All You Need to Know About Chemical Peels

A flawless, wrinkles complexion is hiding beneath the skin surface – and dermatologists have found that chemical peel is the fastest way there. Furthermore, the chemical peel is touted as a relatively inexpensive and safe skin-resurfacing procedure for addressing problematic skin.

In minutes, the acids lift away dead cells and trigger an efficient chain reaction. As the outermost layer is shed, signals are sent to the new cells below to multiply and resurface to increase collagen production. Your skincare products will also perform better after a peel because no dead skin cells will hinder their penetration.

There are chemical peels that are safe for every skin color and type without the risk of severe side effects. To achieve a better outcome with less irritation, you should use low percentages of multiple acids rather than a higher strength of a single acid.

What are chemical peels?

Chemical peels are cosmetic solutions that can be applied to the face, neck, and hands. They work by exfoliating the top layer of the skin to help improve its appearance or texture.

More specifically, chemical peel comprises of a potent acid solution that has a significantly lower pH than your skin’s natural pH. It creates a controlled injury, dissolving the desmosome connections (a sticky substance) that hold the skin layer together. After the injury, the dead skin cells will dry and peel off, revealing new skin underneath. Your skin will appear smoother, and blemishes would fade.

The skin’s natural pH is approximately pH 5.0. Make sure the chemical peels have a pH of 2.0 or below so that the entire percentage of that acid in the chemical peel is “free” to exfoliate your skin. However, even when the pH is slightly raised, less of that product will work. For instance, say you have a 5% salicylic acid product with a pH of 2.0 – that 5% would be ultimately “free” to exfoliate. But when the pH that salicylic acid is raised slightly, less of that 5% are active.

Types of chemical peels

Depending on the skin problems that you intend to address and your desired results, you can choose a chemical peel based on its depth of action: light (superficial), medium, or deep.

Light (superficial) peels

Light (superficial) peels, also known as “lunchtime peels” – because they involve little to no downtime – use mild acids like an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) to exfoliate the skin gently. It only penetrates and removes the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis). It is best suited for mild skin problems like minor discoloration, rough texture, fine lines, acne, and dryness. You might use a light chemical peel as frequently as two to five weeks – depending on your desired results.

Examples: Peels using alpha hydroxy acid, low-strength salicylic acid, or any other mild acid fall under this category.

If you opt for a superficial chemical peel, the benefits include:

  • Reduce pigmentation
  • Smoothen dry skin
  • Reduce acne
  • Eliminate blemishes
  • Reduce signs of mild sun damage
  • Eliminate mild blotchiness
  • Younger-looking skin

Also, it has less recovery time.

Medium peels

Medium peels penetrate more deeply (the top part of the middle skin layer), making it more useful for removing damaged skin cells. It’s also more suited for moderately severe skin problems like fine lines, wrinkles, superficial scarring, and skin hyperpigmentation. This peel also helps to smoothen your rough skin. You should repeat the medium peel treatment after several months to maintain results. Extreme caution should be taken if you use medium-strength peels at home.

Examples: Glycolic acid (high percentage), trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and Jessner peels fall under this category.

The benefits of a medium chemical peel include:

  • Removal of old acne scar
  • Eliminate scars and birthmarks
  • Reduce pigmentation
  • Reduce fine lines
  • Reduce signs of sun damage
  • Hydrate dry skin

Deep peels

Deep peels can fully penetrate the middle layer of the skin to remove damaged skin cells. They target moderate-to-severe scarring, deep wrinkles, skin discoloration, and precancerous growths. A deep chemical peel can be performed not more than once a year and should be done by a professional. When done correctly, deep peels can dramatically transform your skin and give it a youthful appearance.

Examples: High-percentage trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and phenol peels fall under this category.

Benefits of deep chemical peeling include:

  • Reduce deep acne scars
  • Eliminate acne
  • Reduce age spots
  • Eliminate deep wrinkles
  • Smoother and younger-looking skin
  • Remove pre-cancerous growths
  • Long-term results

Chemical peel ingredients

There are lots of different chemical ingredients to choose from. Here, we list the most common ingredients from weakest to strongest.


Enzyme peels are the mildest peel of the bunch. It is considered a “natural” option because it’s a fruit derivative.

