Quite simply, it's a chemical solution that causes dead skin cells to slough off. Different chemicals exfoliate in slightly different ways, but the end result is exfoliation (removal of dead skin cells). That's HOW a chemical peel works, the WHY is actually a little more long-term. The lack of dead skin cells sends a signal to the body to create more fresh, new cells and collagen (firming, filling protein in the skin). The resulting "healing phase" after a peel is nothing short of miraculous. The body is very good at repairing itself, and after a chemical peel the skin really steps up it's game.
Does it hurt?
Why yes, it does. The sensation during a chemical peel can range from mild itching to an intense sizzle. It depends on your pain threshold, the strength & chemical profile of the chosen peel, and possibly the amount of layers used. Estheticians will generally either fan you while the peel is on (to cool the skin & distract you) or give you a handheld mini-fan so you can angle it where you need it. The skin may feel a little tender and warm after the peel, but most of the sizzle happens while the chemicals are on the skin.
The only exception: arginine or retinoic acid peels. They feel easy-breezy, like applying a lotion.
How long will I peel for?
It varies, but in general you'll start to see visible flaking 2-3 days post-peel. The peeling can last anywhere from 1-10 days. It can be a mild flaking or it can look a little like you're molting, or like you put glue on your face and let it dry.
That sounds terrible. Why would anyone do that?
Because the end result is usually a VERY noticeable improvement in tone, texture, and glow. If you've had a Brazilian wax, then this should be a piece of cake. If you've given birth, this should be a piece of cake. It's sort of like getting a sunburn on purpose, only your skin looks BETTER afterwards, instead of worse ;)
- Lighten pigmentation
- Reduce sun damage
- Reduce wrinkles
- Reduce acne
- Reduce scarring
- Refine pores
- Reduce clogged pores
- Make your skin look younger and smoother
Will I turn red?
It's possible. I do lots of chemical peels, and some people do get quite red afterwards. It doesn't generally last more than an hour or three. The day of your peel should be a mellow, indoorsy sort of day. Plan for that, and you'll be in good shape. If you plan to hit up a hot yoga class or run a marathon after your peel, you will live to regret it. Redness will be mightily increased if you overheat your skin, or get sweaty within the first few of days after your peel.
I googled chemical peels and got really scared!
I have googled a ton of things and gotten really scared. Google is a scary place. As an aside, many of the people who post those photos did the peel themselves. A well-trained esthetician should be very knowledgeable about the chemicals they use. If anything out of the ordinary should happen, they are a great resource so you're not freaked out & alone. They're your coach, team mate, and cheerleader! Finding the right peel is essential for ethnic skin that tends to pigment after a breakout or abrasion. Be sure to have a thorough pre-peel consultation if that sounds like you.
What should I do to prepare for a peel?
- If you're using Accutane, stop taking it & wait 6 months before getting a peel, and get permission from your dermatologist.
- If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, wait till after.
- If you're using topical prescriptions, you'll need to stop using them 2-4 weeks before your peel (double check with your esthetician or dermatologist).
- If you have ever had a cold sore, start taking anti-viral medication at least 1 week prior to your peel, and continue it for at least 1 week after.
- If you're taking oral antibiotics, keep in mind they can cause serious sun sensitivity, so get permission from your dermatologist before getting a peel.
- Wait at least a week before & 2 weeks after your peel to get facial waxing.
- You'll also want to skip Benzoyl Peroxide for 1 week before your peel & after.
- Don't get IPL or laser hair removal for 2-4 weeks before & after your peel.
- Wait 2-4 months after your peel to get ablative laser treatments.
- If you have any allergies, check with the esthetician to make sure the chemical peel doesn't have the offending ingredients in it. Common issues: citrus (citric acid, ascorbic acid), aspirin (salicylic acid), mushrooms (kojic acid), almonds (mandelic acid), milk (lactic acid).
- Discontinue AHA, BHA or retinol-containing over-the-counter products 1 week prior to your peel.
How do I care for my skin after the peel?
For the first couple of days:
- Avoid getting sweaty or overheated. No cardio, sauna, hot tub, hot yoga, etc.
- Avoid the sun. I mean it. Act like you're allergic to the sun. Reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours during the day.
- If your skin feels tender & sunburned, do a cold compress or keep a spray bottle of water in the refrigerator and mist as needed.
- Use a gentle unscented cleanser (with no AHA, BHA, Benzoyl Peroxide or retinol), and an SPF during daylight hours. It's best not to use moisturizer unless you really need it during this period.
Once the visible peeling starts:
- When the peeling begins, add in a gentle healing balm (Aquaphor ointment, Emu Oil, or an esthetician-prescribed balm). I always provide a growth factor peptide product to stimulate the healing process, at this point you'll use whatever your esthetician recommends (it varies).
- Continue to avoid the sun. Keep that SPF handy and reapply it every 2 hours during the day.
- Don't pick! Don't scrub or use a washcloth or Clarisonic! As tempting as it will be, don't remove that skin. Glue it down with your healing balm and let it come off at it's own pace. Don't force it. Some of that skin is still attached, and removing it can result in scarring.
- If you get a "purge" breakout after a peel, get in touch with your esthetician. They can usually fit you in for a quick cleanup appointment to help clear that up. Purging can be good! Usually it's very superficial and heals quickly.
After the visible peeling has completely ended, you can pretty much go back to your regular routine (unless it involved prescription medications, ask your esthetician for advice). If your skin dries out, gets red or starts flaking again at that point, go back to your post-peel balm for another few days to a week.