The Chemical Peel Process

All about chemical peels

A chemical peel and microdermabrasion are two techniques used by skincare professionals and dermatologists to help rejuvenative your skin and make it look younger, brighter and more refreshed.

Both chemical peels and microdermabrasion facials are techniques used to exfoliate your skin, reducing wrinkles, lines, hyper-pigmentation, sun spots, age spots and acne scars – to different degrees.

Even though they are both exfoliating techniques and treat the same problems, the results of chemical peels and microdermabrasion are completely different. Even within chemical peels, your results will depend on whether you use a light chemical peel, medium chemical peel or a deep chemical peel.

If you want to review exfoliation and facial scrubs, you can read them here:


What is a chemical peel?

Chemical peels are a treatment that regenerates and resurfaces your skin using chemicals to exfoliate the dead cells from the top layer of your skin. In comparison, facial scrubs simply use the abrasive action of their ingredients to exfoliate your skin.

Glycolic acid peels tend to be one of the most frequently used at-home chemical peels, and they come in a variety of different percentages.


How does a facial chemical peel work?

glycolic acid removes the dead skin cellsThe top layer of your skin is called the epidermis and the individual skin cells are held together by two supporting networks. 

First you have micro-filaments which run between the epidermal cells in a type of latticework and second you have an extracellular glue which also holds your epidermal cells together. 

Chemical peels dissolve this glue between the cells of your epidermis, whereas a microdermabrasion treatment breaks the micro-filaments instead. Both of these methods cause the top layer of your skin to break away (to be exfoliated) revealing new regenerated skin underneath, which is usually smoother, more even toned and healthier in appearance.


What are the different types of chemical peels?

With a chemical peel you are actually damaging your skin, causing a wound which can take time to recover. This damage is repaired by your body’s natural healing processes, which is why chemical peels are said to regenerate your skin.

The depth of the damage is determined by a combination of the percentage of chemicals in the solution applied and the length of time that it is left on your skin.

Chemical peels are generally split into three different categories:


A light chemical peel

benefits of glycolic acid productsLight chemical peels are also called superficial or lunchtime peels, glycolic acid peels (because they usually contain glycolic acid) and AHA peels (alpha hydroxyl acid). They are non-invasive and only penetrate the outer layer of the epidermis, gently exfoliating the outer cells.

They can improve the appearance of mild skin pigmentation problems, dry or rough textured skin, mild acne or very fine lines. 


A medium chemical peel

Medium peels may reach through the epidermis to the top layer of the underlying dermis and are of benefit to people with acne scars, moderate skin pigmentation problems, age spots or sun spots, and more established lines and wrinkles.


A deep chemical peel – medical grade chemical peels

Deep peels usually penetrate through the epidermis, into the deeper layers of the dermis and are of benefit to people with deep facial lines and wrinkles, sun damaged skin, scarring and more highly problematical pigmentation problems.

Beta hydroxyl acids and alpha hydroxyl acids (glycolic acid) are usually only used in light chemical peels, whilst glycolic acid and tricholoroacetic acids (TCA) are used in medium chemical peels with phenol based acids used in the deep chemical peels.


What is a glycolic peel?

A glycolic acid peel is a light or superficial chemical peel made from sugar cane, which gently exfoliates the top layer of dead cells from your skin.

As they only penetrate the epidermal layer of your skin, they are considered to be light chemical peels, as opposed to medium or deep peels. They are called glycolic acid peels because their main ingredient is glycolic acid.


What to expect after a chemical peel

Skincare. Face of young woman girl taking care of skin following a chemical peelA light chemical peel: Recovery following a light chemical peel can take up to 7 days and your skin will be red and scaly until it has healed properly. Use a good moisturizer followed by sunscreen every day.

A medium chemical peel: Recovery can take up to 14 days and your skin can be red and inflamed.  You might have blisters on your skin and your eyelids may swell.

Your skin can be crusty and peeling and you might have to bathe your skin and use special creams as well. It is important that you stay out of the sun during this time, until your skin has completely healed and wear sunscreen thereafter.

A deep chemical peel – medical grade chemical peels: Deep chemical peels can take up to a month to heal fully, your skin may be bandaged and it may require frequent bathing during the day. You will need to apply special creams and stay out of the sun for at least 6 months.


When is a chemical peel appropriate?

woman face with dry dehydrated skinDepending on the type of peel (light, medium or deep), a chemical peel may be of benefit if you have:

  • Acne scars, acne or blemished skin.
  • Fine lines or wrinkles.
  • Sun damaged skin.
  • Uneven pigmentation.
  • Dry, flaky skin.

So if you want to clear up your complexion, refresh your skin or rejuvenate your appearance without the long recovery times of the medium and deep chemical peels, a light chemical peel might be suitable for you.

There are times when even a light chemical peel is not appropriate, so here are a few contraindications for chemical peels:

  • If your skin is sunburnt.
  • If you have facial warts or cold sores.
  • If you suffer from keloidal scarring.
  • If you have wounds which have not healed in the area.
  • Waxing of the face in the past 2 weeks.
  • If you have used retinoid treatment in the previous 6 months.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • If your skin is irritated in any way.

For conditions that preclude a medium or deep chemical peel, consult your medical professional.


What are the benefits of a chemical peel?

The benefits of a chemical peel depend on the type of chemical peel (light, medium or deep) and how often and for how long it is applied, but in general can include:

  • An improvement in superficial scarring.
  • Hyper-pigmentation, uneven skin tones and age spots are reduced.
  • Smoother skin texture, and a fresher, healthier complexion.
  • Acne and blocked pores are minimized.
  • Moisturizers and serums are more able to penetrate your skin – increasing hydration.
  • Sun damaged skin looks healthier and fresher.


What are the side effects of a chemical peel?

woman removing a chemical peelIf you are considering any type of chemical peel at home, it is important that you consult your medical practitioner first. This is because there are some potentially serious side effects that can occur with chemical peels that are not performed by professionals.

In fact, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery states that you should consult a dermatologic surgeon before any type of chemical peel. 

The side effects of a chemical peel depend on your skin type, the chemicals themselves, their percentage and the length of time they are left on your skin. That being said there are a few generalities that you should be aware of when using chemical peels:

  • Redness of the skin may last for a few months.
  • Allergic reactions to the chemicals.
  • Pigmentation of the treated area may be different to non-treated areas.
  • Scarring of the treated areas.
  • Infections (medium and deep peels are usually accompanied by antibiotic cover).
  • Increased sensitivity to sunlight.

In general however, the light chemical peels tend to just have some skin redness and peeling, but always talk to a medical professional before undertaking any chemical peels yourself.



There are  4 parts to this exfoliation series:

Part 1: Exfoliation – Facial Scrubs

Part 3: Are chemical peels safe?

Part 4: Chemical peel vs microdermabrasion

To pop back to the Facial Scrubs category – click here

To read my chemical peel reviews – click here