Chemical peels have come a long way since Samantha burnt her face off in the old Sex and the City days. In fact, today they’re a trendy lunchtime treat you can safely have, and then return back to work without anybody knowing – because yes, despite their name, the most common ones come with minimal downtime. They can treat a whole spectrum of conditions from hyperpigmentation, uneven skin texture, ageing, and even acne. But how do you know if you need one, or which one might be best for you? We asked the experts to explain the world of chemical peels.
And how exactly do they work? Dr Cara McDonald, Director at Complete Skin Specialists, shares: “It’s a way in which we can exfoliate our skin in a controlled manner, without the potential traumas that can be caused via mechanical exfoliation. They work by breaking down the bonds between the cells in the top layer of the skin (the stratum corneum) and simultaneously stimulating new cellular turnover.”
“This then results in new fresh skin cells appearing at the surface, improving the appearance and function of the skin. This process can also stimulate collagen, elastin and pigmentary lightening, ultimately resulting in fresher looking skin with even skin tone and texture,” Dr Cara says.
There are many different types of peels on the market, but you’re most likely to find single acid based peels or blended peels like Jessner peels.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peels are often used in the form of glycolic, mandelic or lactic acid. “They can help with the early signs of ageing, skin texture, general skin rejuvenation, and even acne. They work on the surface of the skin to exfoliate off layers of the epidermis, smoothing fine lines and wrinkles, and sloughing off hyperpigmentation,” Daniel Isaacs, Director of Research at Medik8, tells us.
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA) peels on the other hand are great for oily and acne prone skin. “These peels contain salicylic acid, an oil-soluble exfoliating acid which is able to penetrate deep into pores,” Daniel explains. “They are great for minimising the appearance of blemishes and decongesting the skin.” Both AHA and BHA peels are superficial and don’t require a lot of downtime. But don’t panic if you do get some side effects: as Dr Cara says, “During the healing phase of a chemical peel, it’s common for clients to experience flaking or shedding skin, facial flushing and redness, mild swelling, darkening of pigment and somewhat sensitised skin.”
You might also want to opt for more mid-range peels, including ones composed of trichloroacetic acid (TCA), that offer slightly stronger results with some downtime. “TCA chemical peels come in varying concentrations, varying their peel depth from superficial to medium,” Dr Cara says. “It’s often applied as a sectional or spot chemical peel treatment for conditions such as solar lentigines (also know as liver spots), hyperpigmentation, solar keratoses and scarring.”
“These peels often require a little bit of downtime depending on the strength, location, and size of the area treated, although often this will just present as some darkening of the tissue and can be covered with makeup.”
Stronger Jessner peels – which traditionally feature a mix of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids in a specific ratio of 14% of resorcinol, salicylic, and lactic acid in an ethanol base – tend to have a multi-pronged treatment approach and can require up to five days downtime.
On the more intense end of the scale are phenol peels, which Dr Cara says are also known as deep peels – but they’re not for everyone. “Deep peels can be very effective, although effectiveness is also dependent on the particular candidate, as the downtime required for healing, and the potential risk of complications, is more significant.”
“Phenol peels are a rarer chemical peel treatment due to these contributing factors and the increase in alternate treatment options.”
While yes, chemical peels might be readily available to treat a range of conditions, they’re not for all skin types.
“Chemical peels are most predominantly suited to fairer skin types (on the Fitzpatrick scale, these are types I-III),” Dr Cara tell us. “Darker skin types can still be suitable for chemical peels, although the potential to hypo-pigment or hyper-pigment, and if the skin is adequately prepped, should be considered before embarking upon treatment.”
“So lighter and more superficial chemical peels should be undertaken to avoid post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation on darker skin types. Successful treatment endpoints can be achieved with the treatment of chemical peels in darker skin types provided all contributing factors and risks are approached correctly and safely.”
“In relation to suitable skin conditions, a chemical peel can help with photoageing, melasma, freckling, sun spots, actinic keratoses, fine lines and wrinkling, as well as acne, comedones and seborrheic skin types.”
Our final word? As always, the best way to find out if you are suitable for a chemical peel is via proper consultation with a skin professional.
If you’re interested in booking yourself in for a chemical peel, don’t forget that how you look after your skin following your appointment is almost as important as the treatment itself. Chemical peels will make you much more sensitive to the sun – hence why diligent use of SPF is a must – and it’s vital to use gentler skincare products to care for skin. We suggest you avoid active ingredients like vitamin A or acids for at least five days post-treatment.
Dr Cara adds: “Because a chemical peel has essentially induced fresh new cells and cellular activity, it is important that we protect these cells in the tissues in order for them to function at their full capacity. It is also very important not to pick shedding or flaking skin. Further down the track, the incorporation of active ingredients in at-home skincare (like vitamins A, B and C, and AHAs and BHAs) can assist in maintaining treatment results. This may also include prescription vitamin A, tretinoin and or hydroquinone. As well as SPF application, daily!”
Story by Yadira Galarza Cauchi