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Chemical peels are one of the best anti-aging beauty treatments that can be done right in the comfort of your own home. Not only are they super easy to apply, but they can make your skin look younger, firmer, and brighter for a fraction of the cost you would pay at the doctor’s office.
I’ve been doing my own chemical peels for close to a decade. And I still remember how scared I was when I first started. Thankfully, that fear drove me to educate myself so I could perform my peels the safest way possible. And now today, it is something I love doing and teaching others how to do because the results are so amazing.
I promise you that chemical peels aren’t as scary as they sound. And once you see how easy they are to apply, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start sooner.
- Quick Review: What is a chemical peel?
- Are chemical peels safe?
- Am I a good candidate for a chemical peel?
- What are the side effects of chemical peels?
- How do I choose the right peel?
- What other materials will I need for my peel?
- How do I prepare my skin for a peel?
- How do I apply the peel safely?
- How do I treat my skin following a peel?
- What should I expect following a peel?
- I completed my first peel successfully, now what do I do?
Quick Review: What is a chemical peel?
Basically, a chemical peel is a solution that when applied, lowers the pH (thereby increasing the acidity) of your skin leading to the destruction of skin cells. The cells that are damaged shed themselves in a process known as exfoliation. While your old cells are being shed your skin begins to heal itself by regenerating new skin cells. This leads to smoother, brighter, more even-looking skin.
Chemical peels can treat a variety of common skin ailments including wrinkles, pigmentation, acne, stretch marks, and scarring. They also come in different strengths and formulations so you can choose the best one for your skin type.
It usually takes a series of peels (6-8) before you really start seeing results. Although you may notice some positive improvements right away.
Are chemical peels safe?
One of the reasons chemical peels work so well is that their active ingredient (usually an alpha or beta-hydroxy acid) is much more concentrated than what you would find in regular skincare products. This allows the peel to penetrate your skin much deeper, stimulating new collagen growth and giving you more profound results.
However, this also means you can do greater damage to your skin. But the thing to remember is that if you take your time and follow all of the safety precautions, there’s a very low risk of damaging your skin.
What about the scary photos online?
I know the internet has tons of scary pictures of people who have burned themselves doing their own chemical peels. But in many cases, they started with an acid that was way too strong for them or they weren’t a good candidate, to begin with.
Sometimes those pictures are also showing people who had a really strong peel (like a phenol peel) done in a doctor’s office. With strong peels like those, it is common to have red, peeling skin for weeks. This is why they are done under a doctor’s supervision and require a lot of downtime. You would never do a strong peel like that on your own at home.
Please note that I am not a medical professional. There are side effects that can occur from doing a chemical peel regardless of the precautions you take. To decrease your chances of experiencing unpleasant side effects, make sure you perform the recommended instructions and do patch tests whenever indicated.
Am I a good candidate for a chemical peel?
Before you even think about doing a peel, you need to determine whether or not you are a good candidate. In order to do so, you should always speak with your doctor. This is especially true if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or take any type of medication (both prescription and over-the-counter).
And I know a lot of this information can probably be found online. But it’s always good to ask a professional since there is a lot of misinformation out there. Examples of some common contraindications can be found below. Keep in mind that this is by no means a full list.
1) Pre-existing health conditions
Peels are contraindicated in people with certain medical conditions and allergies. People allergic to aspirin, for example, shouldn’t have salicylic peels as it can cause an adverse reaction. Peels are also not recommended for those that are pregnant or those with autoimmune diseases.
2) Prescription medications
Some medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) can affect your skin’s sensitivity. An example of this would be Retin-A, a highly popular topical treatment used for anti-aging. People who take Retin-A can still do peels but they must take special precautions.
3) Skin Limitations
Some skin tones respond better to peels than others. People with highly pigmented skin, for example, can end up with discolored skin or other unpleasant side effects. This is why doing your research beforehand is so important.
What are the side effects of chemical peels?
Some of the side effects of chemical peels include scarring, redness, irritation, peeling, changes in skin color, and more.
Preparing your skin properly, choosing the right peel, and following all recommended instructions can help you avoid many of these effects.
