Perhaps surprisingly, all peels aren’t created equal—the magic is in selecting the right one for you
Chemical peel. The words tend to conjure up a picture of a raw, red complexion shedding layer upon layer of skin. It sounds bad, but really there are many levels of chemical peel—quite a few, in fact, that offer very effective ways of working near magic. Simply put, “a chemical peel is a procedure during which an acid is applied to the skin resulting in skin peeling,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s department of dermatology. This can happen at a dermatologist or esthetician’s office, or at home. “The acid creates a controlled wound in the skin that heals up with a cosmetically improved appearance and improved collagen production,” he adds. Remember, acid isn’t always as harsh as you might think—we regularly use all types of acids in daily skincare regimens.
Says Zeichner, “there are different types of acids that penetrate into the skin at varying depths,” which dictate what issues they’ll target. In fact, there’s no real age limit to when a person is first eligible for a peel. “Rather than age, the issue is more the particular skin concern. For example, salicylic acid peels are performed in the office to treat acne; glycolic acid or tricholoracetic acid is better suited for pigmentation, fine lines and abnormal texture.” Some treatments, like the Brazilian Peel, offer professional-strength results in a self-neutralizing formula (which means it has a fail-safe mechanism and “switches off” by itself to prevent damage) straight from Sephora.
However, the rule of thumb is that over-the-counter peels are generally less potent than those you’ll get in the derm’s chair. The first thing to know when considering a peel—which can treat acne, irregular pigmentation, sun spots, melasma, fine lines and wrinkles and/or irregular skin texture—is what you’re getting. “There are definitely light lunchtime peels,” says Zeichner. “To get maximal improvement from these, patients often require multiple treatment sessions every few weeks.” Similarly, with the dermatologist’s favorite at-home peels—Bliss That’s Incredi-‘Peel’ Glycolic Resurfacing Pads, Proactiv Purifying Botanical Peel, Peter Thomas Roth Clinical Peel & Reveal and Elemis Papaya Enzyme Peel—you won’t experience much in the way of annoying side effects, but don’t over-use them (once a month is ideal).
Alternately, “the more effective peels hurt. You will feel burning on the face for about 10 minutes.” Additionally, you’ll really peel—like true sheets of dead skin peeling off over one week (Zeichner strongly advises against ever pulling off the dead skin to avoid a negative outcome and scarring), and you must be very cautious in the sun as the new skin is especially sensitive to sunburn. In a professional setting, Zeichner recommends a 30% TCA peel for remedying pigmentation and skin texture issues in patients with light skin tones, while Jessner’s peel targets those issues for darker skin tones.
When in doubt, “err on the side of caution and check with your derm first,” says Zeichner. “And don’t try a peel for the first time before a big event [without] at least two to four weeks of healing time. Promises that seem too good to be true usually are.”