Chemical peels have been around for a long time and with good reason – they work. See how a professional peel can heal your skin concerns, from acne scars and uneven skin tone to melasma and fine lines and wrinkles.
Chemical peels have proven their worth
Everything old is new again, and chemical peels are enjoying something of a rebirth as more cosmetic doctors turn to them to treat a variety of skin problems and conditions. More than half (52 percent) of facial plastic surgeons say chemical peels are in high demand, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS). “The great thing about chemical peels is that they’re low-tech, non-intimidating compared to lasers, and they address the same issues—skin discoloration, texture, and wrinkles,” says Jessie Cheung, MD, director of the Jessie Cheung MD Dermatology & Laser Center in Willowbrook, IL. How far back do they go? “Women have been using scrubs for over 2,000 years! Cleopatra soaked in milk baths to smooth her skin. The active ingredient in milk is lactic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA), and these acids (along with beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs) are still among the most commonly used types in modern exfoliants,” says Erin Gilbert, MD, PhD Dermatologist in Brooklyn, NY.
Why a chemical peel?
“Nowadays, the term ‘chemical peel’ refers to so many different formulations, ranging from the weaker glycolic peels that can be performed at home, to the strongest phenolic peels, which often require sedation or general anesthesia,” says Mark H. Schwartz, MD, a plastic surgeon in New York City. These skincare workhorses can correct acne, age spots, discoloration, tone, fine lines (especially under the eyes and around the mouth), freckles, melasma, sun damage, and more, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). “Some peels create relatively mild changes and refresh the skin through exfoliation,” says Fred G. Fedok, MD, a facial plastic surgeon in Foley, AL. “Moderately deep peels help with different types of pigmentation problems. The deeper peels are effective at correcting wrinkles.” Peels typically cost less than laser resurfacing, averaging between $100 and $400 per treatment, depending on the practice location and the depth of the peel. Learn more about skin care tips from dermatologists.
A series of mild chemical peels — on the face, neck, and/or chest — every few weeks works well for busy people, as they produce significant results with minimal downtime. The weaker peels are the AHA peels, or fruit acid peels, most commonly glycolic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid, and can help improve acne scars, skin tone and texture, diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce the effects of sun damage. One such treatment is the “No Peel Peel,” which Manhattan-based cosmetic surgeon Dr. Gerald Imber offers in his Youth Corridor Clinic. “The No Peel Peel is ideal for anyone looking to improve the complexion or start a new skincare routine,” says Dr. Imber. “Our exclusive formula uses a 70% glycolic acid exfoliator to remove dead cells and debris and regenerate skin cells without the traditional flaking and redness or discomfort associated with more intensive formulas, giving you results similar to an intensive exfoliation but with no downtime or side effects.” Here’s what to expect from this and other mild scrubs: After a thorough facial cleansing, the scrub is applied with a brush, pad, or cotton swab. “You may feel a slight tingling sensation that lasts for the duration of the scrub persists,” says Dr. Schwartz. “With the weaker AHA peels, there’s a very short-term pink or reddish tinge to the skin,” he says. The before-and-after difference is pronounced. “You’ll look lighter immediately, with gradual Improvement in fine lines, texture and pigmentation.” For best results, a range of mild is often used en or superficial peelings required. Aftercare also plays a role. Apply lotion or cream until skin heals and use sunscreen daily. It’s okay to wear makeup right away.
What makes peelings a medium strength is the proportion of active ingredients. Medium-strength peels use some of the same acids as mild peels, only at much higher levels. For example, when used at more than 25 percent, trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels are moderate, but anything below that would be considered superficial or mild, explains Chérie M. Ditre, MD, director of the Skin Enhancement Center and associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Here’s what you can expect: Because these peels are deeper, your skin will be red and swollen after application, and blisters may form and break open. Their skin will crust and peel off in one to two weeks, according to the AAD. Your doctor may suggest taking an antiviral medication 10 to 14 days before or after your peel if you have a history of cold sores. Other aftercare instructions include applying lotion or cream to the treated area and avoiding the sun until healing is complete. Makeup is OK after about a week. “It’s usually a while and a while because there’s downtime with these medium-strength peels,” says Dr. three. Look for medium-depth peels — like the 35 percent TCA and Jessner solution — to address hyperpigmentation and moderate wrinkles, says Dr. fedok. You may also be a candidate if you have severe sun damage, leathery skin, and gross wrinkles that are visible even at rest, adds Dr. Add three. Medium-level chemical peels can also help correct acne scars. Don’t miss these non-peeling methods to get rid of acne once and for all.
Deep chemical peels
Phenol peels are the most powerful chemical peels available and they target deep wrinkles, sun damage and uneven skin tone. “They’re helpful in treating vertical lines around the mouth called smoker’s lines,” says Dr. Schwartz, and they work best on lighter skin because there’s less risk of hypopigmentation or bleaching.” Phenolic peels are typically only used on the face because the skin on the neck and hands is thinner and more sensitive. Here’s what you can expect: Given the strength of these peels, anesthesia may be required. There is some real downtime with phenolic peels. “Post-procedure crusting and redness is common and can last for weeks,” says Dr. black The trade-off is dramatic and has long-term results. “These deep peels do things that a facelift can’t do — they improve the quality of environmentally damaged skin,” he says. Phenol-based peels can be used for more serious lesions and wrinkles, but as Dr. Ditre notes, given the availability of lasers as well as phenol’s possible link to heart problems, these deep peels have fallen out of favor.
Many exfoliants are available over the counter at your pharmacy or doctor’s office, and these typically contain the same ingredients as in-office scrubs, but in much lower concentrations. At-home scrubs take about 10 minutes — you apply gel or pads to the area, then wash it off. “Some people do this weekly,” says Dr. three. It’s important not to use retinoid products after an exfoliation as they can irritate newly exfoliated skin. Also, consider doing a skin patch test first. “I always tell my patients to take the time to do a small test area before applying any product to their entire face,” says Dr. Gilbert. “Some products may be too strong for your skin type, causing redness, burning, and irritation that’s not only uncomfortable, but can actually be dangerous.” It’s also important to wear a good quality SPF 30+ sunscreen after every scrub, regardless whether it’s done in a doctor’s office, a spa, or at home, she emphasizes. (Be careful not to make these common sunscreen mistakes.) According to Dr. Ditre best for exfoliating veterans who want to do it at home for acne or fine lines. “They give the skin a great glow.”