Chemical peels - types and treatments explained
Chemical peels can conjure up images of red, flaky skin and weeks of downtime. The truth is not as dramatic, unless we’re talking about their outstanding results, with chemical peels regularly prescribed to improve skin tone and texture, stimulate new cell growth, and help with acne and the signs of ageing.
And there isn’t just one type to choose from. So, which one is best for you?
In this article:
Duration of results
Back to work
Up to 3 days
Full recovery time
7 to 14 days
305 SAR to 1,019 SAR
30 to 90 minutes
OTC pain relief, local anaesthetic or general anaesthetic
What are chemical face peels?
Chemical peels are cosmetic treatments that help improve the appearance or feel of your face, neck and hands by removing a layer of dead skin cells.
There are three main categories of chemical peel:
- Superficial: Sometimes known as a 'light' peel, these use mild acids to gently exfoliate the top layer of skin. They're popular for acne, fine wrinkles, dryness and uneven skin tone.
- Medium: Penetrating the middle and outer layers of skin, these are used to treat acne scarring and deeper wrinkles.
- Deep: Using phenol or trichloroacetic acids, these can penetrate deeper layers of skin to help treat deep wrinkles.
How do chemical peels work?
The science behind it
Chemical peel treatments usually contain some form of acid, which is applied directly to your skin and allowed to soak in for a set time, before being gently wiped off. As the peel is removed, it takes dead skin cells, damaged cells, dirt and bacteria with it. Those skin cells are naturally replaced with new ones from the lower layers of your skin.
Before the treatment
Your dermatologist may advise you make certain changes to your routine before your chemical peel. This could include adding or removing a retinoid cream from your skincare regime, depending on the strength of peel you’re having. You will also be advised to avoid unprotected sun exposure or using any facial scrubs, and pause any waxing, shaving and electrolysis.
During the treatment
First, your face will be cleansed thoroughly and eyes and hair will be protected.
If you have a medium or deep peel, you might be offered a sedative or numbing agent for the treatment area.
During a light chemical peel:
- The peel is applied using a brush, cotton ball, gauze or sponge.
- The treated skin will appear paler as the peel soaks into the skin and you may feel mild stinging.
- A neutralising solution or wash will remove the chemical solution from your skin.
During a medium chemical peel:
- The peel is applied using a cotton-tipped applicator.
- That treated skin will begin to lighten as the peel settles.
- After a few minutes, a cool compress will be applied to soothe your skin.
- You might feel stinging for up to 20 minutes.
During a deep chemical peel:
- You'll receive intravenous (IV) fluids and a sedative if necessary.
- Using a cotton-tipped applicator, your practitioner will apply carbolic acid (phenol).
- The treated skin should begin to turn white or grey.
- Your doctor will usually split the procedure into 15-minute sessions.
Aftercare guidance typically includes:
- Avoid excessive sun exposure.
- Regularly moisturising.
- Applying protective ointments.
- Avoiding picking, rubbing or scratching.
- Applying ice packs.
- Taking painkillers.
The time it takes to recover depends on which type you choose.
- Light peel - one to seven days.
- Medium peel - one to two weeks.
- Deep peel – skin will heal within a few weeks but may remain slightly red for months.
You should be able to use make-up to cover up any redness:
- Light peel - 24 hours.
- Medium Peel - five days.
- Deep peel - four weeks.
Chemical peel treatments – different types, and how they compare
Lactic acid peels
One of the gentlest peels in the pack, it has a naturally lower pH than others, so typically causes fewer side effect. Effectively hydrating.
Good for: melasma, wrinkles and fine lines.
Mandelic acid peels
They typically have larger particles which means they often cause minor irritation. However, this also means they a good option for those who have more sensitive skin, or first timers.
Good for: acne scars, sensitive skin.
These are classed as light to medium treatments.
Good for: fine lines, wrinkles, sunspots and acne.
Salicylic acid peels
A medium strength chemical peel often termed the gold standard, salicylic acid is fat-soluble and can penetrate pores producing excess sebum. Good for: acne, sun damage, fine lines.
Glycolic acid peels
These peels can vary in strength depending on the percentage of glycolic acid used and for what length of time they are left on the skin. Can be one of the deepest peels and penetrates the skin rapidly and so may cause irritation. Good for: hyperpigmentation, signs of ageing.
These continue to penetrate the skin up to 48 hours after application. Because of their intense effects, it's vital to prepare your skin with a barrier-strengthening serum for around 12 weeks before treatment. Best for: acne, signs of ageing.
TCA (trichloroacetic) peels
They provide medium to deep penetration, helping to resurface your skin. Best for: acne scars, hyperpigmentation.
These are some of the deepest available and must be done in a surgery as an outpatient procedure. Best for: deeper wrinkles.
Microdermabrasion – this treatment won't penetrate as deeply as some chemical peels, but there's no downtime and many benefits to repeated use.
Laser skin resurfacing – deeply penetrates the epidermis to stimulate cell regeneration and encourage collagen production for rejuvenated skin. It typically takes ten to 21 days to heal, although you may notice minor redness beyond this time frame.
Carbon peel – combines activate charcoal with a low-energy laser to exfoliate the skin, encouraging collagen production and healthy cell regeneration while tightening pores.
HydraFacial — non-invasive and with no downtime, a HydraFacial cleanses and exfoliates the skin using a mix of antioxidants.
Microneedling – another minimally invasive skin treatment designed to stimulate collagen and elastin production.
Face peeling treatment fact
- Early records show that the ancient Egyptians may have used sour milk as a form of skin peel thanks to its lactic acid content.
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