Enzyme peels are great for people with sensitive skin and those who are intolerant to acids. But unlike alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA), it doesn’t increase cellular turnover. Instead, enzyme peels work by gently exfoliating the top layer of skin and refine pores in a way that doesn’t make your skin hypersensitive to the skin.

Mandelic acid

Mandelic acid improves textures, wrinkles, and fine lines. It’s beneficial for acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation without the irritation or redness that glycolic acid may induce. Mandelic acid works well in combination with salicylic acid.

Lactic acid

Lactic acid is also a good starting peel for beginners because it’s gentle, mild, and lightweight. It can help address minor hyperpigmentation, uneven texture, wrinkles, and fine lines. They are also extremely hydrating. It is better than glycolic acid in treating hyperpigmentation and skin discoloration.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is one of the best peels for treating acne. It’s oil-soluble meaning it can penetrate the skin pores and dissolve any debris and congestion. Unlike AHA and glycolic acid, the salicylic acid will not make your skin hypersensitive to the sun.

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is more potent than the other aforementioned ingredients. Depending on its concentration, it may fall into the “medium peel” category. It does not only refine your skin texture but also reduces the appearance of wrinkles and scars, increase collagen production, and brightens your skin tone. Like the other peels, glycolic acid also treats hyperpigmentation and acne – though less effectively than salicylic acid.

Jessner’s peel

Jessner’s peel is a medium-strength peel that comprises three ingredients: lactic acid, salicylic acid, and resorcinol. It’s beneficial for hyperpigmentation and acne-prone skin.

Jessner’s peel will cause frosting when parts of the skin turn white and are exfoliated away by the solution. Follow up with a moisturizer so that it will not dry your skin.

TCA peel (trichloroacetic acid)

Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is the most potent medium-strength peel in this list. Only certified skincare professionals should apply them.

A TCA peel works by replacing dead skin cells with new skin. This peel is suitable for sun damage, hyperpigmentation, stretch marks, atrophic acne scars, fine lines, and wrinkles.

The application of TCA peel may cause temporary discomfort and burning sensation. Your skin may also be sensitive to the sun.

Chemical peel strengths

Different acid percentages do not necessarily correlate with their relative strength. This is because a low percentage in one acid can be much stronger than a higher percentage of another acid.

Instead, the pH of the chemical peel solution matters more than the percentage of the acid, as other ingredients can buffer acids.

These are the acid strengths in approximate order, including acids that are similar in strength or irritation:

  • 3% salicylic acid
  • 50% lactic acid | 40% mandelic | 30% glycolic | 22% mandelic azelaic | 7% TCA
  • 50% glycolic | 15% salicylic | 13% TCA (1 layer)
  • 25% salicylic
  • 70% glycolic | Jessners (multiple layers) | 13% TCA (3-5 layers)
  • 20% TCA (1-2 layers) | Progressive Peel
  • 30% TCA

Skin concerns that chemical peels address

Chemical peels are used to treat scars, wrinkles, and skin discoloration – typically on the face. It reduces the appearance of blemishes, brightens complexion, refines skin texture, and restore skin health. The extent of its benefits depends on the type of chemical peel used, the concentration of the solution, skin type, and reactivity to the treatment.


The acid breaks down the skin on the surface and helps your skin regain the suppleness and sturdiness of youthful skin.

Acne control

A chemical peel can strip off dead skin cells and unclog pores to accelerate the healing of active acne and old scars. Peels are best used alongside daily acne treatments.


TCA or Jessner peel can help reduce and remove scars over time to improve skin appearance. Removing dead skin cells makes room for newer, more naturally-colored skin cells to migrate upward to the surface of the skin. Chemical peel stimulates the production of collagen. This fills in pitted scars and makes the skin both strong and flexible.


Peels can help get rid of the hyperpigmented skin to reveal the even-toned skin underneath. Use it in combination with a whitening agent for optimal effect. There isn’t a permanent cure for sunspots, but chemical peels offer the best fighting chance.

How to apply chemical peel at home

Consult your dermatologist before doing a chemical peel at home. If you still intend to go ahead, follow these steps precisely to mitigate any potential side effects.

