The peels of today are nothing like what peels used to be when they first entered the market as a mainstream treatment back in the 1980s. Back then, they were called chemical peels and, in true fashion, they were derived by applying a chemical solution to the skin to remove the top layers. Its intended effect? For the skin to grow back smoother, more hydrated, and simply glowing.
More recently in the world of chemical peels, we typically drop the word “chemical” as it tends to have a negative connotation. Also, several peel formulations today use ingredients that are derived from non-chemical properties, such as fruit enzymes and vitamin A. The newer, more advanced peel solutions no longer create a complete shedding of the top layer (typically resulting in a “burn” look, like we remember from Sex in the City!). Not only are they more skin-friendly, but they are also formulated with more specificity to address a variety of skin conditions.
If you’re considering a peel, first consider what skin condition you’re trying to solve or what your ultimate goal is. Peels are known to benefit skin conditions ranging from surface acne, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines; however, newer blends also provide enhanced hydration — something we wouldn’t typically associate with peels!
The different types of chemical peels and the skin conditions they treat
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of natural acids found in foods. Alpha hydroxy acids include citric acid (found in citrus fruits), glycolic acid (found in sugar cane), lactic acid (found in sour milk), malic acid (found in apples), tartaric acid (found in grapes), and others. Peels containing these acids are considered a very light application of peel and will promote cell turnover in the superficial epidermis layer of the skin. Skin conditions best treated with AHA peels are fine lines, dryness, and hyperpigmentation.
Beta Hydroxy (Salicylic) Acids
Beta hydroxy or salicylic acids are best known for controlling sebum in the skin. Peels containing these acids are effective in treating acne and penetrate deeper in the upper dermis layer to clear oily skin and clogged pores. It is also beneficial for those who are suffering from sun-damaged skin, ingrown hair, wrinkles, fine lines, and psoriasis. Since this is considered a medium depth peel, the skin will initially be slightly red, shiny, and sensitive, but this is only for a few hours, followed by mild flaking of the skin that lasts for 3-7 days.
Trichloroacetic (TCA) Peel
Trichloroacetic or TCA Peels are non-toxic chemicals and bellwether agents used by dermatologists for over 20 years to exfoliate and renew the skin from a superficial to deep level. TCA is commonly applied to the face, neck, décolleté, hands and legs. TCA is also an excellent “spot treatment” and can be used to exclusively peel isolated areas of the skin. Since TCA can be applied in layers and can be used as a superficial or deeper level peel, it has proven to be a good option for most uses and skin types. Individuals with melasma have seen very good results from deeper level TCA peels but these should be administered by a medical provider if you have this skin condition.
The Jessner’s Peel is a peel formulation developed by dermatologist Dr. Max Jessner, in the 1940s as an antiseptic solution for submarine crews. It wasn’t initially meant to be a cosmetic peel treatment, however, the results on the skin were noticeable and it eventually became an ingredient blend adopted by many peel brands. It combines a cocktail of acids such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, and lactic acid. It is considered a medium depth peel and it works on the deeper layers of the skin, penetrating through the epidermis to the junction of the epidermis and dermis. It is a leave-in solution that is self-neutralizing and takes several days to complete the peeling process (typically about 7 to 8 days). The Jessner Peel is intended to improve the appearance of minor hyperpigmentation, scarring, wrinkles, and elasticity.
A newer take on the traditional peel, Retinol Peels use Retinol which is a form of vitamin A and has been used as a prescription cream for acne since its origination in the 1980s. It encourages the growth of skin cells and due to its small molecular size, the ingredients are able to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. Its properties also enhance the absorption of vitamins, antioxidants and rich active ingredients into the skin for maximum benefits. This treatment is highly effective for lifting pigmentation, reducing impaction in acne skin, and treating aging skin that has a naturally slow cell turnover cycle. Higher percentage retinol peels are also available and should be administered by a medical provider.
There are a number of alternatives to the traditional chemical peel for those with more sensitive skin, rosacea, or first-time users who aren’t yet ready to commit to the “chemical” version. Enzyme masks using fruit enzymes or very superficial salicylic masks are wonderful options and will produce superficial cell turnover, however, results may take longer to appear.
All peel options in the above review are considered light to medium depth peels and are appropriate for the majority of the population looking to add a clinical level skin treatment to their regular skincare routine. The benefit of light peels is that there is limited downtime; however, you will see optimal results with 3 or 4 treatments. Some medium and deeper level peels should be administered by a medical provider and may use a combination of acid ingredients from the list above such as Jessner and TCA. These peels can only be applied once and patients are required to adhere to rigid post-treatment protocols since skin will be very red and sensitive up to 7 days following treatment. Benefits may be worth it if you have a skin condition that requires a deeper level of treatment such as acne scarring, deep lines or melasma.
Finally, seek out reputable product brands and providers who are certified professionals for the safest and optimal experience. Peels are a great way to rejuvenate your skin and address a number of skin conditions — and keep us all looking younger as we get older!