If the word “peel” immediately brings to mind Samantha’s “beef carpaccio” face in that one episode of Sex and the City, we don’t blame you. After all, the very word lends itself to images of raw, red, painful skin. It's time for a paradigm shift. There’s a lot about peels that you don’t know, including the fact that they can actually be—wait for it—gentle.
We asked board certified dermatologist Annie Chiu, MD, and peel expert Kerry Benjamin to share the most essential info about peels that you might not know—like how pH balance plays a part, the right age to start getting peels, and the one thing you should always avoid afterward. Keep reading for six surprising things about peels you didn’t already know.
Numerous Factors Determine the Strength of a Peel
Like most people, you probably judge the strength of a peel on the percentage of active ingredients. For example, one would assume that a 15% glycolic acid peel would be more intense than a 10% glycolic acid peel. However, there’s something else you should take into account: pH balance. “The lower the pH level, the more acidic and more aggressive the peel,” Benjamin says. “Dermatologists can administer deep chemical peels with a low pH. Estheticians (practicing skincare under a dermatologist) administer most low pH peels.”
She says the formulation, acid, pH, as well as the percentage, dictate the strength of a peel. There can be pain and downtime—but there are medical-grade peel options today, with a low pH, that are medium-depth peels and are not highly invasive, painful, or require considerable downtime.
Chiu echoes this, and expresses the importance of communicating with your dermatologist or esthetician. "A patient who is getting a peel treatment would not know how much the acids are 'buffered' or ph-balanced in the peel," she says. "This would be specific to the peel given, and the person administering the peel should know."
“Our skin’s pH balance is between 4.5 and 5.5,” Benjamin adds. “If a product with a 7 pH or higher is applied to the skin, then it is considered alkaline—and alkaline is a breeding ground for bacteria.” If you have acne-prone skin, Benjamin recommends picking products that are pH balanced (they’ll usually say this on the label), so they don’t exacerbate the problem. In the end, the lower the pH balance, the more the acid in the peel will affect your cells—the importance is finding the right balance for your skin type.
You Don't Have to Be an Adult to Use Peels
If you thought peels were only for those with wrinkles, you thought wrong. “Young teens with acne can safely be treated with peels twice a month until their acne has cleared up,” Benjamin says. “A typical corrective treatment plan is every two weeks for acne, and every three weeks for hyperpigmentation.”
Peels with salicylic acid, like Jessner Peels, can be used to effectively treat acne at any age. They exfoliate the top layer of your skin, causing natural cell turnover to speed up, and help minimize oil production, unclog pores, and reduce the formation of blackheads and whiteheads.
Peels Can Be Gentle
Here’s some surprising news: certain peels can actually be quite gentle and effective for those with sensitive skin. “Medium depth peels cause little to no discomfort, have minimal visible peeling, and cause your skin to look glowing after the treatment,” Benjamin says.
Medium depth peels include the previously mentioned Jessner Peels (the Modified Jessner Peel Benjamin offers at her salon combines salicylic acid, lactic acid, and a peeling agent named Resorcinol), as well as TCA (Trichloroacetic Acid) peels. Other peels, like AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta hydroxyl acid) peels, are milder but still promise to leave your skin looking bright and help reduce fine lines and dark spots. Phenol peels, on the other hand, go deep into the dermis and require you to undergo general anesthesia—these are the ones that need to be performed by a dermatologist.
Actual Peeling Isn't Always a Sign That the Treatment Is Working
Another surprising fact? You don’t always have to actually peel after a peel to see the benefits. “The visible peeling is just a side effect,” Benjamin says. “The actual ‘peeling’ is happening at the cellular level.” She explains that this is the reason why most people will stop experiencing visible flaking after a few peels. “They get all the benefits of the peel without any side effects!” she says.
Chiu says that the amount of peeling one experiences is dependent on that person's skin type and the strength of the peel. "All peels do promote exfoliation of the top layers of the skin," she says, explaining more intense peels do promote some visible peeling. "Peels work superficially with exfoliation, but it is also inducing new collagen production below the skin. Typically after a peel, or a series of peels, the skin should look more glowing, pores tighter, and the skin tone more even.
You Shouldn't Use a Retinol If You're Using a Peel
Peels and retinols seem to go hand in hand—but Benjamin says to lay off the retinol, retina-A and retinoid products three to five days prior to your peel to help decrease sensitivity. Then, she recommends waiting five to seven days after your peel to start using them again, so your skin has time to recover. “Post-treatment, clients should use mild products without any harsh acids or vitamin A for five to seven days,” she says. “Patients should keep their skin moisturized and apply ample SPF, as well as avoid the sun [during this period].”
You Shouldn't Workout After a Peel
If you were planning on fitting a workout sesh in after your peel, you might want to reconsider. “Clients need to stay cool after their treatment,” Benjamin says. “No exercising for 24 hours after your peel because this disrupts the healing process and encourages inflammation.
Chen X, Wang S, Yang M, Li L. Chemical peels for acne vulgaris: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ Open. 2018;8(4):e019607. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019607