Chemical peels have come a long way from being invasive treatments. Back in the day, we would think of them as very aggressive skin treatments. These days, we have lunch peels. How is that possible? It’s because there are different types of chemical peels. And because of convenience, some have become more popular than others.
Chemical peels have long been one of the most popular facial treatments for several skin issues like acne, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles. They also work great for more severe conditions like sagginess, acne marks, and severely sun-damaged skin.
As in-office treatments, chemical peels are basically controlled damages to the skin using chemical solutions to activate skin rejuvenation through skin resurfacing.
The treatment sounds scary for most people. And for others, it’s hard to decide among different types of chemical peels because of confusing buzzwords like AHAs and BHAs.
Below, you’ll learn about different types of chemical peels, what they do, and which one to get for your specific skin issues. This is to give you a general idea about professional chemical peels.
What is a Chemical Peel?
In the simplest way, chemical peels are peeling of the face using chemical solutions (1). These solutions are different acids that irritate the skin in a controlled manner. This irritation causes the skin to switch to a “repair and renew mode”.
The skin starts to peel, resurfacing a healthier layer. This resurfacing is what makes a chemical peel ideal treatment for acne, wrinkles, dull skin, damaged and textured skin, and several other skin concerns.
Chemical peels are controlled damages to the skin to promote healing and rejuvenation. They increase collagen production to address multiple skin issues.
The results, downtime, and side effects vary depending on the type of chemical peel you’re getting. Also, all peels are customizable and can be tailored to your needs.
A professional chemical peel requires a dermatologist or a licensed physician. It’s not something to be taken lightly.
What Are The Different Types Of Chemical Peels?
This is where it gets confusing for people. Because unlike the peels we do at home, in-office chemical peels are classified differently.
At-home peels can differ depending on the acid used. But that’s not the way professional chemical peels work. Chemical peels are classified into three categories based on the depth of peeling, as in how many skin layers will be affected.
Basically, there are 3 different types of chemical peels: light peel, medium peel, and deep peel (2). The deeper the peel, the deeper the penetration of the skin. The price and downtime increase accordingly as you move from light to deep peels.
Additionally, the depth of the peel is usually what determines the acid that’s going to be used. As an example, some chemical acids are used in light peels but don’t work as well or are avoided in a medium-depth peel.
1. Light Peels
Light peels are the most gentle form of chemical peels. You can get one in a dermatologist’s office and it takes about half an hour. Light peels are commonly referred to as lunch peels -meaning you can get them during your lunch break.
Also, the acids in this category are the ones commonly used in skincare products, but with significantly lower concentrations, of course.
All acids in a light peel work the same way. They dissolve the bond between the dead skin cells and stimulate exfoliation (3). Light peels only affect the outermost layer of the skin.
A light peel is like a glorified exfoliation. Again, the focus is the lightness of the peel here. So consider different acids simply as tools to customize the peel. Using different acids doesn’t change the level of peeling.
It’s the same action just with a different acid. Additionally, there is usually no visible peeling after a light peel. As these are gentle procedures, you may need more than one treatment to achieve significant results.
Glycolic Acid Peel
Glycolic acid is the most common acid used in light chemical peels. It’s the gold standard as it’s one of the best-performing chemical exfoliants. Glycolic acid belongs to the alpha-hydroxy acids family, commonly known as AHAs.
This acid is derived from sugar cane. And it has the tiniest molecular structure. This makes the acid penetrate the skin very deep and very fast.
When used in a light peel, it dissolves the bond holding the dead skin cells together and breaks them apart. That way, it exfoliates the outer layer of the skin.
Glycolic acid peels treat superficial pigmentation and fade dark spots. They clarify the skin and brighten up the texture. Additionally, they soften fine lines and wrinkles and reveal younger-looking skin.
Even though glycolic acid peels are ideal for all skin types, they can be irritating for dry and sensitive skin. It’s mostly suitable for normal and combination skin. But all in all, a light glycolic acid peel is the gentlest chemical peel you can get.
Lactic Acid Peel
Lactic acid is also an alpha-hydroxy acid and it’s derived from milk. It’s another effective exfoliant like glycolic acid. But the difference is that lactic acid has a larger molecular size. This makes it less penetrating but less irritating as well.
Lactic acid is used in light peels when glycolic acid can be too sensitizing. That’s why it’s the ideal peel for sensitive skin types. Lactic acid peel offers gentle exfoliation of the outer layer of the skin.
Similar to glycolic acid, it improves your complexion by clarifying the skin, evening out the skin tone, and shrinking enlarged pores.
It gently resurfaces the skin, improves the look of superficial lines, and it’s super helpful in revitalizing dull and tired skin.
Lactic acid peels are ideal for dry and sensitive skin types as lactic acid is the most gentle acid and isn’t aggressive like the other ones. It also has hydrating effects on the skin.