How do I choose the right peel?
Choosing the correct chemical peel is one of the most important things you can do. You always want to start with a gentle peel and work your way up. Staring with a peel that’s too strong will do your skin more harm than good.
This means that beginners should look for peels that are known as superficial peels. These types of peels don’t travel past the epidermis, which is the top-most layer of your skin. This makes them much less likely to cause redness, peeling, or irritation.
One of the best superficial peels for beginners is a lactic acid peel which will treat fine lines while brightening and evening out your skin tone. I would choose one in the 40-55% range with a pH between 2.0-2.5.
For in-depth information on the different types of chemical peels and the best places to buy them see the post: How To Choose The Best At-Home Chemical Peel For Beginners.
Where to purchase peels
I cannot stress enough how important it is to purchase your peel from a reputable seller. A reputable seller is someone who has been in business for a long time, has a great reputation, and knows everything about the peels they are selling. They are also readily available to answer any questions you may have during the peeling process.
I recommend purchasing your peels from either Platinum Skin Care or Makeup Artist’s Choice. Both companies offer sample sizes of their products along with kits that contain additional items you might need like prep solutions, applicators, and healing treatments.
These aren’t the only good places to buy peels from, but I’ve personally used these companies for years and have had nothing but good experiences with them. If you are having trouble deciding which peel to use or have any questions, feel free to contact them for assistance.
What other materials will I need for my peel?
Performing a peel requires a few different materials. This includes the items needed for the peel itself, along with the items for preparing and treating your skin once the peel is finished. I talk more about how to use these products in later sections.
Products to prepare your skin
To prepare your skin for your first peel, you will need to purchase several products that contain a low percentage of acid. These will be applied for several weeks before your peel so your skin can slowly grow accustomed to acid-containing products. For this, I recommended:
Products required for the peel application
For this phase, you will need all the items that are needed to apply the actual peel. This includes the following:
Note: In regards to the neutralizing solution, some chemical peels (like TCA and salicylic acid) stop processing on their own after a period of time and don’t require neutralization. Other peels with glycolic or lactic acid, however, do require neutralization so always check the peel instructions before applying.
Products for treating your skin post-peel
After a chemical peel, your skin will be purging itself of dead skin cells, oil, and other waste. So you will want to use products that will heal and protect your skin without smothering your pores. Two products you will want to keep on hand include:
How do I prepare my skin for a peel?
Discontinue regular skin care products
Some products, such as those with benzoyl peroxide or a retinoid, shouldn’t be used in conjunction with peels. These types of products should be discontinued at least one week before your peel (or sooner if you prefer). You should also stop using manual exfoliators like facial scrubs and avoid sun exposure, waxing, or anything that can irritate or cause trauma to the skin.
Begin introducing your skin to acid
Before you do your first actual peel, you want to prepare your skin by gradually exposing it to low levels of acid. Applying a low-strength acid at this time will not only help your skin get used to the acid, but will also help you peel more evenly.
To begin introducing your skin to acid, start by using a face wash that contains 5% glycolic acid. You will want to use this product at least once a day and gradually increase it to twice a day as your skin allows. You will want to use the face wash for 1-2 weeks. If your skin is reacting well (no redness or burning), you can move on to the next step.
Gradually increase acid level
For the next step, you want to start using a leave-on product in the evening, (like a serum) that contains 10-15% glycolic acid. The reason I prefer a serum over a moisturizer is because it’s lighter and usually doesn’t contain as many ingredients that can clog your pores. You will want to start off using the serum gradually (like every other day) before working up to every day.
Glycolic acid is not highly drying, but if you do find your skin drying out, you can cut back on the face wash, using it only once per day or not at all, while continuing with the serum. Use the serum for 1-2 weeks or longer if your skin needs more time to adjust.
When using products with acid, you may begin to experience clogged pores or other acne-related symptoms. This is due to an increase in the cell turn-over rate which causes purging (the removal of cell waste products).
If you are experiencing heavy purging, you may want to wait for it to die down before continuing to the next step. I also recommend that you avoid any heavy moisturizing products at this time which may trap dead skin cells, making your acne issues worse.
