Even if you haven’t seen the infamous Sex and the City episode when Sam gets a chemical face peel, you’ll be well aware of the fallout. Raw-looking red skin, open sores and scabs—even the words chemical face peel sound like something you’d associate with a torture chamber rather than a spa treatment. But they don’t have to be like that. In fact, a well-administered peel will do wonders for dull skin in need of a reboot. Read on to find out exactly what happens in a chemical peel treatment.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS A CHEMICAL PEEL?
In essence, a chemical peel is just a bloody-good exfoliation, removing dead skin cells and stimulating the growth of new ones. The horror stories come from those who have chosen the most penetrative peels.
“There are three types of chemical peels: superficial ones that work on the surface and target the outer, dead layer of skin cells and medium or deep peels that go further into the epidermis for deeper resurfacing action,” explains Dan Issacs, formulation and development director at skincare brand Medik8.
Regardless of depth, they all work in the same way—breaking down the “glue” that binds our skin cells together. This allows the upper layers to be whisked away, leaving the new never-before-seen skin to shine through. Like fresh meat, it would explain those pink, fleshy and sometimes raw-looking patches.
WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?
Superficial chemical peels can be used to reduce the appearance of fine lines, even skin tone, improve pigmentation and treat acne while deeper peels can also stimulate collagen production. They’re also splendid at getting your skin all glowy and radiant. You need to commit to a regimented routine, though, according to aesthetic doctor Maryam Zamani.
“The normal rate of skin cell turnover is between 21 and 28 days, and this rate tends to slow down dramatically in our late 20s. Superficial chemical peels help to increase this cellular turnover in the form of exfoliation and to stimulate healthy cell growth,” she says.
TALK TO ME ABOUT THE CHEMICALS
Say the word chemicals and we immediately think of the Bunsen burners and goggles from our school science lessons. Well, scrap that visualisation and picture a tropical fruit bowl instead. That’s because if you’re booked in for a gentle or superficial chemical peel, the exfoliating magic will come from fruit enzymes such as papaya and pineapple. Not so scary after all.
Go up a level or two to a more medium or deep peel, and the chemicals will appear in the forms of acids, most commonly mandelic, glycolic, lactic and salicylic—all the things you get in topical at-home products, just at a higher concentration. Nothing with the toxic symbol emblazoned all over it, after all.
If you’re considering booking in, ask your practitioner to tell you the pH of the peel solution. According to Isaacs, this is just as important as the chemicals as it determines how much “free acid” there is to peel or dissolve the skin. As a heads-up, the lower the pH, the more intense the peel.
IS MY SKIN RIPE FOR PEELING?
The only people who shouldn’t touch peels with a bargepole are those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, have allergies to the ingredients included or have inflamed and active skin diseases—everyone else can benefit from a good cleanse and polish, even if you have sensitive skin. First-timers and those upgrading from home treatments to professional peels should always stick with a gentle enzyme-base though.
The same rule applies if you have dark skin: “The more intense the peel, the more you will be at risk of developing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” warns Issacs. Look for a peel that suits your skin type, too. For example, Medik8 offers a BetaPeel for blemish-stricken skin, an AgePeel dedicated to getting rid of fine lines and a WhitePeel for pigmentation.
WHAT'S THE DOWNTIME?
Again, it depends on the type of peel. If it’s light and superficial, you might find your skin looks perfectly fine post-treatment. A medium peel might take a week to peel and heal while a deeper peel could take up to a fortnight—something worth bearing in mind when you’re booking your diary dates. The latter certainly won’t do you any favours if you have a big date on the horizon or are hurtling towards social season.
ANYTHING NEW I SHOULD KNOW ABOUT?
Aftercare is a big talking point within peels right now. Post-treatment sheet masks are being developed to soothe soreness, flood skin with moisture and enhance the healing process. They can also help reduce inflammation and prevent pigmentation.
DO I HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE?
There are always alternatives, and if you’re still put off my chemical peels, look for dermabrasion treatments instead that use mechanical, vacuum-esque devices to loosen dead skin cells and suck them away. Laser resurfacing is another option. When using light to peel away the top layers of skin and stimulate collagen production, there also tends to be less downtime.
WHAT ABOUT BACK IN THE BATHROOM?
For at-home treatments, scrubs that contain the same fruit enzymes and acids as the pro peels are a good place to start as the chemical reaction on your skin will be exactly the same. You will never achieve the same results as a chemical peel, but if you’re looking for a regular refresh, you’ll definitely notice you have a more refined face if you treat once a week.
Next up: Looking for some less invasive ways to get glowier skin?