Salicylic Acid Peel
Salicylic acid belongs to the beta-hydroxy acids family (BHAs) and is derived from willow bark. The difference between the two hydroxy acids is that AHAs are water-soluble whereas BHAs are oil-soluble.
That’s why a salicylic acid peel works best for oily skin (4). Apart from the anti-aging properties, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties as well.
It’s the ideal peel to treat mild acne and congested skin. It exfoliates the outermost layer of the skin, cleans the debris clogging the pores, and removes acne-causing bacteria.
It balances out oil production, improves enlarged pores, and prevents breakouts. Salicylic acid peel is ideal for oily and acne-prone skin and can be combined with other acids as well.
2. Medium Peels
A medium peel is more aggressive than a light peel. You usually don’t get these during your lunch break. The recovery can take up to 10 days, but irritation and redness may linger for several months.
A medium peel usually targets the outermost layer of the skin as well as the upper part of the middle layer. Also, there is visible peeling of the skin in a medium-depth peel.
Additionally, you may need topical anesthesia as medium peels do hurt. Medium peels require more caution and carry more side effects (5).
You can achieve better results, visibly smoother and brighter skin with a medium peel. But know that there are several factors that might compromise your results. Your skin will have to heal from all this damage.
And depending on your age, physical health, whether you’re a smoker or not, it may take longer for your skin to heal from the peel and you might have to deal with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
The most common acid used in medium-depth peels is trichloroacetic acid, aka TCA. Also, the acids used in light peels can also be used in medium peels but with higher concentrations.
TCA refers to trichloroacetic acid. Depending on the strength and the concentration of the acid used, TCA can also be classified as a deep peel.
A TCA peel causes more irritation but gives equally dramatic results. It’s a great anti-aging treatment because the peel promotes collagen growth and skin renewal on a much deeper level.
TCA doesn’t work like, say, a glycolic acid peel. Because TCA behaves differently and that’s why it’s stronger than the acids used in light peels. TCA peels create a slight frosting on the skin when applied to the skin.
It treats moderate signs of photoaging, wrinkles, mild to severe sun damage, acne scars, pigmentation issues, and other skin issues that need a more aggressive intervention.
3. Deep Peels
This is the most aggressive type of chemical peel and isn’t as common as the other ones. Deep peels give drastic results but the recovery time is too intimidating and can really be painful.
A phenol peel is the strongest type of chemical peel. This procedure requires a certified physician and can only be done once in a lifetime.
They’re not common procedures as the recovery time can take up to several months. This means that there’s a greater risk of infection and other complications.
Among all types of chemical peels, phenol peel gives the most dramatic results. The acid used in this peel penetrates deeper layers of the skin and treats advanced signs of aging, very deep-set wrinkles, loose skin, severe sun damage, and pigmentation.
It’s more common among people aged 50+. Some deep peels even require sedation. At this point, deep peels are not as common as there are less painful and more practical ways to treat those age-related skin issues.
What Is It Like To Get a Chemical Peel?
This is to give you a very general idea about what the treatment looks like so that you know if it’s for you or not.
Say you’re getting a light peel. They apply the acid on your skin with a thin brush applicator. The peel has to be spread out evenly. And it only stays on the skin for about 5 minutes. Yes, that short!
It’s because the acids are incredibly strong. After that, there’s usually a neutralizing agent involved. It’s to neutralize the acid to prevent further peeling.
As you can gather, there are things that can go wrong. And that’s why you should never trust anyone with your skin except professionals.
Low price has its own price. To avoid irreversible damage to your skin, do your research. You can walk into a spa and get a basic facial. No questions asked! But to get a chemical peel, you need to give consent.
But know that it’s difficult to generalize these things. It’s because of the highly customizable nature of chemical peels. A salicylic acid peel, for example, can be used to prep the skin for another peel.
Similalrly, there are other peels we didn’t mention such as Jesner’s peel or other agents we didn’t include like resorcinol or pyruvic acid.
But in sum, these are the different types of chemical peels and how they work. Hopefully, you now have a better idea about what to expect from each.
You can refer to the sources below for further reading.
- Soleymani, T., Lanoue, J., & Rahman, Z. (2018). A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels: A Review of Fundamentals and Step-by-step Algorithmic Protocol for Treatment. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 11(8), 21–28.
- O’Connor, A. A., Lowe, P. M., Shumack, S., & Lim, A. C. (2018). Chemical peels: A review of current practice. The Australasian journal of dermatology, 59(3), 171–181. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajd.12715
- Baran, R., & Maibach, H., I. (2017). Chemical peels [E-book]. In Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology (5th ed., pp. 498–509). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1201/9781315160504
- Castillo, D. E., & Keri, J. E. (2018). Chemical peels in the treatment of acne: patient selection and perspectives. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 11, 365–372. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S137788
- Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Chapter 48: Medium depth chemical peels [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (2nd ed., pp. 384–392). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118655566
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