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Need to Know: Chemical Peels

I made the mistake of putting a magnifying mirror on my holiday gift list. I thought I’d be thrilled not to need my reading glasses in order to tweeze my eyebrows or apply makeup. But instead of bringing me joy, this gift brought me angst, highlighting age spots and wrinkles that I had been blissfully unaware of before seeing my skin at 10x magnification.

I lamented these findings to a friend. She confided that she had the same issues and found a chemical peel helpful. I didn’t know much about it, so I decided to investigate.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

The American Society of Dermatologic Surgery describes the procedure like this: “A chemical solution is applied to the skin that causes it to exfoliate and eventually peel off. The new, regenerated skin is usually smoother and less wrinkled than the old skin.”

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, in 1997 chemical peels were the No. 1 requested cosmetic procedure. In the early 2000s, laser resurfacing and other techniques became more popular and requests for peels waned. But chemical peels are apparently making a comeback.

The Lunch-Time Peel

There are three types of peels: light, medium, and deep. Known as the “lunch-time peel,” light or superficial peels treat the outermost layer of skin and require no downtime (you can get it done on your lunch break and go right back to work, thus the nickname.) Light peels can be done in a doctor’s office, spa, or in your home.

Ellen Lange, professional skin care specialist and owner of Ellen Lange, which sells a popular at-home peel, says, “A light peel provides clients with deep exfoliation. Peels even out texture and tone, allowing other products, such as moisturizers, a better foundation to do their job. It will also help cosmetics to glide on more smoothly. Chemical peels help with acne, fine lines, discoloration, and large pores.”

To see results with an at-home peel, the key is consistency. Lange says, “You can go to the best trainer in the world to get fit, but if you don’t exercise on a regular basis, it won’t help. Same is true with light peels, which need to be done regularly to be effective. At-home versions allow clients to peel more frequently and produce similar results to those done by an aesthetician without the time commitment or expense.”

Medium and Deep Peels

Both medium and deep peels use strong chemical agents to penetrate midlayers of the skin. Medium and deep peels must be done in a medical office. 

Medium peels, also known as TCA (trichloroacetic acid) chemical peels, provide more dramatic results than light peels but don’t require the recovery time of a deep peel. After a medium peel, patients can expect redness, swelling, and flaking, similar to a bad sunburn. The recovery time is five to 10 days.

Deep (most commonly phenol) peels often require sedation to manage the discomfort, and the recovery time can be two to three weeks. After undergoing this procedure, patients can expect skin peeling, crusting, redness, and pain for several days to weeks. The plus side is that just one deep chemical peel can produce results that will last up to 10 years.

To Peel or Not to Peel?

With the trend toward natural products, the idea of using chemicals on the skin may sound unappealing, to say the least. Lange insists, “The ‘chemicals’ used in lighter peels are naturally occurring fruit acids, also known as alpha hydroxy acids, along with enzymes and natural microbeads.” (Lange has rebranded her at-home product as a “retexturing peel” to get away from the chemical stigma.)

Deciding whether to use a peel over another type of skin treatment depends on skin type, what issues you are trying to address, and budget. For hyperpigmentation, chemical peels may be more beneficial, but for textural issues (such as sagging skin, deep scars, or wrinkles) laser treatments or other cosmetic procedures are preferable. Risks of peels include changes in skin color, prolonged redness, and in rare cases permanent scarring. After a medium or deep chemical peel, patients should avoid sun exposure, since the skin is extra sensitive; for light peels, sunscreen may provide enough protection.

The best way to determine what is right for your skin is to consult with a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon. After reading about chemical peels, I plan to make an appointment with my own doctor to see if this would work on my skin concerns (or I may just return the magnifying mirror, which could also solve the problem).

Photo: Rido Franz

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