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. But it might be 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 spoke with peel expert and esthetician Kerry Benjamin and asked her to share all the things about peels that you don’t know—like how pH balance plays a part, the right age to start getting peels, and the one thing you should always avoid afterwards. Keep reading for six surprising things about peels you didn’t already know!
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 peels with a lower pH than estheticians.” She says that these lower pH balance peels can penetrate through the epidermis to the dermal layer and are highly invasive, painful, and need considerable downtime.
“Our skin’s pH balance is between 4.5 and 5.5,” Benjamin explains. “If a product with a pH higher than our natural pH level 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 either pH balanced (they’ll usually say this on the label) or slightly acidic, 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.
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 banish blackheads and whiteheads.
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 will still 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.
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.
Peels and retinols seem to go hand in hand—but Benjamin says to lay off the retinols, retinan-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].”
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, or you run the risk of hyperpigmentation!”
Are you a fan of peels? What type of peel do you get and how often do you get them? Sound off below!