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What is a Chemical Peel and How do I Use Them Safely

Chemical Peels 101: Your Complete Guide

Peels are touted by many as the secret to glowing skin.

Their rejuvenating effects are evident after just one session.

But with so many chemical peels available, there are specific nuances to be aware of.

The options available, your skin type, conditions being treated, and potential side effects.

If you are new to peels, figuring out what you need can be daunting.

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 chemical peel?
  • what is the weakest to most potent peel?
  • what is in a chemical peel?
  • can I cause permanent damage to my skin?

There is a great deal of science and logic behind peels.

The stronger the peel is not always the best, 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.

It would help if you focused on identifying your condition and get educated on what is a chemical peel suitable for and the techniques that will most likely work for your skin.

If you have questions like this, you have come to the right place.

So let’s framework this article by starting with our content map, so you can find your spot and pull all of the data together in the correct 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 and can help with texture and skin tone.

Medium to deep chemical peels are effective for skin tightening, lightening stubborn pigmentation patches, 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 than your skin’s natural pH, 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.

Within a few days of using a peel, the dead skin begins to peel, allowing new skin to regenerate, smoothing and deeply hydrating, lessening wrinkles and improving uneven 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 boosts collagen production, giving 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.

Because of their intensity, redness, and swelling, full-skin shedding occurs, and they often require 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 stimulate fibroblasts to produce 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 breakouts. 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 remove damaged skin layer upon layer, helping you find and expose the “normal” and healthy skin below. 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 before you undertake your first peel. The truth is that several applications will be needed over 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” usually comprises 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 skin 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 be much more potent than a higher percentage in another acid. Hence, you need to ensure your treatment provider understands peels before performing them 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 critical; otherwise, you could end up with chemical burns, which we discuss here.

How deep can a peel penetrate my skin?

This is a big concern when trying to fix skin conditions; pigmentation, for example, can run 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.

So what’s in a chemical peel?

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 skin type, condition, and experience. Let’s get started.

Level 1: This is an excellent choice if you use 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 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 if you want a hydrating “light” peel.

Lactic inhibits tyrosinase enzyme activity directly, so it is a crucial peel to use if dealing with light hyperpigmentation issues.

In addition, it can help if you have chronically dry skin, this is due to its hygroscopic properties, so it is excellent for mature, dull, dry skin types.

Glycolic acid: A light alpha hydroxy glycolic can create a dramatic or minimal result, depending on the strength used. It falls into the very superficial to superficial peel category.

Glycolic has a small molecule that penetrates the outer layer of skin quickly.

It is also a water-soluble molecule; this is why it is slightly exfoliating, so it is excellent if you want to treat premature ageing, it can help you improve mild sun damage. It will generally improve your skin’s overall health and look and feel.

Mandelic acid: An alpha hydroxy acid, 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 your skin 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 also a very safe peel to use weekly.

Salicylic acid: A beta-hydroxy, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and is beneficial if you have combination-oily skin and are concerned with clogged pores and or acne.

It also has some anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

Salicylic is well-tolerated on all skin tones and types.

It is highly effective if you have post-inflammatory pigmentation, 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 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 15% lactic, resorcinol, lactic and salicylic acid. It is usually the preferred peel ingredient if you have oily, acne-prone skin because of its safety, and there is no requirement for neutralisation.

It is well-tolerated in all skin tones and skin types.

It is often alternated with TCA peels and intense retinoid usage.

The “Vitamin A Luminosity” method referred to in the industry can also be applied after a Jessner’s peel and increases flaking.


So if you are keen to know what is a chemical peel for the face, our concise guide has all the answers.

We have covered the skin concerns they can treat, 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.

The medium-depth peels are more effective if you want to treat fine lines and wrinkles.

TCA chemical peels are among the most versatile chemical peels, with a wide range of depths and treatment options.

We also discuss the all-important contraindications and side effects of peels.

There is so much to know about the acids and ratios used and the skin concerns you are treating, but hopefully, our guide has helped to prevent chemical peel overwhelm.

Because the risk of adverse effects increases with the depth, we recommend having your chemical peel performed by a knowledgeable professional who will ensure all the correct pre, post, and aftercare procedures are followed correctly.

4 thoughts on “What is a Chemical Peel and How do I Use Them Safely

  1. Cecile says:

    Hello, I am passionate about smart skincare and while doing my research I came across your website. I have used 10% TCA peel and have alternated with a 0.5mm microneedling pen with hyaluronic acid. I understand your statement in a post against microneedling, that inflammation is the result of these types of procedures which are counterintuitive to anti-aging. However, does the collagen increase generated outweigh the cons? What would be your go-to treatments for collagen production? I don’t do other invasive treatments and have an effective skincare routine without Tretinoin/retinol as I am afraid of volume loss that has been observed by some, unfortunately. I am looking to preserve facial fat and boost collagen production in more natural ways, beyond my daily routine skin care, from time to time. I appreciate your time and insight, thank you!

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi Cecile. If this works for you that is great. Alarm bells go off for me especially as you are only trying to induce collagen, i think it would be a different matter if you were trying to help with acne scars? Red light therapy and micro current are both wonderful non-invasive anti ageing treatments. I hope this helps Cecille.

  2. Sarah says:

    I just want to check you have spoken against microneedling in an article before because of the damage it can do to the skin. However, in this article it mentions peels doing basically exactly the same thing (causing trauma to the skin, swelling etc). I just want to know what the difference is as peels still do damage the skin by ‘controlled’ removal of the cells from the surface of the skin. Thanks.

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi Sarah

      When all is said and done you are disrupting the acid mantle the deliv=cate microflora that is deliberately there to protect the health of your skin. That coupled with the fact you are breaking down the protective barrier function, it comes as no surprise there is trauma thereafter such treatments. I am in the industry for many years all too many times have we seen trauma through such treatments and we don’t endorse them. Why not concentrate on building up that barrier and acid mantle instead? Rather than breaking it down to restore it again? I know that our holistic approach has a much more successful approach to skin health. Samantha

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