Shedding your skin

Chemical peels can help improve your skin, if you choose the right product and follow safety instructions.

Published: May, 2021

As you age, your skin changes, and not always in a good way. Some of the most common problems are caused by sun damage, including dark spots, rough texture, fine lines, and wrinkles. Chemical peels, which use a chemical solution to remove the top layers of the skin, are billed as one way to target these changes and improve the skin. Peels can be done at home, in a medical spa, or at a dermatologist's office. But the question is, are they really effective or good for your skin?

Dr. Hye Jin "Leah" Chung, assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, says yes, chemical peels can help your skin. But that endorsement comes with a caveat, she says. "They are beneficial as long as you use the right agent and the right technique," says Dr. Chung. Used incorrectly, chemical peels can be harmful and even cause burns or pigment changes.

How chemical peels work

When a peel is applied to the skin, the chemicals loosen the "glue" that tethers dead skin cells to the healthy skin underneath, allowing it to slough off. If used properly, chemical exfoliants can be less damaging than abrasive exfoliants that forcefully remove dead skin. This process not only makes your complexion look fresher, but also encourages new cell growth, improving the appearance and quality of your skin over time.

A home peel, which should only be strong enough to target the top layer of the skin, can help improve texture, uneven pigmentation, such as sunspots. and the appearance of some fine lines and wrinkles. Deeper professional peels go a little further, targeting deeper lines and scarring.

Types of peels

The most commonly used chemical peels on the market today typically fall into the following three categories, says Dr. Chung:

Alpha hydroxy acids. These acids are naturally found in foods. One of the most popular is glycolic acid, derived from sugar cane. And there are others, including lactic acid, which can come from milk, and mandelic acid, from almonds, to name a few. The effect of glycolic acid peels depends on how strong the peel is and how long you leave it on your skin. It's important to follow instructions on when to neutralize the peel or wash it off your skin.

Beta hydroxy acids. These acids are also derived from fruit, but are a little different from the alpha hydroxy acids because they are fat-soluble, not water-soluble. Salicylic acid, made from willow bark, is the most commonly used chemical peel in this category. Unlike alpha hydroxy acids, it doesn't need to be washed off or neutralized after it is applied.

Trichloroacetic acid (TCA). This is another type of acid peeling solution. The effect of these peels depends on the strength of the product and the number of layers of solution that are applied. Higher-strength peels (greater than 25% to 30% concentration) typically penetrate deeper in the skin, reaching the middle layer, which can target deeper scarring or pigmentation issues.

Common mistakes and safety tips

If you are using a peel there are some safety tips you should follow, says Dr. Chung.

Start slowly. Peels using alpha hydroxy acids, for example, come in various strengths, from 20% acid to 70% acid. "Starting at the lowest concentration for the shortest amount of time, 20% to 30%, would be a good start. If you start off with the 70% you may have a higher chance of getting chemical burns on your skin. Do not use highly concentrated peels at home.

Monitor your skin. You also need to pay attention to your skin response after chemical products are applied to your skin. If you develop blisters or severe pain in certain areas, you need to stop the reaction by immediately washing off the chemical agents or using neutralizing agents," she says.

Use caution with the hands and neck. Peels that can be used safely on the face might be damaging to the neck and the hands. The face heals more quickly than the neck or the hands and is less prone to burns.

Seek out a professional. Higher-strength peels that are designed to treat deeper layers of the skin should be done only in a professional setting. For a TCA peel, this means any formulation over 25% concentration, says Dr. Chung. However, keep in mind that while deeper peels performed by a professional can be effective, they've fallen out of favor in recent years. This is largely because of the increasing use of skin lasers, which are more efficient at targeting the skin problems addressed by the deeper peels. They typically have less recovery time and a lower risk of complications, says Dr. Chung. "We now have much better ways to treat things like deep wrinkles," she says.

But over all, chemical peels can have a place in your skin care regimen, provided you choose the right one and use it properly.

Image: © CasarsaGuru/Getty Images

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