Let your skin rest
If your skin is reacting well to the serum, you can discontinue all your acid products and let your skin rest for a few days. You will know your skin is reacting well if it’s not red, irritated, or severely dry.
In the future when you are more experienced, you will probably find that the prep phase isn’t necessary. But for now, this is the safest way to introduce your skin to acid-based products if you are a beginner.
How do I apply the peel safely?
Physically applying the peel prep solution and the peel itself is a very simple process. You will start by washing your face with a very gentle cleanser. You will then apply the pre-peel solution, let it dry, and then apply the actual peel.
There are many wonderful instructional videos on Platinum Skincare, MUAC, and YouTube showing you how to apply your peel.
Below is a video from Platinum Skincare which does a great job of showing the application process and is the same way I apply my own peels. The only difference is that I use a cotton pad, as opposed to gauze (which is shown in the video).
Length of time to leave peel on
No matter what peel you start with, don’t leave the peel on for the full length of time that is recommended. You want to see how your skin reacts to the peel and then you can adjust the time as needed. To start, leave the peel on for sixty seconds or less before removing. It might tingle or irritate your skin a bit, but it shouldn’t be unbearable.
If you have pain or irritation
If your skin starts to feel really uncomfortable before time is up or if it just doesn’t feel right, remove the peel. Depending on how uncomfortable it was, you can try again in two weeks, leaving it on for the same amount of time and seeing if it’s more bearable.
Sometimes it just takes time for your skin to adjust. If the pain and irritation were completely unbearable, however, you may need a milder peel. There are tons of different peels out there with different acid types and strengths which might be better suited to your skin type.
Remove the peel
After your peel is completed, remove it using water or your neutralizing solution. If everything went okay and there was no severe irritation, you can do another peel in two weeks. For your next peel, you will extend your time by one minute. If you want to leave it on for longer, you can try. Just pay close attention to the way your skin reacts.
Note: It honestly took me a long time before I could leave a 30% glycolic peel on my face for a whole ten minutes. Today, I can do strong peels and barely feel it, even after layering it several times, but it took time to get there.
How do I treat my skin following a peel?
Apply products to soothe the skin
Right after a peel, your skin is going to be very sensitive as it starts to repair itself. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t recommend using a heavy moisturizer at this point in time. You don’t want to risk trapping the dead skin and other stuff your skin is trying to purge/exfoliate. Instead, find a light serum or something very mild like 100% pure aloe vera gel.
Avoid the sun
Following a peel, it is also extremely important that you protect your skin from the sun. Always wear sunscreen and don’t do any type of tanning. You should also avoid any products that you stopped before the peel such as Retin-A, any type of exfoliant, or anything that is drying to the skin. You need to give your skin time to repair itself.
What should I expect following a peel?
Redness & peeling
Depending on the type of peel you used and the strength, you may or may not experience redness, irritation, or peeling. And remember, just because you don’t peel at all, doesn’t mean the peel isn’t working.
If you do experience peeling, try not to pick it. It’s best to let it fall off on its own. However, after two weeks have gone by (and your skin isn’t irritated), you can try to exfoliate any leftover flakiness. Just make sure you are very gentle.
Other skin changes
Everyone will peel differently and your skin may look a lot worse before it gets better. This is one of the hardest parts to deal with.
Personally, with mild peels, I do not experience any side effects like redness or flakes. But, when I do several layers of a strong peel (like TCA), my skin goes through the following changes over 2-3 weeks which starts right after removing the peel.
My skin becomes super oily leading to clogged pores and breakouts.
My skin starts to dry out and looks tighter but no visible flaking (I like this part because it makes my skin look really firm).
My skin becomes overly dry and tight, making it look like I have more wrinkles and older skin (the worst part).
I start feeling really itchy. Skin flaking begins and grows progressively worse.
Flaking starts coming to an end and skin starts to look smoother and brighter.
I completed my first peel successfully, now what do I do?
Adjust and repeat
It is generally recommended that you do a series of 6-8 peels, each two weeks apart for optimal results. So if you successfully completed one full minute for your first peel, I would increase it to two minutes for the next time. Once you can leave the peel on for the full amount of recommended time (see individual peel instructions) you can experiment with layers or switch to a stronger peel.
