Unless you’re already familiar with them, chemical peels sound terrifying. Peeling skin is generally annoying to deal with and as far as we’re concerned, the word chemical translates to pain. Assumptions aside, they’re actually one of the most popular ways to score the glass-like, glowing skin of your dreams. Peels are associated with a handful of beauty benefits: evening out your skin tone (buh-bye, dark spots!), smoothing texture and diminishing acne. In short: they give your skin a fresh start.
The only caveat is that getting a peel definitely requires a trip to the dermatologist, where an expert can recommend the best option for you. You can DIY with an at-home version, but it won’t give you the same results are a more potent, professional one.
To get the scoop on the procedure, we chatted with Jeffrey Hsu, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Illinois. Here’s what you need to know before your search for skin nirvana begins.
In the most basic terms, a chemical peel utilizes acids to shed layers of the skin and infuse it with ingredients that diminish lines, build collagen, and improve tone and texture, and significantly improves pigmentation. And it can be used to treat a wide range of skin conditions.
“Depending on the peeling agents used, they either dissolve bonds between cells to allow them to shed, or they increase cell turnover rates to bring fresh cells to the surface more quickly,” says Hsu.
The best candidate for a chemical peel is anyone, unless a doctor has diagnosed you with a medical condition that prohibits chemical peels specifically. If your skin is highly irritated or sunburned, you shouldn’t get one, either.
Hsu recommends PCA Skin’s Sensi Peel as a great gentle option for those who fit the previous descriptions.
As with most beauty products and treatments, you have options when it comes to choosing a chemical peel:
Superficial Peels or Light Chemical Peels: The gentlest option includes a low concentration of a TCA, glycolic, AHA (alpha hydroxy) acids, salicylic acid peels, and Jessner’s peels (equal parts salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol, an antiseptic exfoliant).
“Superficial peels can unclog pores, help with blackheads, and fade post-pimple discoloration. These peels are a very light exfoliation with little to no downtime and only minimal skin shedding. This ‘lunchtime peel’ is a type of peel that is good for maintenance, fading mild hyperpigmentation, for skin brightening and tightening and for fine lines,” says Hsu.
Medium-Depth Chemical Peels: This type of peel ups the percentages of AHA, salicylic, and TCA and requires longer downtime. Your skin will also peel more dramatically and visibly.
“This type of peel is used to break up more stubborn pigment deeper in the skin, photo aging, fine lines and wrinkles, scarring, and uneven skin tones,” says Hsu.
Deep Chemical Peels: This type of peel is normally a phenol chemical and is quite useful for more severe wrinkles, loss of elasticity, deep scars, and aging skin.
“This type of peel is normally done under sedation and involves up to two weeks of downtime and is typically only performed once or twice in a lifetime.”
The Side Effects
Although some may experience mild redness, a chemical peel should leave your skin with a healthy glow immediately after. And if you don’t want to leave the doctor with a bare face, makeup can be applied within 30 minutes or so. After a few days, you may spot some peeling, which can vary from minor flaking to extreme sheeting.
“Everyone’s skin is different, so the amount of peeling will be different,” says Hsu. “The amount of peeling is not reflective of the condition of the skin or the outcome of the treatment. You don’t have to see visible exfoliation to see improvement in the skin.”
The licensed professional should also apply sunscreen immediately after the treatment along with an emollient. It goes without saying that it’s important to steer clear of irritating ingredients or products for several days, too.
“PCA SKIN has a Post Procedure Solutions Kit that has products to properly hydrate and care for skin following professional treatments such as a chemical peel. One of the reasons I like this kit is because it provides all the products you need so it’s not a guessing game for patients on what they can and can’t use,” adds Hsu.
The At-Home Version
If you can’t afford a chemical peel or simply don’t want to be in a doctor’s office, the safest at-home version would be an enzyme mask (anything with papaya is top-notch) such as PCA SKIN’s Purifying Mask or a charcoal mask for detoxification.
Just remember that the chemical peels we previously described should always be left in the hands of licensed and trained professionals.