October may mark pumpkin spice latte season for most Americans, but in the beauty world, it marks peel season—the time of year when seemingly complexion-blessed women book a series of acid peels to help rejuvenate skin after months of sun exposure. Peels have long been on the menu of things celebs and derms swear by but keep the uninitiated perplexed: Don’t these treatments leave faces inflamed and flakey, like Samantha in “Sex in the City“? And with other options, like lasers and facials geared toward giving skin glow, why are these long-performed treatments still considered a go-to, particularly in the fall?
We took our questions to Dr. Melanie Palm, a San Diego area dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, who tells us that peels can be used to exfoliate dead cells from the skin’s surface, boost collagen production, tackle acne and break down hyperpigmentation. All of this is is fine and good, but considering that lasers and other technologically advanced skin care treatments do the same things, do we really want to throw acid on our face? After Palm breaks down the cost (peels are between 5 to 20 times less expensive than laser treatments), time commitment (some peels can be done with no downtime and in just 15 minutes), clinical research (decades worth demonstrates their ability to rejuvenate skin in the aforementioned ways, making it a tried-and-true treatment), we’re sold.
Then, Palm goes on to point out why women in their 20s and 30s should use peels as a preventative aging tool: “by boosting collagen production early on, you’re more likely to see better results with the treatments your derm may perform for you in the future. It’s your skin’s insurance policy for when it breaks down down the road,” she says. And with that, we’re practically tugging at her lab coat to fix us up.
One of the reasons why peels can be so affordable is that they don’t have to be administered by MDs. Palm connected us with Candace Cavin, an esthetician who works in Palm’s Art of Skin Dermatology MD clinic. Cavin assesses our oily, and slightly sun damaged skin and suggests a glycolic peel ($75), which is safe for all skin types (save for super sensitive) will help with hyperpigmentation, exfoliation and collagen production. Other peels include lactic formulations, which typically use a lighter agent and doesn’t capture as many of the pigment changes as a glycolic might; Jessners, a higher-grade peel that can be used to loosen and reduce acne, but must be carefully administered for those of Asian or African descent because it can cause the skin to hyperpigment easily, Cavin notes; and trichloracetic acid (TCA), which is best for older and heavily photodamaged skin, according to Palm. While some peels can result in peeling over a few weeks time, Cavin assures me that the glycolic peel requires no downtime.
After she ushers me into a treatment room and asks me to lie on a bed face up, Cavin cleanses my face with a glycolic cleanser. Next, she applies a 70% glycolic acid solution (which is far stronger than the 5-15% strength at-home peel products that we can use at home). My skin feels hot and prickly; Cavin uses a mini fan to cool the sensation. A short three minutes later, she deactivates and removes the solution from my skin, though the treatment time can extend to up to 12 minutes for some. At this point, it’s easy to think, “this is so simple, why can’t I DIY one of these suckers?” But it takes a pro to discern when to deactivate the solution and prevent skin damage. The entire appointment took less than 15 minutes and my face looks brightened, not as if I’ve suffered a traumatic burn (like our SATC friend Sam), making this a true lunchtime treatment.
For optimal results, Cavin suggests I follow up with another peel in two, four and six weeks, explaining that with each subsequent appointment, the solution is able to penetrate deeper into the skin, helping further break up pigment with every layer it reaches.
At about $300 for the series and less than two hours total time, this may be the most accessible in-office investment I can make in my skin. Sure, I may have to sacrifice a bit to save the scratch (achievable by dropping a five-coffees-a-week habit for three months); but something tells me I won’t miss those pumpkin spice lattes (and the cumulative 21,660 calories they would bring) once I’m boasting skin so radiant it practically glows, just in time for the holiday season.