When it comes to chemical peels, I’m a big fan and I rely on semi-regular chemical peels to maintain my skin. My go-to is a Jessner – a combination of Lactic Acid, Salicylic Acid, and Resorcinol – to keep my breakouts and pigmentation under control and help with general aging concerns.
Because I have done regular peels, I know exactly what to expect and how my skin will respond. I can arrange my schedule accordingly to accommodate the pre-treatment requirements as well as the recovery and it always goes well. But I have also had a bad experience when a chemical peel was added to a facial without my knowledge or consent. It was considered light but the ingredient did not agree with me and I ended up with very unhappy rough, itchy, dry, red skin that took a few weeks to clear up.
I am not here to scare anyone away from chemical peels – as I said, I am a fan – but I firmly believe that any peel, regardless of concentration, should be managed as a medical procedure with proper consultation and prep in order to avoid anyone experiencing a reaction as I did. Chemical peels are to be respected and it’s best to understand what they are about before getting one done.
What is a chemical peel?
Chemical peels are exactly what they say they are – a chemical treatment that “peels” or, rather, stimulates a stronger shedding response in the skin than everyday skin care products. The ingredients that make up a peel determine how deep into the skin the treatment penetrates which then affects the intensity of shedding as well as the length of recovery or downtime. Chemical peels help treat a variety of concerns – pigmentation due to sun damage, acne and congestion, fine lines and wrinkles, texture and scarring – and there are a lot of options to choose from depending on what skin concern is being targeted.
Peels are generally categorized as light (stimulating the very top layer of the skin only and are considered superficial. Think ‘lighten, tighten, brighten’), medium (penetrates deeper into the epidermis to treat congestion and pigmentation), and deep which claim to penetrate to the dermis and are for severe cases of sun damage, pigmentation, and wrinkles.
What can you expect?
Typically, regarding a mild or medium peel, you can assume visible dryness, obvious shedding, dullness, and this can go on for several days. If full-face makeup is part of your daily routine, it likely won’t sit on your skin smoothly. What can also happen is a purge. If you are prone to breakouts, a chemical peel can exacerbate this and encourage MORE blemishes. Pigmentation can start to look darker and in some cases, I have seen pigmentation appear where it wasn’t visible before. Feedback to clinics from patients can often be, “you made my skin worse”.
It is true that for 1 to 3 weeks (possibly longer for a deep peel), you aren’t going to like your skin very much and this is a terrible feeling, but it is temporary. Remember that the peeling, the purging, the pigmentation coming to the surface are all good things! This is all exactly what a chemical peel is supposed to do and exactly what needs to happen. But keep in mind that it is very common to require more than one peel treatment to see dynamic results – I call it peel, purge, perfect – since it can take a few cycles to get pigmentation and deep congestion up and out.
My personal peel response from my go-to medium-depth peel is always 3-5 days of dry (and I mean DRY), flaky skin followed by a week or more of breakouts. After that, The Glow. I love it. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that literally every time I do a peel I get nervous that my skin won’t recover. It always does.
Remember that the damage we are trying to correct didn’t happen overnight and there is no quick fix; it is rarely a case of one-and-done. Wear your sunscreen, avoid over-scrubbing and too many irritating ingredients in skin care. Chemical peels are a fantastic boost to your daily efforts and there is an option for just about everyone.
Trust the process.
Regulations for chemical peels
There are also different regulations regarding peels depending on the ingredients. Some require no medical supervision – think enzyme peels – while others are considered prescription and must be applied by a physician. My general advice is to have a peel treatment done at a medical facility regardless, especially if it is your first experience.
So, why do they need to be respected? These are concentrated solutions of ingredients designed to aggravate and inflame your skin and some treatments often contain ingredients you likely haven’t come across in your daily skin care. Even if you have – perhaps Glycolic, Lactic, or Salicylic Acids – it would be in vastly lower percentages and, therefore, not as aggressive.
I compare it to lifting weights – you can pick up a 5lb dumbbell and do some lifts and it won’t be too challenging. Now, pick up the 100lb weight and do the same exercises. Your body is going to have something to say about the increase in weight. You can look at chemical peels the same way.
In preparation for a chemical peel, if possible, I recommend a test patch at least 24 hours before your treatment – a small area along your jawline where the peel is applied; this will help rule out any possibility of reaction. A test patch won’t always be an option but it is good practice to inquire. Discontinue active ingredients such as Retinol, Glycolic or Lactic Acids, and scrubs 3-5 days before your appointment. Stay out of the sun as much as possible, hydrate, and avoid any hair removal – waxing, depilatories, or shaving. Post-treatment instructions are similar – no active skincare, avoid scrubs and sun exposure, wear sunscreen - but specific care instructions should be provided by your technician.
Upon application of mild and medium peels, patients can experience sensations from a light tingle to spicy heat while deep peels typically require numbing cream due to the aggressive depth of penetration.
Now, a lot of what I have laid out so far is not breaking new ground. In fact, information on peels can be found simply by Googling and a lot of clinic websites detail their chemical peel options well. What I have found to be lacking, however, is information on the recovery; that in-between time from getting the treatment done to enjoying the results.