Here’s what you need to know about chemical peels

Georgia Fowler chemical peels

Got a niggling skin care concern? There’s a peel for that

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / October 24 2018

You know the drill: Eat well, down litres of water and maintain a good skin care routine, including a religious application of sunscreen. But, truth be told, nabbing great skin is no easy feat. And sometimes our skin can do with a bit of help.

This is where peels come in. The prospect of peeling off layers of your skin may sound scary, but these bad boys can actually work wonders to improve your complexion. A chemical peel is basically a higher strength skin exfoliant. But unlike your average exfoliating products, it contains a chemical agent that works to remove the damaged outer layers of the skin, leaving smooth, beautiful skin underneath. These chemical agents penetrate the skin to target a number of skin concerns (depending on the formula), including hyperpigmentation, acne, fine lines and wrinkles – all with minimal downtime. 

Education Manager for the International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica, Emma Hobson says that peels are one of the most effective ways to address these various skin conditions. “They can help decongest the skin, create even tone and texture, and they speed up cell renewal and turnover, creating a glowing, healthy skin,” says Hobson. 

What are chemical peels?

It’s important to note that peel treatments are not one-size-fits-all, and for optimal results, a peel should be customised to your skin’s individual needs.

Katy Bacon, Education Director for Murad Australia says the most typical peels are based on glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid. If you’re struggling with the signs of ageing or acne, she recommends glycolic acid as one of the simplest chemical peels. “It’s from the family alpha hydroxyl, which is a natural ingredient (fruit acid) derived from sugar cane. Glycolic is one of the most well-known peeling mediums on the market and has safely been used since the early ‘80s.” 

Next up is salicylic acid, which Bacon says is arguably the most important for acne and oily skin. “Salicylic is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and is oil-loving, making it perfect for an oily, congested skin. It helps to unclog and minimise pores, kill P. acnes bacteria, and can relieve inflammation and redness.”

Lastly, lactic acid peels are perfect if you have dry, sensitive or dehydrated skin, says Bacon. As with glycolic acid, lactic acid is also an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and will exfoliate dead skin cells while working to boost collagen production. “Lactic acid peels are known for their hydrating benefits. If you are concerned about dehydration, fine lines and uneven skin tone, then this is the peel for you,” explains Bacon.

At-home peels vs professional peels

The main types of peels are either at-home or in-salon peels. The difference between the two types comes down to the active ingredients, with professional chemical peels offering an intensive, active and slightly more invasive treatment, which results in a speedier and more dramatic change in your skin.

At-home peels contain a lower concentration of active ingredients, and are less intense than professional in-salon treatments. “There are strict regulations on what percentages of active ingredients are available over-the-counter; at-home peels must be safe to use by all skins and comply with retail regulations,” says Bacon. 

As an example, “Murad offers an extra-strength facial peel available for home use which contains 10 per cent glycolic acid and a highly potent antioxidant blend of vitamin C to rapidly resurface dull skin for a smoother, softer, more youthful texture and enhanced radiance,” adds Bacon. If you want to ease into chemical peels, then try a more gentle at-home peel like Ella Bache Resurfacing Peel

How to choose the right peel for your skin

Choosing the correct peel for your skin is dependent on what concern you are trying to treat. Many professional peels will come as a blend of hydroxy acids, including alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. It’s important to customise the treatment to your skin’s needs, so it’s best to speak with a skin care professional who can guide you in the right choice for your skin.

“AHAs and BHAs have different chemical compositions and will work differently on your skin. AHAs (lactic or glycolic acid) increase cell turnover and renewal, stimulating superficial exfoliation [to] promote a plumper, brighter, more hydrated skin,” Bacon explains.

Hobson adds, with AHAs you can expect the softening of wrinkles, an improvement in skin tone and lightening of pigmentation and age spots. They also help clear and prevent skin congestion.

