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Everything You Need to Know About Peels, As Told By an Expert

  • 9 min read

When we talk about products or services that provide the most dewy, youthful appearance possible, the first thing that comes to mind is often the almightychemical peel.Whether you need a full dermal overhaul or just want to give your normal skincare routine a little boost, there is no doubt a peel for the job (given that  some contraindicated conditions aren’t relevant to you). 

Trouble is, even the termpeelsounds intimidating. There are a lot of questions to be answered before jumping in face-first. (And our clients ask them all the time!) 

What exactl  is  a chemical peel? 

What does it do, anyway?

How do I know which peel is right for me?

Are at-home peels safe? 

Is any of this even effective?

Ahead, we’ll cut through the noise and arm you with all the information necessary to achieve your healthiest, glowiest skin yet. 

What is a Chemical Peel?

A chemical peel is an acidic substance (or blend of acidic substances), used most often on the face. Depending on the type of peel you get, they can treat anything from fine lines and mild discoloration to scars – and even   precancerous lesions!

What Are the Different Types of Peels?

Generally speaking, there are three different types of peels, categorized by how deeply they penetrate the skin. 

Light Chemical Peels

Light chemical peels treat the most superficial layer: the epidermis. They work by breaking down the sugars in the skin, essentially forcing this topmost layer to shed more quickly than it would on its own and revealing soft, glowy, new skin.

Light peels are used most often to target fine lines, rough skin texture, acne, dryness, and uneven skin tone. You may need to repeat light peels every few weeks to achieve or maintain your desired result.

Barring an adverse response to the chemicals (such as an allergic reaction), skin may appear slightly irritated for a few hours to a couple of days, but there will never be any genuine ‘downtime’ involved with a light chemical peel.

Medium Chemical Peels

Like light peels, medium chemical peels work magic on the epidermis – but they also dig a little deeper, reaching the upper parts of the middle layer of skin (the dermis). Since they’re able to reach cells in deeper layers of the skin, they can be used to treat more stubborn maladies, like acne scarring. Depending on what you’re hoping to achieve, you may need to repeat a medium depth peel – but not so routinely as light peels.

With medium peels, you can expect 7 - 14 days of downtime. Skin is likely to be quite red and tender (much like a bad sunburn) for the first few days, after which point you may experience continued discomfort, swelling, scabbing, and/or flaking. You can safely expect to get back to most usual activities after two weeks.

*Note: Laws may vary by state, but licensed aestheticians are generally permitted to provide both light- and medium-depth peels.

Deep Chemical Peels

As the name suggests, these peels reach the deepest layers of your skin possible (with acidic technology). Deep peels can only be performed by a medical professional and are typically recommended for individuals with moderate wrinkles, severe sun damage, blotchy skin, or actinic keratosis. A deep peel should never be repeated.

Due to the invasive nature of deep peels, your doctor will provide you with instructions for pre-treatment preparation, which you’ll need to execute in the two weeks leading up to the procedure. 

Downtime is significant with deep peels – about 2 to 3 weeks. Your face will be bandaged for a few days. Once the bandages are removed, an aftercare regimen of soaks, ointment application, and antiviral medication is necessary. Other rules apply, too – i.e., no sun exposure for 3 - 6 months, at least two weeks before makeup application, etc.

At-home Peels

Given their recent – pandemic-fueled –meteoric rise, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention the at-home peel. In order to be performed safely, at-home peels should fall into thelightcategory.Within that category, though, there are several different types of peels, which most popularly fall into a couple of different designations:

  • Enzyme peels: These are great for sensitive skin types that do not tolerate acid well. By contrast to acid-based peels, enzyme peels don’t actually encourage cell turnover – but theydo slough off dead skin and other epidermal buildup to reveal the glowy skin beneath. Bonus points: they also tend to minimize the appearance of pores.

  • AHA/BHA peels: These hydroxy powerhouses receive a lot of attention in the peel world  – and for good reason!

    AHAs (think: glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids) are intense exfoliators often praised for their resurfacing and anti-aging benefits, such as smoothing surface wrinkles, treating hyperpigmentation, and minimizing pores.

    BHAs (think: salicylic acid) are most often used to treat combination or oily skin. These acids dive deep into hair follicles, drying out excess oil and sloughing off dead skin cells, leaving pores clean and clear of debris – and skin free to breathe!

    Some products (like ourTru Rx Peel Pads) harness the power of both AHAs and BHAs (along with lactic and mandelic acids) to provide clean, brilliant results. 

Ask Cynthia: Answers to Your Most Pressing Peel Questions

Learn more about Cynthia – Licensed Holistic Esthetician and Founder of Tru Skincare –here!

Do I need to see a doctor for a peel?

Depending on the type of peel you're interested in and the state where you’re receiving your treatment, the laws and limitations for aestheticians’ scope of practice can vary wildly and it may or may not be necessary to see a doctor for a peel. 

Regardless of whether you’re able to see an aesthetician or will need to see a doctor, it’s critical that you do your due diligence. Seek out a professional either through a trusted referral or find someone who has stellar (authentic) online reviews. 

When you go in for your appointment, any reputable doctor or aesthetician will dedicate time to discussing your needs and goals, assessing your skin, setting expectations, and addressing any questions and concerns before your treatment to put you at ease. 

