Chemical peels have a bad reputation. Conjuring up thoughts of red raw skin, the treatment has television to thank for its dubious image — most famously Sex and the City's Samantha, whose facial gone wrong put many people off the skin treatment for good. (That, and the rather vivid word 'peel', which might not be doing it any favours...)
Fast-forward to 2021, though, and most dermatologists and facialists attribute their clientele's smooth, glowing skin to chemical peels — and it's fair to say that facials have come a very long way since the late '90s. "We are living in the age of Fraxel laser, micro-needling with PRP [platelet-rich plasma]... There are so many options for skin rejuvenation that chemical peels seem to get lost in the conversation," says skinfluencer Amy Chang aka Bondenavant on TikTok. "But chemical peels have been around for decades," she adds, so is it time we stopped sleeping on them?
What is a chemical peel?
"Chemical peels are tried and true, and one of my favourite ways to stimulate collagen, smooth texture irregularities, acne scarring, fine lines and give an overall brightness to the skin," says Amy. "They utilise acids that raise the acidity of the skin," and this results in a pH change. Once this happens, the acids chemically loosen dead skin. "This allows for exfoliation to occur, which stimulates collagen, lightens discolouration and smooths skin texture," says Amy.
Fatma Gunduz, senior aesthetician at Skin & Sanctuary, says most chemical peels penetrate the uppermost layers of the skin. The standard ingredients in a chemical peel are alpha hydroxy acids or AHAs – lactic acid, glycolic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid – along with the beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) salicylic acid.
As the skin peels (which isn't as dramatic as it sounds, nor should it be painful when it happens), Fatma says it lifts off things like sun damage and age spots, as well as minimising the concerns Amy mentioned. "The skin cells that peel off are naturally replaced with new ones," says Fatma, "which helps to freshen our tired faces. They can also be customised to your concerns and will have people asking what you’ve done to get a fresher, dewy glow," as shown by TikToker @sophaniit.
Which skin concerns can a chemical peel help with?
There are a number of different types of peels. A light chemical peel (otherwise known as a superficial peel) removes the outer layer of skin, says Fatma, and is best for fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone and dryness. "You might have a light peel every two to five weeks." Next, a medium chemical peel. "This removes skin cells from the outer layer of skin," says Fatma, and it works a little deeper. "It's used to treat wrinkles, acne scars and uneven skin tone. You might need to repeat the procedure to achieve or maintain the desired result." Lastly, a deep chemical peel. "This removes skin cells even deeper," says Fatma. "Your doctor might recommend one for deeper wrinkles, scars, pigmentation or precancerous growths. You won't need repeat procedures to get the full effect."
What chemical peels can't do, though, is remove very deep, pitted scars or wrinkles, or tighten sagging skin, adds Fatma.
Amy also details her experience with booking in for chemical peels to reduce melasma (irregular brown and grey-brown areas of discolouration on the face). "After I had my first daughter, my melasma flared and I was advised not to do lasers but instead steered towards chemical peels. I had four peels and was shocked to see how much they improved my skin, smoothing out texture irregularities and fine lines, lightening dark pigment and even helping to minimise the look of some acne scars — all with minimal downtime."
What's the difference between a glycolic, salicylic and a lactic acid peel?
As Fatma mentioned, chemical peels utilise different acids. The most common ones are lactic acid and glycolic acid. "AHA peels which consist of glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids all exfoliate the top layer of the skin," says Fatma. "This helps treat acne scars, pigmentation and uneven skin texture." To decide which is best for you, your expert will assess your specific concern, skin tone and texture. Typically, lactic acid is a little gentler than glycolic acid, which makes it better for sensitive skin types. Amy agrees: "Since I have sensitive skin, I usually opt for very gentle AHA chemical peels like lactic acid and mandelic acid."
What is a retinol peel and what does it do for skin?
Retinol peels are also gaining traction among skincare enthusiasts who love the wrinkle-smoothing, breakout-busting ingredient in skincare but want to see results fast. "Retinol peels contain vitamin A," says Fatma. She explains it's able to penetrate the skin a little deeper than acids. "Like topical retinol in skincare, a retinol peel will work to help uncover fresh new cells and is great at improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture and helping to correct sun-damaged skin."
Are there any side effects of chemical peels?
Fatma explains that peels are graded from superficial to deep and as they vary in their intensity, the side effects may be different. "Superficial peels tend to have minimal to no downtime with mild pinkness to flaking, while deep chemical peels result in moderate to advanced flaking." Depending on the percentage of ingredients used, you might experience a tingling or stinging sensation during the peel before the product is wiped away.
Pre-peel skincare is important, too. "Before a peel we would ask you to avoid certain products [such as exfoliating toners] as well as other procedures on the face beforehand," for example laser or waxing, says Fatma. Aftercare is just as fundamental. "It involves avoiding the use of physical scrubs or any products containing alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids or retinol for a week," says Fatma, and most importantly, avoiding the sun. "It is essential to wear sun protection throughout the year but even more so after a peel," she says. Opt for a high factor, broad-spectrum sunscreen and apply it regularly throughout the day to protect your skin. Your aesthetician will also likely provide you with a simple skincare routine to follow post-treatment.
How much do chemical peels cost?
"Chemical peels are such amazing value for the cost," says Amy. In the UK, peels can cost anywhere between £60-100 for milder versions but the price varies depending on the intensity and the clinic you visit. Fatma agrees: "In my view chemical peels are brilliant value for money and the benefits are much more than just exfoliation. They help trigger the production of collagen and elastin, help reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve pigmentation and produce amazing results for acne and acne scarring."
How do you stay safe during a chemical peel?
As with all skin treatments, from laser to microneedling, safety is the key to great results. "Find a medical professional who understands your skin — especially if you have ethnic skin, like myself — and what's appropriate for your skin needs," says Amy. Fatma agrees that it's important to ensure you are in the safe hands of a qualified professional. Check your aesthetician's credentials online and don't be afraid to ask to see their qualifications. "Ensure that you have had a consultation so that you understand the process involved as well as the benefits," adds Fatma. That way, you can get a feel for the person who will perform your treatment and how it can be tailored to your individual skin needs. She would also advise extra caution to those with darker skin tones. "The wrong peel, or a wrongly applied peel, could cause long-term melasma," says Fatma, which is why it's a must to discuss your treatment with an expert beforehand.
Can you do a chemical peel at home?
A chemical peel is typically an in-clinic treatment. We've written before about the severe dangers of buying medical grade, DIY chemical peel sets online, from infection, burns and scarring to the worsening of pigmentation and painful sores. In other words, avoid doing a chemical peel at home. It's best left to the professionals. That said, you can incorporate lower grade exfoliating skincare products, such as toners and serums, into your skincare routine a couple of times a week.