BHAs work to decongest the skin and cause minimal irritation, so they’re an excellent option for sensitive skin. “Beta hydroxy acids, also known as salicylic acid, are found in many exfoliating products and a particular favourite in products designed for congested skin with breakouts,” explains Hobson. Salicylic acid is the bee’s knees at getting rid of stubborn acne and breakouts because it can unclog pores and get rid of all the gunk that causes blackheads and whiteheads. 

In terms of downtime, higher concentrations of AHAs are more active than BHAs, meaning they could cause a bit of redness and inflammation. However, if you’re worried that you’ll end up looking like Samantha from Sex & The City post-peel, you’ll be happy to know that chemical peels have come a long way and now often involve minimal downtime (regardless of whether your peel contains AHAs and BHAs). 

Hobson notes that with Dermalogica’s Pro Power Peel treatments, “there is little to no downtime with these new innovative professional peels. Some people may experience mild redness that subsides within a few hours; the majority of people post-peel leave with instantly healthy, glowing skin,” says Hobson. “Some may experience skin flaking and mild peeling after two to three days in certain areas of the skin, which will clear within seven to 10 days.”

What's involved in a peel treatment?

Chemical peels are generally applied the same way at home as they are in a salon. First, you need to cleanse skin and pat it dry (as water can compromise the peel’s effectiveness). Once applied, it’s important to follow the instructions on the packaging. Some peels need to be taken off after 10 minutes, whereas others can be left on overnight.

Top tip: If you’re doing an at-home peel, the best time to apply it is at night, as your skin is more receptive!

Are there any side effects?

At-home peel side effects are usually quite minimal. They can include slight tingling or burning, but the sensation should subside quickly. Always do a patch test first, just to be safe.

For professional peels, side effects include redness, dryness, swelling, as well as peeling or scabbing. This is dependant on how potent the peel’s formula is and how sensitive your skin is. Your dermatologist should discuss the potential side effects with you before you begin. Usually within two to three days of your treatment your skin will appear flaky as the outermost layer of skin peels off – but don’t worry, this is a good thing. It’s just your dead skin making way for new, radiant skin. Same for any age spots or discolouration you may notice coming to the surface – these are temporary and will soon get sloughed away. 

What to do after you get a peel

Rule number one: After you get a peel, sunscreen is your BEST friend. It’s essential to wear an SPF 30-50 sunscreen and avoid direct sun exposure for two to three weeks to prevent hyperpigmentation, says Hobson. We recommend Medik8 Physical Sunscreen SPF 30.

As your skin will feel a little dry post-treatment, you’ll want to use products that focus on soothing and hydrating your complexion without causing irritation. “On the night post the treatment, we recommend rinsing the face with cool water and cleanse with Dermalogica UltraCalming™ Cleanser, then moisturise with Barrier Defense Booster and Calm Water Gel (all included in the Pro Power Peel Post-Procedure Kit),” says Hobson. 

Bacon also suggests opting for a range of products that’ll lock in hydration, like water-based serums. “At Murad we suggest using our Hydro-Dynamic Quenching Essence, which contains a Mexican blue agave leaf extract to restore the skin’s ability to attract and retain water, while the botanical blend helps reduce dryness, flakiness and rough patches by providing the building blocks of skin’s own natural moisturizing factor (NMF).” 

If you’re experiencing any peeling or flaking post-peel, it’s SUPER important to avoid picking or rubbing at your skin! Instead, spritz and moisture throughout the day to help maintain hydration and combat the appearance of any dry patches (we like Cosmedix Mystic Hydrating Treatment). Bacon also recommends avoiding any type of exfoliating products until directed by a professional skin therapist. “For many courses of professional peels, a customer is directed to avoid exfoliating at home for the duration, and two weeks post the conclusion of the course,” she says.

If you’re looking for more ways to nab brighter, smoother skin, check out six high-tech facials that deliver real results.

Have you had a professional chemical peel before? Or tried any of these at-home peels? Let us know in the comment section below.

Main image credit: @georgiafowler

Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.