If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "chemical peel" is Samantha Jones' scabbed, fiery face à la Sex and the City, you are not alone. In fact, when I attended a PCA Skin event during the annual AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) meeting last month—that haunting and iconic image of Jones seemed to be the macroscopic elephant in the room. Except, of course, that all-too-common association made between chemical peels and scabbing, flaking, and redness is a complete fallacy; a gross misrepresentation of what a quality, customized peel will look like. In fact, it was this exact misconception that the three industry-leading dermatologists leading the event were hoping to disprove. But would a borderline-terrified skeptic with sensitive, acne-prone skin (hi, that's me) be persuaded?
Two hours, countless assurances from fellow beauty editors, and my own peel experience later, the answer was a resounding yes. Hi, my name is Erin Jahns, and although in a previous life you couldn't have paid me to undergo a chemical peel (FYI: It still took some major cajoling), I'm now a believer. And thanks to my calm, cool, and collected post-peel complexion, I would like to spread the word. (Because I know I'm not the only Sex and the City devotee who vowed to swear off the idea of chemical peels forever.)
Because I am by no means an expert on the topic, I reached out to Dr. Candace Spann who was one of the three expert dermatologists speaking at the lunch. The main takeaway: Chemical peels for sensitive skin are indeed possible—but having information (courtesy of a world-renowned dermatologist) is key. And luckily, we have your back. Ahead are five must-know commandments concerning chemical peels for sensitive skin. (And for brownie points, I even included a selfie I took immediately post-peel to prove how very un-Samantha-like I looked immediately after the treatment.)
Meet the Expert
Candace Spann, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and co-owner of Couture Dermatology & Plastic Surgery in Las Vegas, Nevada. She specializes in treating a variety of skin cancers and disorders, as well as women's hair loss.
1. Know What You're Signing Up For
Interestingly, it's far more common to know (or think we know) the effects of a peel rather than the true purpose and process of the treatment. Therefore, I decided to ask Spann to break chemical peels down into the simplest of terms to gain a better understanding of what is happening to the skin during a treatment.
"A chemical peel uses acids to cause visible shedding of layers of the skin while simultaneously infusing the skin with ingredients intended to diminish lines, build collagen, and improve tone and texture—especially any degree of pigmentation," she explains.
Additionally, even if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, chemical peels will still benefit your complexion. For instance, Spann tells us that chemical peels can help treat a wide variety of concerns, by improving (and smoothing) your skin's texture and clarity. Her one stipulation: Your esthetician or dermatologist has to choose the right peel for your skin type, and if they're a qualified professional, this shouldn't be an issue.
2. Know That Chemical Peels Aren't One-Size-Fits-All
Perhaps obvious, perhaps not, but if I've learned anything over the past month while investigating chemical peels for sensitive skin, it's that customization is paramount where success is concerned. "One misconception is that one peel fits all skin types, and this is simply not true," Spann confirms. Her skin-strategic acid combinations are as follows:
For those with acne: Opt for a blend of lactic and salicylic acids.
For those with mature skin: Opt for a blend of TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and lactic acids.
For those with hyperpigmentation: It depends on the cause of hyperpigmentation, but TCA and lactic acids are generally the best options. Kojic acid is another ingredient to keep top of mind.
"The best bet is to find a certified professional in your area—they can determine the most effective treatment for you upon skin analysis," says Spann "PCA Professional Treatments (her brand of choice and the line behind my own lovely chemical peel) aren't timed or neutralized, so the clinician is in complete control at all times." And if you're nervous or want to walk into an appointment or consult with a safe recommendation in tow, Spann suggests PCA Skin's Sensi Peel—an option perfect for all skin types, even those with rosacea and other inflammatory skin conditions.
3. You Might Not Actually Have Sensitive Skin
When I began asking Spann what characterizes sensitive skin and the process behind choosing and administering chemical peels for this skin type, she made one thing perfectly clear: Not everyone who thinks they have sensitive skin has what would clinically be considered sensitive skin (aka rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, etc.). And since I have none of the above (but I am prone to breakouts and irritants in skincare), I'm probably guilty as charged.
"First we have to do a thorough skin analysis," Spann clarifies. "Many people think their skin is sensitive but they actually have been overusing product and making their skin sensitized. Most skin types aren't naturally sensitive—repairing the barrier is key. The Sensi Peel, as I mentioned earlier, is a great option for rosacea and any type of sensitive skin because it will actually reduce inflammation. At home, we want sensitive skin and acne patients to directly address the concerns at hand."
4. Choose a Professional and Qualified Clinician
Probably the most important commandment of all is choosing a clinician who is experienced and qualified to choose and administer a peel that is an appropriate blend and strength for your specific skin type. And if you do so, you needn't worry about any kind of negative side effects aside from a little bit of tingling and/or heat during the treatment and perhaps some flaking post-treatment. (Both of which are 100% normal and to be expected.) However, anything outside of that isn't normal and you should reach out to your clinician immediately.
"It's important for clinicians to have the training and so long they do, you will be in good hands. Many estheticians train under dermatologists and have an immense amount of knowledge," assures Spann. "The experience Samantha had on Sex and the City hurt chemical peels globally. Historically speaking, peels have been more aggressive in the past, but there are now many peels that allow you to immediately get back to everyday life—no downtime required."
Still wary? Take a look at my post-peel skin above, which I took a grand total of two minutes post-peel—no redness, no discomfort. And while, yes, the esthetician took it easy on my skin since it was my first time, my result seems to be the norm. In the days following the treatment, I had some redness and flaking around my nose and mouth (where my breakouts and scarring have set up camp this past year), but the flaking was minimal and nothing I was worried or self-conscious about.
5. Mind Your P's and F's
Aka your prep and frequency. (But don't worry—you won't have to make any major amendments before or after your chemical peel—despite common thought.)
"All skin types should use high-quality skincare products at home specifically chosen for their skin type. This will ensure their skin is in good shape prior to their treatment. For best results, a licensed professional should suggest an at-home regimen to help prep for a chemical peel. Also, stay away from retinoids for a week prior to the peel. Immediately following the treatment, I recommend PCA Skin's Post-Procedure Solution ($38) as the best bet for my clients. This will allow the skin to stay calm and hydrated after any in-office procedure," she says. Plus, always, always wear sunscreen (make it SPF 30 or above). Which begs the question: How often should sensitive skin type splurge for in-office treatments? According to Spann—and if your funds allow—every 30 days is optimal. "This is the perfect amount of time to get treatments for sensitive skin with superficial treatments," she explains.
And so, keeping these five commandments in mind, chemical peels for sensitive skin are definitely fair game. And coming from a previous skeptic, I've only become more and more obsessed with the results in the weeks following the procedure. As I said, I experienced minimal flaking and my skin has looked brighter, healthier, and much more even. Now I'm just counting down the days until I can get another—consider me addicted.
Saeedi M, Eslamifar M, Khezri K. Kojic acid applications in cosmetic and pharmaceutical preparations. Biomed Pharmacother. 2019;110:582-593.