In addition to the chemical peel solution, you’ll need:

Ingredient or equipment Why
Fan brush To save the product and allow for a smooth application
Baking soda To neutralize the acid peel
Vaseline To protect sensitive areas of skin, like the sides of the lips, nose, and eye sockets
Gloves To protect your hands while handling the chemical peel
Stopwatch To keep track of the time to neutralize the chemical peel
Shot glass and dropper dispenser To save the product and making the entire application process a lot easier.

Step 0: Do a patch test

Perform a patch test to ensure you are not allergic to the chemicals. Even if you have used the chemical peel solution before, you should do a patch test every time you do it.

To do a patch test:

  1. Apply a small amount of the chemical peel on a discreet area, such as inside your wrist or inner arm.
  2. Leave it on for 24 to 48 hours to see if your skin reacts to it.
  3. Remove it and wait for two more days to make sure it does not trigger a delayed reaction.

If your skin is alright after that, go ahead with the chemical peel. Now let’s discuss how to do chemical peeling at home.

Step 1: Clean your face

Clean your face with a gentle, soap-free cleanser or a prep pad that comes with the chemical peel. Make sure your face is makeup-free.

Step 2: Prime the skin

Prime your skin with retinol or vitamin C for increased peel efficacy. You can also use a facial steamer beforehand to let ingredients penetrate even more in-depth.

Step 3: Protect the sensitive parts

Avoid applying the chemical peel on delicate areas of the skin such as around your eyes and the corners of your lips and nose. Apply a liberal amount of vaseline to protect them from the acid.

Step 4: Apply the chemical peeling solution

Use a fan brush to apply the chemical solution to your face. Start with the less sensitive areas, such as the skin on your cheeks, forehead, and chin, and then apply it to your neck and nose. Have your neutralizing agent ready for application after the time before the set time limit. 

Step 5: Leave it on for the time recommended by the manufacturer

Follow the instructions on the label. The application may take as little as 15 minutes. To be safe, you can gradually increase the timing until your skin eventually adapts to the peel. For the first week, leave it on for only 30 and then prolong the time you leave it on your face by 30-second increments every session until you work your way up to the recommended time limit.

If you’ve reached the maximum time limit and don’t feel any effect of the chemical peel, this would be time to move up in percentage. For instance, rather than using a 15% mandelic acid peel, you should move up to 25% and repeat the whole process, starting again at the 30 seconds mark for the first application.

With that said, as soon as you apply the peel, you should keep track of your time until the time you’ve allotted passed (30 seconds minimum, five minutes maximum).

Step 6: Remove the peel

Remove the chemical peel as per the instruction provided. Usually, the products come with a neutralizing solution. Apply a neutralizing solution to stop the chemical peel from working on your skin. If your chemical peel doesn’t come with any neutralizing solution, it means the chemical stops working as soon as you remove it from your skin.


Chemical peeling will leave your skin slightly red and irritated. It is also vulnerable to damage at this point, and that’s why you need to take special care of your skin in the aftermath. Here are the aftercare tips that you should follow after your chemical peel:

Treat your skin gently

Be gentle with your skin when you touch it or apply products. Don’t rub your fingers on your face. Some of the peeling skin remains attached to your face after chemical peeling until they fall on their own. You shouldn’t take the risk of pulling them out and damaging your skin.

Be very cautious if your skin is wet

The dead skin cells become soft when it’s wet. So, be careful when wiping the damp skin. If you rub too aggressively with your fingers, you can run the risk of damaging the healthy skin cells.

Never forget sunscreen

Your peeling skin is susceptible to sunburn, so sunscreen is a must! Remember to wear sunscreen daily. Choose a non-comedogenic mineral sunscreen of at least SPF 30. 

Limit the time spent outside

When your skin is peeling, it is best to protect it from the harsh environmental conditions. So, limit the time that you spend outdoors.

Use a gentle cleanser

Use a soap- and sulfate-free cleanser. Choosing a moisturizing formula can keep your skin clean yet supple.

Follow up with a gentle essence, toner, or mist

Once your skin is clean, apply an alcohol-free essence, toner, or mist to hydrate and soothe the skin. Avoid rubbing it onto your skin.

Apply a moisturizer

Moisturizer can calm your skin after a chemical peel session. Apply a non-comedogenic moisturizer liberally throughout the day. During the day, make sure you use a moisturizer with SPF; you can skip the SPF at night.

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