Skin Care

This Is What Really Happens To Your Skin After Using A Face Peel

Illustrated by Olivia Santner.

I’m not sure if it was the rise of aesthetic doctors on Instagram as influencers, the wave of skintellectualism, or even the advent of ultra 4K-HD TV, but skin peels seem to have finally got a new PR rep. In years gone by, the chemical peel was known to most as a punchline plot device: something vain old dowagers in movies got that saw them confined to their beds, wrapped in layers of bandages lest their red-raw skin scare any children.

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While you still can get those super-strong peels at some clinics, the kinds of peels that have softened their public image (pardon the pun) are the new breed of superficial, so-called "baby" peels. The kind you can do at home, the kind that offer zero downtime, the kind that talk more about glow than total overhaul. And yet the question persists: Is my face actually going to peel off?

Well, yes and no. “Shedding happens when the top layers of the epidermis flake away as a result of the 'bonds' between the skin cells being broken down by the peel,” explains cosmetic doctor Dr. Ewoma Ukeleghe of SKNDOCTOR. “There’s also some stimulation of the dermis, which increases skin cell turnover and epidermal regeneration,” she adds, which essentially means the renewal part of the peel can cause shedding, as the dead skin has to go somewhere. The amount of peeling you’ll get will largely depend on the strength of the peel you use: For example, a light, superficial peel like the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel will most likely not give you any shedding, whereas the kind of medium- and super-strength peels you would have in a doctor’s office almost certainly will.

Personally, I’ve never had shedding after a peel, and that’s the way I want it — using super-strength acid peels at home isn’t a good idea for so many reasons. Firstly, you can actually burn your skin with some products sold online, risking infection, pigmentation, and scarring. Secondly, even if you get off lucky without immediate burns, the damage that you do with cumulative years might take months or years to even show up. But I’m talking lots of pigmentation, excessive thinning of the skin, and discoloration. It’s not worth the risk, and forget it if you’re using retinol of any strength in addition to your peel. “You can do a superficial peel about once a month, but deeper peels really should be once a year, maybe twice, depending on your skin type and skin concerns,” said Dr. Ukeleghe.

So, an example of a superficial peel is something like SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight for at-home, or a peel done in a clinic at a lower strength. An example of a medium to deep peel: definitely done in-clinic, by a doctor, and will cause visible shedding for around a week afterwards.

I love to look super glowy as much as the next girl, but if there is one thing that has come up in conversations I’ve had with dermatologists and skin experts time and time again, it’s how prolific the overuse of at-home peels is becoming. Anecdotally, I’ve heard plenty of practitioners say they’re seeing more and more patients who have either already damaged their skin through overzealous peeling, or are using worrying amounts of acids. For example, an acid cleanser, and then a salicylic acid toner, plus a peel pad, plus a retinol, every day — that’s a staggering and needless amount of peeling to put your face through. Peels are brilliant and absolutely have their place in a routine, and some of the gentle ones on the market like the Dr. Dennis Gross, as well as The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, really can make a noticeable difference to the skin. I just want everyone to take it easy.

Oh, also? If you’re using peels, daily high-factor sunscreen is non-negotiable. Actually, it’s non-negotiable anyway, but if you are using peels and not wearing your SPF 50, I will physically manifest in your bathroom and wail.

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