A few months ago, I experienced my first-ever chemical peel. And, despite my deep-seated fear of looking like Samantha Jones à la Sex and the City, I'd like to think my newfound glowy skin and I came out on top. However, one thing I learned throughout the process was how much one peel can vary from the next depending on skin type, skin goals, and the specific acids used. Almost immediately, my initial assumption that chemical peels were one-size-fits-all (and likely bound for tragedy) was completely debunked—and I became a believer.
The experience also piqued my interest and inspired me to learn more about the different types of peels and the associated process and science involved. (It's all incredibly strategic, which is why it's imperative to only ever see a professional.) Thus, I was led to the mythical Jessner peel. Okay, it's not exactly mythical, but it's commonly searched for (think a 3600-and-growing search volume on Google), yet its true magic seems murky and vague upon research. So, with the help of holistic esthetician Biba de Sousa (who has a large celebrity following here in Los Angeles and even caters to the skin of our own CEO Katherine Power), the goal was to decode the Jessner peel once and for all.
Keep reading for everything you never knew you needed to know.
First, What Is It?
I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the complexity of de Sousa's answer, but still, there is so much more to the Jessner peel, and peels in general, than I ever would have guessed had you asked me months ago. So, before we trek into the nitty-gritty territory, here are the bare bones of it according to de Sousa: "The Jessner peel (or the more commonly used modified Jessner peel) is a safe, effective way of maintaining the skin and is also very effective on body parts, too. This peel is often used to address things like crepey leg skin, pigmented backs, back acne, and more," she explains."
But let's take it a step further. First, per de Sousa, it's important to understand there are three different classes of peels, which fall somewhere on a scale between superficial (requiring little to no downtime) and deep (requiring weeks, maybe even months, of downtime). The Jessner peel falls somewhere in the middle.
"The Jessner solution is a commonly used medium-depth peeling agent, which means the solution only affects the upper layer of the dermis, in a controlled manner. It requires specific application rules, and the traditional peel features a mix of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids in a specific ratio—14% of resorcinol, salicylic, and lactic acid in an ethanol base," de Sousa articulates. "The pH (potential hydrogen) of the solution is typically 1.9."
So, what's the strategy behind the aforementioned mix of acids? According to de Sousa, it's very specific. First, she explains to me that salicylic acid is keratolytic in nature and therefore dissolves hardened skin cells within the epidermal (aka outermost) layer of the skin while lactic acid simultaneously adds a dose of hydration. Then, resorcinol has historically been used in the Jessner formula thanks to its natural antiseptic properties. However, as of just recently, this is being modified.
"These days, resorcinol is actually being taken out of Jessner's solution because it is a phenol derivative and raises health questions. Instead, TCA (trichloroacetic acid) is being used, which is the most popular method of medium-depth peels, called modified Jessners. Retinol and other AHAs can also be added to modified Jessners, such as mandelic, azelaic, phytic, glycolic, and the like," says de Sousa.
The Jessner Difference
As mentioned earlier, the Jessner peel is a medium-depth peel, which is what separates it from its more superficial or deep counterparts.
"Jessner solution is a leave-in solution that is self-neutralizing and takes several days to complete the peeling process. This kind of peel has to be left undisturbed (without application of water or oil) in the skin for a minimum of six to eight hours post-treatment to allow for the full benefit," de Sousa tells us. (And don't worry—we'll get to said benefits in a minute.)
On the other hand, de Sousa explains that more superficial peels require little to no downtime and no serious post-peel complications. Deep peels, however, which typically involve phenol or 25% TCA, penetrate on a much deeper level and have serious constraints where required downtime is concerned. (Think sedation during application and up to eight weeks of prep time pre-peel.) Not surprisingly, deep peels aren't a popular choice (ahem, Samantha Jones) since they can yield unpredictable results and can even result in complications, pain, severe peeling, and inability to emerge from the dark.
So, basically, they turn you into a vampire. (We kid. Kind of.)
Benefits & Process
Okay, let's talk benefits. In the most simplistic of terms, de Sousa explains to me that the Jessner solution essentially deconstructs the top-most layer of the skin and, in turn, triggers an inflammatory response from the skin layers that sit below. Ultimately, since our skin has a natural intuition to heal itself, this leads to the removal of actinic keratoses (translation: sun damage) and the improvement of minor hyperpigmentation, scarring, wrinkles, and elasticity.
"If the pre- and post-peel instructions are followed, there should be no side effect of the peel. However, the main risks are skin blanching (when peeling solution penetrates too deep in the skin because too many layers are being applied) and exposure to UV radiation shortly after peeling, both of which can lead to hyperpigmentation," says de Souza. In other words, only ever go to a licensed professional, and make sure to follow pre- and post-care instructions to a T.
Here's a look at what actually goes down: "The application of the peel itself only takes a few minutes," says de Sousa. "First, I'll thoroughly clean the skin and hydrate it as much as possible. I like to exfoliate with my sonic blade, where molecules of water are being burst by ultrasonic waves and hydration can supplement the skin. This particular technique is my safeguard against the peel solution penetrating too fast, too deep, or in an uneven manner. After skin hydration, a layer of the peel is applied using gauze and swiped around the skin.
I allow about two minutes for the penetration of the product, and I observe the skin for any 'hot spots.' Typically, we apply two to three layers of the peeling solution and then will apply a corrective agent on top, which can include things like retinol, vitamins, hyaluronic acid, or peptides, depending on our goals for skin and what kind of underlying conditions there are."
Parting Rules & Tips
1. Avoid peels if you're pregnant or are allergic to certain acids.
"Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid) is contraindicated to pregnancy, but even beyond that, the hormonal fluctuation that happens in a female body during pregnancy can lead to serious consequences of the outcome of any chemical peel, leading to hyperpigmentation. Medically, anyone allergic to salicylic acid (this is commonly an allergy to aspirin) or resorcinol is not to use this peel," de Sousa warns.
2. Mind your pre- and post-treatment care.
"Peel prep consists of not using skincare products with certain active ingredients such as retinoids, benzoyl peroxide or BHAs/AHAs for a week. Clients should also avoid exposure to UV (to the point of sunburn) or antibiotic use for two weeks prior to your appointment.
"Post-peel, avoid applying water- or oil-based products on the application area for six to eight hours or, preferably, overnight. Water can push the solution deeper into the skin, and oil will neutralize the action of the peel. Sweating (hot yoga, exercising) and extreme temperature exposure should also be avoided for the first 24 hours. During this time, only washing, hydrating, and applying sunscreen are allowed. Around day three, the skin will tighten and start to peel, and you'll need to add hydration-promoting products into your regimen.
Peeling is usually finished by day five, and after that, active ingredients are carefully reintroduced to the skincare regimen," says de Sousa.
3. Pay attention to the time of year.
"The best time of year to fully benefit from Jessner (or similar) peels is when UV radiation is comparatively weak, like late autumn or early spring. As noted, the major complication of this peel is hyperpigmentation, and UV radiation is the main instigator."
Our final tip: Yes, while these kinds of peels can definitely be safe and can have many lust-worthy benefits, always make sure to consult with a credible dermatologist or esthetician before going all in. Your specific skin type, skincare goals, and any other underlying conditions will dictate your optimal peel and/or treatment plan.