If the term "chemical peel" still makes you a little squirmy, we get it. For many of us, the concept is permanently linked to the image of Samantha's raw, red face in that iconic SATC episode. But chemical peels—neither the in-office version nor their at-home, DIY counterparts—are something to fear. Rather, they're an invaluable tool in your skin-perfecting arsenal with the ability to offer a laundry list of varied benefits and address a boatload of complexion concerns. Still, in order to avoid over-exfoliating, it is important to understand that peels are powerful—proper use is key, and we mean key, to ensuring the best results. And that's dually true when it comes to at-home peels you're administering yourself. So in order to help set you up for skincare success, we went straight to the pros. Ahead, cosmetic dermatology expert Dr. Kenneth Mark and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Annie Gonzalez weigh in on everything you need to know before you DIY a chemical peel.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Kenneth Mark is a renowned cosmetic dermatologist with offices in Southampton, East Hampton, New York City, and Aspen. He also specializes in Mohs’ skin cancer surgery, plastic reconstructive surgery, and cosmetic procedures including lasers, peels, and injectables.
- Dr. Annie Gonzalez is a dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Miami. She specializes in general and cosmetic dermatology and is experienced in treating patients with various skin disorders including acne, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, alopecia and skin cancers.
Why Use a Chemical Peel?
"Chemical peels are the unsung heroes of dermatology," says Mark. "Benefits include exfoliation, unclogging pores, treating and preventing acne, fading blemishes, producing a more radiant glow, and, when done consistently, stimulating collagen to minimize fine lines and wrinkles," he explains. Because at-home products are less potent than in-office versions, you'll typically have to use them repeatedly to see the best effects. That being said, you may noticed increased radiance and smoother skin even after one use, making these a great option to pull out before a big event or anytime your skin needs a little extra something. It's also worth mentioning that chemical peels are not only good options for your face, but also for addressing any of the aforementioned issues on your neck, chest, and hands as well, adds Gonzalez.
What's the Difference Between At-Home and In-Office Chemical Peels?
Generally speaking, any and all peels are liquid acid solutions that exfoliate the skin, says Mark. This then allows the skin to shed a dull or damaged layer of cells, revealing the healthier, brighter cells below the surface, adds Gonzalez. (Hence all those glow-boosting effects we just talked about.) Not all peels are created equal because there are a variety of acids that can be used, and there's also a big difference between the over-the-counter chemical peel products you can use at-home and an in-office chemical peel. Essentially, it boils down to their strength and potency. "Chemical peels are categorized into three groups: superficial, medium, and deep," explains Gonzalez, who points out that the at-home products all fall into the first category. As such, the benefits might not be quite as significant or dramatic, but the potentially adverse effects (AKA irritation) are also less likely, notes Mark. Other pros? Minimal downtime and less discomfort, not to mention the affordability factor.
But all of that hinges on the fact that when you, the customer, are buying an at-home peel product, you know your skin and what to look for, and are going to follow the instructions. While a superficial peel can be applied at-home with little risk if the instructions are followed correctly, many people can end up buying the wrong type for the skin, cautions Gonzalez. On that note...
How to Pick the Right One for You
At-home chemical peels use either alpha-hydroxy acids or beta-hydroxy acids, AHAs and BHAs. While yes, they're all exfoliating acids, their specific benefits vary. AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acids, are ideal for addressing discoloration and evening out your overall skin tone, says Gonzalez. On the other hand, BHAs (salicylic acid being the most popular), deeply penetrate the hair follicles to dry out excess oil and unclog pores, making them useful for oily, combination, and acne-prone skin, she adds. But even within these two categories, there are subtle nuances; for example, lactic acid is gentler than glycolic acid, and is also hydrating, making it a good option for those with dryer or more sensitive skin, notes Mark.
So, broadly speaking, AHA peels are choice for improving tone and texture, while BHA peels are best for battling blemishes. But here's the thing: Many over-the-counter products will also combine both AHAs and BHAs in order to address multiple different issues in one product. That's all well and good, but it's not something you should do yourself. In other words, if you want to reap the benefits of all the acids, choose a product that's specially formulated to do so, rather than playing cosmetic chemist and mixing and matching various products, which is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for a skin freak-out.
On a similar note, it should go without saying, but both dermatologists agree that those with extremely sensitive skin should proceed with the utmost caution, even when it comes to the milder, DIY chemical peels. It may seem a little counterintuitive, given that the in-office peels are more potent, but seeing a pro is your best move. "You're being analyzed onsite and you can be sure that the adequate percentage of the correct peel for your skin type is being administered by a trained professional," Gonzalez explains. Seeking a professional also means you're being assessed by a doctor to determine whether or not your skin is even a good candidate for a peel.
Application & Aftercare
Repeat after us: I solemnly swear that I will follow the directions of the chemical peel exactly as written. Some at-home chemical peels are pads that can be swiped on daily (like Dr. Dennis Gross' Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel Packettes). Some are leave-on masks that have to be neutralized and should only be used weekly (like Caudalie's Glycolic Peel Mask). In other words, read the directions and do as they say, both when it comes to how to use them and how often to do so. The one time it's okay to deviate slightly is if you want to decrease the suggested frequency; using it less often than suggested and gradually working your way up can't hurt, particularly if your skin tends to be easily irritated and/or it's your first foray into the world of chemical peels.
Also worth noting: Just because your skin doesn't actually peel, doesn't mean it's not working. In fact, given that most of the at-home peels are much milder than the professional versions, you probably won't see any full-on skin flaking at all. "The peel's success should be determined by the end result, rather than the degree of peeling," says Gonzalez.
Keep in mind that any chemical peel will make your skin more sensitive to the sun for 24 to 72 hours afterward, cautions Gonzalez, so make sure you're extra on top of your SPF game. And because these peels contain some pretty intense ingredients, don't use them at the same time or even on the same day as any other potent players in your skincare lineup, such as retinoids.
The bottom line: Chemical peels come in all shapes and sizes and can do all kinds of great things for your skin—at-home versions included—so long as you take caution and follow the directions.
Tang S-C, Yang J-H. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863.
Moghimipour E. Hydroxy acids, the most widely used anti-aging agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.