I can't express this strongly enough:youneverneed to go through with a treatment that you're not completely comfortable with or feel pressured into. You always have the right to opt for another service or cancel your appointment altogether if you're not comfortable with the practitioner or service you’re seeking. Even if there's a charge for canceling without notice, it's no comparison to what could come from going ahead with a treatment that makes you uneasy. 

Can I use a scrub if I do a peel?

Yes and no. 

Both peels and scrubs are exfoliants. It's somewhat customary when receiving a professional peel for the practitioner to exfoliate the skin with a manual exfoliant (i.e. a scrub, dermabrasion, or dermaplane) before administering a chemical peel. However, using a manual exfoliantafter a chemical peel could cause damage to the skin, since the peel takes off layers of the epidermis (the outer layers of skin), which in turn renders the skin much more fragile and vulnerable to damage as it goes through its recovery process. 

Think of it like rubbing sandpaper on a sunburn – same idea, similar outcome. 

Personally, I am not a fan of manual exfoliants for home use. They can tend to be ineffective as the exfoliation is not uniform, they can cause scratches on the skin that actually result in more buildup than you started with, and they are easily overdone with too much pressure causing damage to healthy skin tissue. This is why I don't offer scrub exfoliants in my product line.

Is it safe to go in the sun with all types of peels?

Here's the bottom line:any peel will make skin more vulnerable to damage from sun exposure – period. That said, the depth of the peel dictateshow muchyou should restrict sun exposure.

A light peel (from using yourat-home peel pads, for example) would call for using a facial sunscreen of 30 SPF (or higher, depending on factors such as altitude, and intensity of the sun where you are). 

A peel done by a professional (licensed aesthetician or at a medical practice) might call for more precautions – for example: use of a higher mineral SPF, wearing a large brim hat, or, in some cases, staying out of the sun completely for a period of time. 

Your practitioner will advise you on the appropriate protocol post-peel, so listen carefully and follow their guidelines closely for a fabulous post-peel outcome!

Are chemical peels toxic?

The reality is that most of the "chemicals” in a peel are nothing more than natural acids made from botanicals (plants or the fruit from plants). There are other chemicals that are in a different class – such as Jesner and TCA – which I've opted not to offer in my practice or products. The Jesner peel contains resorcinol, which can be toxic, and the TCA peel contains both phenol and trichloroacetic acid, both of which come with concerns.

What if I get cold sores; can I still do a peel?

The short answer is yes. 

That said, I’m going to go down the rabbit hole just a bit here: when a peel is performed, (and this stands true even when using many toners!) we are actually creating a "controlled wound". The skin has an incredible ability to repair itself – and that repair process is literally what presents the coveted benefits that peels provide. 

Your skin is your body's forcefield – its first line of defense against the toxins of the outside world. As such, when it’s compromised, your body dedicates every available resource to repairing it before defending anything else. Depending on the depth of the peel you select, that repair process can put significant stress on the body as a whole. 

We can look to strength training as a useful analogy. When you perform strength training of any kind, you’re imposing tiny tears on the active muscles. Once the body recognizes those tears, it immediately sets to repairing the tissue – which makes them stronger in the end, but can consume a great deal of energy in the meantime (with respect to the intensity of your workout). 

Returning to the skin: if you’re predisposed to cold sores and your immune system is busy dedicatingall of its energy to defending and rebuilding your body’s forcefield, it becomes more likely that cold sores will surface. 

All of this said, takinglysine or antiviral medications (as prescribed by your doctor) prior to your peel may minimize your risk of developing cold sores. 

Can I use peel pads every day?

Many say yes, but I advise against it. 

Going back to the strength training example above: targeting the same muscle groups day after day doesn’t give your muscle tissue an opportunity to rebuild and can ultimately lead to injury. 

Your skin is exactly the same! 

Submittingany part of your body to continued stress without allowing it time to rebuild is unhealthy – and, in the case of skin, it’s counterintuitive to creating a healthy, beautiful appearance. 

A short note on graduated tolerance

You wouldn’t walk into the gym for the first time ever – or after months without training – pick up 50 pound dumbbells, and start doing squats, right? You start small, and work your way up as your muscle tissue tears, repairs, and strengthens. 

Again, your skin is the same! When starting to use peel pads at home without previous regular exposure to those compounds, I always recommend starting with one pad the first week, working up to two nights the second week, and – if well tolerated (no excessive dryness or irritation) – increasing to three nights a week moving forward. The same kind of precautions should be taken with any at-home peel treatment.

Can I do a peel if I'm pregnant?

I suspect you know it's coming here, but here it is anyway:"Always ask your doctor before doing anything new while pregnant or nursing”.

Once your doctor has given the green light, using "pregnancy/nursing safe" peels can be a wonderful thing for helping with breakouts and/or discoloration that can come with pregnancy. 

Acne and hyperpigmentation maintenance often leans heavily on salicylic acid or retinoids – both of which are discouraged for those who are pregnant. There are some great alternatives, though! I like to use lactic and fruit acids, as well as vitamin C to brighten and even out the skin of my pregnant clients.

What if I use Retin-A or another retinoid; can I still do a peel?

If you're using a retinoid, it'sdefinitely best to consult a professional before doing any type of a peel treatment – whether at home or in a professional setting. Retinoids’ effect on the condition of the skin varies incredibly from person to person, so it's nearly impossible to assess what your skin can tolerate without seeing it first.

Peels may feel intimidating, but so long as you know what you want to achieve and what to expect from the depth of peel you need – and have a trusted professional in your back pocket to help through the process, where necessary – you’re well on your way to your healthiest glow yet.

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