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Updated December 16, 2014.
What Is a Chemical Peel?
Light chemical peels are extremely popular treatments offered at day spas , salons and dermatology offices. They are the most superficial of all chemical peels, so there is no downtime. In fact, these peels are often called “lunchtime peels” because you can get one done quickly over a lunch hour and return to work directly afterwards.
During a light chemical peel treatment, the skin is exfoliated using an alpha or beta hydroxy acid. Done in a series, these peels can improve mild to moderately severe cases of acne, and can be given over the face or other body area where acne is a problem. Light chemical peels are also used to soften the look of fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin texture and fade discolorations.
The price of your peel is largely determined by the size of the area being treated. The bonus of having a peel done at a day spa or salon is that they are often incorporated into a relaxing facial treatment. Some salons do charge extra for this, so make sure to ask what is included in the price of the treatment.
How it Works:
Chemical peels don’t really peel the skin, despite what the name implies. They rapidly exfoliate the skin, allowing dead skin cells to shed more effectively. By keeping dead skin cells and excess oil from clogging the hair follicle , pore blockages ( comedones ) and pimples can be drastically reduced.
Your clinician will most likely use glycolic acid as the peeling agent. Glycolic acid is a well-known AHA derived from sugar cane, and is used most frequently for light chemical peel treatments. But beta hydroxy acid peels are quickly gaining popularity.
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are close cousins to AHAs, and work in much the same way. BHAs are especially helpful at dissolving excess oil buildup within the pores, and they tend to be less irritating than AHAs. Salicylic acid, a familiar and effective anti-acne ingredient, is the most commonly used BHA for chemical peel treatments.
What to Expect During Your Peel:
During a light chemical peel treatment, the skin is first thoroughly cleansed and dried. Next, the AHA or BHA is applied to the face. The exfoliating agent is generally thin, almost water-like in its consistency, and is applied with a small brush, cotton pad or large cotton swab.
You will feel a warming sensation soon after the exfoliating agent is applied. Some people say they feel just a slight stinging; others describe it as more of a burning. The length of time the peeling agent is left on varies, but the average is about 10 minutes. Many clinicians use small, hand-held fans to gently cool the skin during the peel, which can keep you more comfortable during the treatment.
Next, the peel is removed with cool water and a neutralizing agent. The skin is dried and the peel is complete. If your peel is being incorporated into a full facial treatment, the clinician will follow with a soothing mask application, facial massage (optional), toning and lightly moisturizing.
After your peel, your skin will look like it’s sunburned. This redness can fade in just a few hours time or last up to five days, depending on the strength of the peeling agent used and how long it was left on the skin. It’s OK to use makeup to conceal the redness.
Many dermatologists and some estheticians will ask you to use a special cleanser and/or moisturizer with sunscreen for two or so weeks before your peel. And depending on your skin’s needs, your doctor may also prescribe a retinoid, such as Retin A, for use prior to treatment. These steps help to fully prepare your skin for a chemical peel. Ask the clinician performing your peel what steps you should take before coming in for your treatment.
Possible Side Effects:
The most common side effects of a light chemical peel treatment are:
- redness, peeling or flaking of the skin
- burning during the treatment
More serious redness and irritation can occur, but it’s fairly rare. Let the clinician performing your peel know if you feel uncomfortable burning during the treatment.
If you are using any prescription medications, you must get your doctor’s approval before having a chemical peel. This includes oral medications, like Accutane, or medications for issues other than acne.
Tell the clinician performing your peel about all acne treatments you are using, including over-the-counter products. Also, be sure to let them know about the skin care products you are currently using, especially if they contain AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, etc.) or salicylic acid.
Getting the Most from Your Chemical Peel:
- If you are using any prescription medication, always get your dermatologist’s OK before having a light chemical peel.
- Remember to wear sunscreen daily. Your skin will be more prone to sunburn and sun damage for some time after your peel. Choose a noncomedogenic brand that won’t clog your pores.
- Medicated cleansers, such as those containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, can sting if used after a chemical peel. Instead, use a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil or Dove for a few days, or until your skin heals.
- Although your skin will feel softer and smoother after just one session, you will get the best results with a series of treatments. To treat acne, the sessions are usually spaced one to two weeks apart.
- Ask your doctor what acne treatment medications, if any, you should use while having a series of light chemical peels done.
“Chemical Peeling.” American Academy of Dermatology. 29 Sep 2006. American Academy of Dermatology, Web. Accessed 7 Nov 07.
Kessler E, Flanagan K, Chia C, Rogers C, Glaser DA. “Comparison of alpha and beta hydroxy acid chemical peels in the treatment of mild to moderately severe facial acne vulgaris.” Dermatologic Surgery 2008; 34(1): 45-51.