I am always asked what chemical peels are and what they do for the skin. Chemical peels (CPs) help to reduce signs of aging, fine lines and wrinkles, damage to the skin caused by sun exposure, evens skin tone and helps control acne. CPs removes dead surface cells from the skin to keep the skin from appearing dull and devitalized. CPs penetrates through the epidermis to break the intercellular glue that bonds the dead cells together allowing them to slough off. This is different from microdermabrasion that is only a manual means of exfoliation on the surface of the skin.
What confuses most individuals is that CPs comes in varying degrees of pH levels, active ingredients, concentrations and delivery methods. In order for a CP to work, it must be able to penetrate into the top layers of the epidermis beginning with the “stratum corneum”. The stratum corneum can be 16-24 micro layers in depth, depending on the skin type. The stronger the active ingredient, the higher the peel concentration and the lower the pH level, the more aggressive the peel will behave and the deeper the peel will penetrate into the skin. For example, a 1.5 pH level is lower and more aggressive than a pH of 3.0 (Zone, 2013).
The delivery system can be in the form of a liquid, gel or crème. Because the molecular structure of a liquid is very small, it will penetrate more quickly than a gel or crème. A crème will be the slowest to penetrate because it is thickest in viscosity and sits on the skin. A gel falls somewhere in between a liquid and a crème.
Chemical Peel Classification
A chemical peel can be classified as light, medium or deep. The deeper the peel penetration, the greater the skin is wounded.
A light peel is referred to as a “superficial” or “lunchtime” peel. There is no down time and only impacts the top level of the epidermis (stratum corneum). Light peels can include wine acids (wine sediment or grapes), malic acid (apples), pyruvic acid (bananas), mandelic acid (almonds), citric acid, glycolic, lactic and salicylic (for acneic skin in low concentration). A person can get a light peel every 10-14 days.
Medium peels can penetrate through the epidermis down to the top layer of the dermis. This peel is used to treat deep wrinkles, acne scars, and pigmentation issues. There may be a little down time depending on the concentration of the peel, how long it is left on the skin and the number of layers applied. Medium peels include glycolic, lactic, Modified Jessners, full Jessners and 10-20% TCA.
Deep peels (30+% TCA, phenol and Obagi) fall into this category. This peel should be performed in a medical facility by a physician. Deep peels remove the epidermis all the way down to the lower layer of the dermis (creating a 3rd degree burn). There is significant down time and the new skin will be very sensitive and vulnerable to the elements and UV exposure.
If you are considering a chemical peel:
- If you have never had a chemical peel or if you are seeing a skin care professional for the first time, do not start with a chemical peel until the skin has been thoroughly analyzed and the skin is preconditioned properly.
- Do not have a chemical peel if you are using tretinoins or isotretinoins (Vitamin A). Usage of these products should be stopped a week before the treatment.
- Do not have a chemical peel the same day after you have Botox or other injectables because the peel can penetrate into the injection sites and leave a trail of burn marks.
- Do not have a peel if you are prone to cold sores.
- Do not have a chemical peel if you are pregnant or lactating, an enzyme treatment is the best alternative.
- Seek a skin care specialist properly trained to perform the service you require (ask about their credentials).
- Make sure the skin is properly preconditioned before the treatment (can be as much as 4-8 weeks depending on skin type, degree of hyperpigmentation and acne issues that need to be resolved).
- Follow an at-home regime before and after the treatment.
- Chemical peels can be more sensitizing for women a week before or during their monthly cycle. Let your skin care professional know this the day you arrive for your treatment.
- Wearing a sunscreen is a must.
All CPs are not right for every person or skin type. Your skin care specialist should choose the proper CP for your skin. To assist in a positive outcome, follow a good at-home maintenance regime with periodic skin care treatments.
Allison, R. (2013). Skin, Inc., “Peel Away the Mysteries of Acids”, p. 55-62.
Zone, G. (2013). Les Nouvelles Esthetiques & Spa, “Peel and Heal: The science behind chemical peels”, p. 44-46.