for post-inflammatory pigmentation, oily, rough skin and mild photodamage. It is often used for acne and acne vulgaris with excellent results.
TCA (Trichloroacetic Acid) Peel: TCA is one of the most well-researched acids, and its superiority really comes from its versatility. It can be applied in a single layer as a superficial peel or layered to offer deeper penetration. It is well tolerated in all skin tones and types with proper preparation. It is an effective peel for treating hyperpigmentation, fine lines, rough skin, flat warts, skin laxity, acne, and acne scarring. As a side note, the safety protocol always dictates that more layers of a lower percentage are always the best method with TCA.
Jessner peel: This is in equal parts 15% lactic, resorcinol, lactic and salicylic acid. It is usually the preferred peel ingredient for oily, acne-prone skin because of its safety, and there is no requirement for neutralisation. It is well-tolerated in all skin tones and types. It is often alternated with TCA peels and strong retinoid usage. The “Vitamin A Luminosity” method referred to in the industry can also be applied after a Jessner’s peel and increases flaking.
Chemical peels have been around for a long time and are very effective for several skin concerns including acne, melasma, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin texture, and fine lines and wrinkles.
The more superficial treatments effectively treat mild pigmentation, whiteheads, blackheads, and uneven skin texture, whilst the medium-depth peels are more effective for fine lines and wrinkles. TCA chemical peels are among the most versatile type of chemical peel, with a wide range of depths and treatment options.
There is so much to know about peels, the acids and ratios used, and the skin concerns you are treating. Because the risk of adverse effects increases with the depth, it’s important to have your peel performed by a knowledgeable professional who will ensure all the correct pre, post, and aftercare procedures are followed correctly.