Chemical peels are cosmetic treatments that can be done on the face, neck and hands. They are used to remove damaged skin cells and reveal a healthier layer of skin underneath. In this procedure chemical solutions are applied to the area that is being treated which causes the skin to exfoliate or “blister” and eventually peel off. Afterwards, the skin appears less wrinkled, smoother, and unblemished. This treatment is popular among people who want to reduce fine lines under the eyes and around the mouth, remove wrinkles, caused by aging or sun damage, improve the appearance of scars, treat acne, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, redness, or melasma, which is a condition that causes dark, discolored patches on your skin and often occurs due to pregnancy or taking birth control pills.
How chemical peels are done
A chemical peel is an outpatient procedure, done in a doctor’s office or in a surgery center. The treatment usually lasts from 30 to 90 minutes.
Chemical peels involve a thorough exfoliation of the face using acids. Depending on the type of peel you are getting, your provider may apply a topical anesthetic to the area that is being treated.
One or more chemical solutions will be applied to small areas of your skin. The most often used ones are glycolic acid, trichloroacetic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, or carbolic acid (phenol). Chemical peels affect visible outer layer of the skin (epidermis). The acid removes the damaged skin cells which creates a controlled wound and lets new skin take its place. The acid is applied first to the thicker areas of skin. When the treatment is done appropriately the skin will heal with minimal scarring or changes in skin color.
Types of chemicals peels
There are three different types of peels: light, medium, and deep. The best peel to get depends on the type and shade of your skin. For example, darker skin has a higher risk of scarring, lightening, or losing the ability to tan. People with whither skin on the other hand have lower risk of a chemical peel changing the color of their skin or scarring.
Chemical peels use different types of acids
Superficial peels use mild acids like alpha-hydroxy (glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid) and beta-hydroxy (salicylic acid). These peels only penetrate the outer layer of the skin and are perfect for people who just want a gentle exfoliation of the skin.
Medium peels use trichloroacetic or glycolic acid to reach the middle and outer layer of the skin. This makes it more effective for removing damaged skin cells.
Deep peels use powerful chemical agents like phenol or trichloroacetic acid to fully penetrate the middle layer of the skin and remove damaged skin cells.
Recovery, Possible Risks and Side Effects
Depending on the type of chemical peel you are getting, a reaction similar to sunburn may occur. This usually ends within three to seven days. Medium and deep peels may cause swelling and blisters that peel off over a period of one to three weeks. After the treatment you may need bandages applied to the area that has been treated. You will also need to avoid exposing your skin to sun, because it will be still pretty fragile.
When the procedure is performed by a licensed medical provider, it is said to be exceptionally safe. However, some skin types are more prone to temporal or permanent discoloration.
The common side effects are temporary – redness, dryness, stinging or burning, and slight swelling. If you get a deep peel you might permanently lose the ability to tan. Moreover, there is a risk of darkening or lightening of the skin color, especially if you have such skin conditions in your family history.
There is also a low risk of scarring in some areas of the face where the skin is thinner, such as the mouth and around the eyes. Some people are more likely to scar. However, if scarring does happen, it can usually be treated and eventually removed.
People, who have a history of herpes simplex (HSV) outbreaks, risk reactivating cold sores and experiencing flares. This can be prevented by asking your doctor to prescribe medication to help treat that. Very rarely, chemical peels can also cause fungal or bacterial infections.
Last but not least, although this is not likely to happen, it is important to mention that phenol used in deep peels can cause actual damage to the heart muscle, kidney, and liver, and cause irregular heartbeats.