The Surprising Truth About Chemical Peels

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
If your first thought upon hearing “chemical peel” is red, flaky skin that'll have you hiding out for days, you should keep in mind that not all peels are created equal. There are, essentially, three kinds: light, medium, and deep, and there are worlds of difference between them.
A chemical peel involves applying a solution (acid) to skin to remove and exfoliate the outer layers and reveal a clearer, more evenly pigmented and glowing complexion. Chemical exfoliation is also instrumental in the stimulation of fibroblasts and in creating new collagen, so it’s super-beneficial in keeping skin looking and acting younger. Post-peel, this new, regenerated skin is usually smoother and less wrinkled than the old skin, but it may be temporarily more sensitive to sun, which is why the daily use of sunscreen is a must.
Chemical peels are often done every two to six weeks in order to achieve desired results. However, the time interval depends on the type of peel.
Light Peels 
Light chemical peels offer immense benefits for almost all skin types and leave skin glowing, radiant, and more youthful-looking. For this reason, I recommend clients use them on a regular basis. They’re often referred to as “lunchtime peels” or “micro peels” — perfect for the person who can’t spare any downtime for recovery.
They often use alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic; beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic, in 10 to 30% formulas; enzymes (using ingredients such as cranberry); and vitamin C. The skin may turn pink, but usually only minimal (if any) peeling or flaking occurs, so you can get right back into your daily routine. You can do these as often as every two weeks. They are commonly used in conjunction with facials.
Medium Peels
Often called “weekend peels,” medium peels are for people who need a more intense result than what light peels can offer. They often use TCA (trichloroacetic acid), 30 to 70% glycolic acid, and vitamin A to provide more aggressive peeling. The skin may turn a reddish or darker brown for about two to three days. This discolouration is most notable around the eye area.
If you opt for one of these peels, it’s crucial that you not pick or peel off any of the flaky skin, and simply let the peeling occur naturally to prevent scarring. Some people will be most comfortable taking off a few days from work and social engagements to let the peel do its work and allow the skin to heal.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Deep Peels
Phenol peels are the strongest of the chemical solutions, giving long-lasting and dramatic results in the reduction of facial wrinkles and acne scarring. However, they're increasingly becoming an outdated procedure due to lengthy downtime and unpredictable results associated with uneven skin tone or loss of pigment. Additionally, in some cases they may cause a second-degree burn on the skin. Recovery may be slow, and complete healing may take one to two months.
Regardless of what peel you choose, it’s extremely important that the person administering the treatment is well-versed and experienced. If the peel isn’t left on long enough, it will have no effect on the skin, but if it’s left on for too long, you run the risk of potential damage. I’ve also noticed in recent years that some aestheticians get a little “peel-happy,” and do them on anyone and everyone. Peels are not the best option for all skin types, especially those that are sensitive, easily irritated, or rosacea-prone.
Don’t have time to get a professional chemical peel? Consider using an at-home option one to three times a month. They often use various acids (malic, salicylic, glycolic, and lactic), and are usually left on the skin for three to 10 minutes before rinsing off. While at-home peels are not as strong as in-spa peels, they can yield similar results with continued use. These formulas are intended to deliver smoother, brighter-looking skin. They're a great option for people who don't have the time it takes to recover from a deep peel.
In addition to the face, you can use peels on dry hands and cuticles to reveal softer skin, on a sun-damaged chest to even the skin tone and remove dryness, and on keratosis pilaris to flatten bumps and give a smooth appearance. And, surprisingly, there is a recommended season for getting a peel: They're best performed from November to May, on skin that hasn't been in the sun a lot.

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