A Beginner’s Guide to Chemical Peels

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Skincare obsessees often joke about using all the acids to peel off their skin, we can’t get enough of acids, AHAs, and enzymes. This form of exfoliation is no joke as it’s one of the most effective treatments one can get for many skin concerns. Chemical peels are a more aggressive form of physical and manual exfoliation because they can reach deeper layers of the skin. As a future esthetician, I’ve practiced and received many chemical peels in school and wanted to share some of my knowledge for the beginners out there that may be curious about this treatment.

What is a Chemical Peel?

A chemical (chem) peel is a treatment that uses various ingredients (acids, enzymes, phenol, etc.) to help remove dead skin cells from the epidermis, kick-start new skin cell production from the upper dermis (papillary) or intensely treat skin conditions in the lower dermis (reticular).

To understand this further knowing the layers of the skin is important. There are 3 layers of the skin. The epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. The epidermis, the outermost layer, has 5 layers (or strata) and is where cell production happens. Skin cells are produced at the basil layer (bottom layer) and work their way up to the stratum corneum (top layer) where these cells rest and are the ones getting exfoliated off. The dermis is the middle layer and holds all the connective tissues found in the skin. This includes the ever popular collagen and elastin. Finally, the hypodermis is the bottom layer that is composed of 80% fat and is responsible for creating our body’s contour and smoothness.

What Ingredients are used in Chem Peels?

The ingredients and ingredient concentration determine the results of any peel. Very superficial peels are the peels you can buy in a bottle from any beauty section. These products are not necessarily peels as much as they are a chemical exfoliant marketed as a peel. Very superficial peels contain enzymes (which I wrote all about here), AHAs, and BHAs in small concentrations to help remove dead skin cells from the stratum corneum.

Superficial peels are the peels performed by estheticians. These peels often start with a mild enzymatic exfoliation followed by a glycolic acid (AHA), lactic acid (AHA), or salicylic acid (BHA) application. In a correct concentration, these are active ingredients with a moderate strength and have the ability to reach all of the epidermis.

Lactic Acid Chem Peel by Dermalogica

Medium level peels should be received by a certified medical esthetician or in a dermatologists office. These peels include TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and Jessner’s peels. A Jessner’s peel includes a blend of salicylic acid, resorcinol, and lactic acid all mixed in ethanol – so not a treatment that should be received casually. These peels reach the papillary (upper) layer of the dermis.

Medical peels are the strongest and often require the patient to be under anesthetic. These deep peels commonly contain phenol (a Baker’s peel) – a crazy intense ingredient that should be handled carefully. These peels reach the reticular (lower) layer of the dermis. This is significant because the reticular layer contains the majority of our skin’s collagen and elastin which we are literally fighting against age to not loose. So attacking this layer with a strong ingredient like phenol needs to be performed by a doctor.

What are the Benefits of a Chem Peel?

Chem peels are such popular treatment options because they work for so many skin types and conditions. Talking with your esthetician/dermatologist is the best way to determine which type of peel and ingredients will work best for your skin and skin goals. Very Superficial peels are the ideal at-home chemical exfoliation in my opinion – enzymes are crazy gentle and have almost no side effects. Superficial peels (the type I’ve received/given in class) provides an intense exfoliation, help retexture skin temporarily, give a lovely overall glow, help reduce the appear of acne scars, sometimes treat acne and breakouts, and eliminate blackheads.

Medium-level chem peels get a bit more intense. Since they are reaching the deeper layers of the skin these peels can help with signs of aging, work on eliminating the appearance of acne scars, and assist in evening out and reducing hyperpigmentation. Dark skin tones need to be very cautious with medium to deep chemical peel – misapplication, treatment or ingredient concentration can cause irregular pigmentation or hypopigmentation (non-curable). These types of peels are not typically recommended to those with darker skin tones, I would speak with your esthetician/doctor about seeking alternative treatment.

Finally, deep/medical peels are the most intense form of a chemical peel. This is the treatment that gives chem peels their name – the skin will actually peel off in layers, requiring lots of recovery time and infection control. Receiving a medical chem peel also usually requires multiple weeks of recovery so a lot of thought should be put into this process before receiving the peel.

How to Care for your Skin Post-Peel

I received a question on IG a while back asking if those with sensitive skin can get chem peels – and the answer is yes! Using proper pre- and post-treatment will definitely help minimize any unwanted side effects. One good thing to keep in mind is that after a chem peel your skin basically becomes sensitive – it has a fresh layer of exposed skin cells that have not been assimilated to the outer layer yet. A typical chem peel would start with cleansing (particularly a cleansing gel to help remove all the oil) and a skin analyze so the esthetician can see what they are working with. After the treatment, the esthetician should apply a cooling gel/moisturizer to help calm the skin, and if given during the daytime, an SPF moisturizer. Using sunscreen is the golden rule of chem peels, you cannot start your day without it, since you have extra sensitive skin now is the time to protect it as much as possible. Additionally, using products with minimal fragrance and extracts will help keep the skin calm. Finally, hydration is key – keeping the skin cells nourished will help the whole recovery process go over smoothly.

So there you have it – my very long beginners guide to chemical peels! Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to share an experience they had with a peel – I’d love to hear! Email me at chemofcosmetics@gmail.com or hit me up on any of my social media accounts!

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