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What, Exactly, Is A Chemical Peel?


When it comes to skincare, you generally want to do everything in your power not to damage your skin. Well, a chemical peel does exactly that. But not in the negative way you’d think. Chemical peels use acids to break down the top layer (or layers, depending on the strength) of your skin to diminish fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. These treatments have been around for decades and the results have really come a long way in revealing glowing, clear skin in just a few sessions. 

To get to the bottom of how chemical peels work and determine if they’re right for you, we chatted with skin expert and esthetician Renee Rouleau, who counts Demi Lovato and Lili Reinhart as clients. Do you need to incorporate chemical peels into your skincare routine? Are they worth saving up for, and how intense is too intense? Find out, below. 

What is a chemical peel?

“A chemical peel involves applying an acidic solution to the skin of the face to remove and exfoliate the outer layers,” explains Rouleau. “The new regenerated skin is usually smoother with fewer visible pores and fine lines than before.” She notes that a chemical peel can also be beneficial for the stimulation of fibroblasts (the connective tissue that produces collagen) and creating new collagen for firmer skin. Pretty cool, right?

How does it work?

Now, let’s get into the science of a chemical peel. According to Rouleau, “it uses an acid to lower the pH of the skin and put the skin in an acidic state. The result is a dissolving and digestion of surface dry cells.” First, an esthetician or dermatologist (depending on the laws of your state: generally dermatologists do deeper chemical peels) cleanses your skin to remove makeup and oil. Then, an ointment is applied around the eyes, nose, and mouth to stop the acids from pooling around those sensitive spots. Finally, the acid solution is applied.

How many types of chemical peels are there?

What and how much acid is applied and for how long depends on the types of chemical peels offered. There’s a light chemical peel, a medium peel, and a deep chemical peel. All are considered cosmetic procedures, but they’re very different. “Often called lunch-time peels, alpha hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid) and beta hydroxy acids (such as salicylic acid) in 10 to 30 percent formulas, enzymes (derived from ingredients such as cranberry), and vitamin C peels provide smoother, brighter-looking skin for people who can’t spare the time to recover from deeper peels,” says Rouleau. After the peel, skin might be pink with just a little bit of dead skin flaking. They have little to no downtime and can be done every two weeks as needed. 

Medium peels are often called weekend peels because they’re a bit more intense. “Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels, 30 to 70 precent glycolic peels, and vitamin A peels provide a deeper and more aggressive peeling,” says Rouleau. She warns that the skin can turn a reddish brown in two to three days, become crusty, and then flake and peel over a week. You may also notice some swelling, often around the delicate eye area, so many people take a few days off to let the skin heal. 

Deeper peels provide the greatest skin resurfacing but not without the downsides. “Phenol peels are the strongest of the chemical solutions and can cause a second-degree burn of the skin giving the skin long-lasting and a dramatic result in the reduction of facial wrinkles and acne scarring,” explains Rouleau. “Phenol peels are increasingly becoming an outdated procedure due to lengthy downtime and unpredictable results associated with pigment changes.” Talk to your dermatologist, but know that recovery can be as slow as one to two months.

How much does a chemical peel cost?

The cost of a chemical peel greatly depends on where you live and the types of chemical peels available. A light peel can cost anywhere from $50 to $150, and deeper peels can go up to the thousands. According to 2018 statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average chemical peel price is $669.

What should I do to prepare?

Prepping for a chemical peel depends on the type of peel. For light peels, there isn’t usually anything you need to do to prepare. But medium and deep peels take a little extra care. “Sometimes an at-home regimen using a strong retinol product can help start the exfoliation process to make the peel work deeper within the skin to give better results,” says Rouleau.

About the author
Elizabeth Denton
Elizabeth is a freelance beauty writer. Previously, she was a beauty & fashion editor at Time Out New York, Seventeen, & Allure. She has more than a decade of experience in the beauty and fashion world, writing for Nylon, StyleCaster, Cosmopolitan & more.
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Article Last Updated April 22, 2020 12:00 AM