Remember that patience is key. During the time in-between your peels, dead skin cells are being removed and replaced with new ones. It is this “repair process” that leads to clearer and brighter skin. So if you do your peels too close together, your skin won’t have time to repair itself and you won’t see the results you are looking for.
Returning to regular products
When you can return to your regular skincare products depends on the type of products you were using and how strong of a peel you did. If you are doing a series of peels, I would wait until you are completely done (and your skin has healed) to restart stronger products like Retin-A or other retinoids. So you may be off them for 2-3 months.
For other products you may have been using previously, I would examine them individually to see what the recommendations are. Products that contain active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or acids should typically be avoided until you are fully healed. If you have any questions, contact the person who sold you the peel for advice (another reason to use a reputable seller).
Gentle and unmedicated products should be safe to use like hyaluronic acid or water-based serums and moisturizers. When in doubt, avoid the product until you are certain it is safe. You can also try doing patch tests before restarting your regular products.
Increasing peel strength
If you don’t feel your peel is strong enough, you can increase the strength or change to a different type of peel. If you have used a 55% lactic acid peel several times, for example, for the full length of time with no issues, you may want to move up to a 30% glycolic acid peel. In this case, you should start by using the glycolic peel for one minute or less and working your way up as you did earlier.
Another option is to continue using the lactic acid peel but apply it in layers. Layering basically involves the application of a peel, waiting a set amount of time, and then reapplying the peel on what you previously applied. The amount of time you wait between layers is usually 2-5 minutes depending on the peel.
Layering increases the strength of the peel and should only be attempted with a peel you can leave on for the full amount of time and have done many times before without irritation. Until you are more experienced, just work on getting one layer on for the full amount of time.
Why aren’t I seeing results?
Keep in mind as a beginner, you are using a low-strength peel. In addition, you aren’t leaving the peel on for the full length of time as your skin adjusts. So it’s a slow journey, especially in the beginning – but the thing to remember is that you are doing this process safely, which is the most important thing.
As you move on to stronger peels, you will see more profound results. Higher-strength peels that contain glycolic or TCA, for example, will be able to treat darker spots and deeper wrinkles more effectively than a lactic acid or enzyme peel will.
Can I treat areas, other than my face?
Yes! Other popular areas for people to treat include the neck, chest, and hands. All of these areas are prone to sun damage and could definitely benefit from a peel. Personally, I recently started doing my neck to treat some horizontal lines that were beginning to form and have had some great results. Most other parts of the body can be done as well.
Some people also apply chemical peels to their lips and around their eyes to treat crow’s feet. As a beginner, I wouldn’t touch these areas which are both very sensitive. This is especially true with the eye area as you never want to get the peel solution inside your eyes.
What is frosting?
Frosting refers to a white coating that occurs on your skin during a chemical peel. The amount of frosting generally indicates the depth of the peel. You are unlikely to see frosting unless you are using a medium depth peel or greater, like a 15% TCA peel for example. Just keep in mind that even if you don’t see frosting, it doesn’t mean your peels aren’t working.
Are chemical peels good for acne?
Yes! Salicylic, mandelic, and lactic acid peels are especially known for their acne-healing abilities. These peels can treat many acne-related issues including scarring and hyperpigmentation.
There is also a special technique to treat acne scars known as the TCA cross method. This method uses a very high percentage of TCA which is applied using a very small (tooth-pick) sized applicator to indented acne scars. For more information on how to do this click here.
Will my face be a red flakey mess following a peel?
With superficial peels, like those with lactic acid, you shouldn’t experience any major skin issues, however, everyone is different. In my own experience, even stronger peels like glycolic acid or low-strength TCA peels, don’t give me much more than slightly reddish areas and flakey skin. But everyone is built differently, and your experience might be different. This is why we take things slow.
Stronger peels that make your skin look beet-red or even burned are usually done in doctor’s offices. Sometimes you may even need an anesthetic or pain killers for these types of peels. And you may not feel comfortable going out until several weeks later. Obviously, you should never do a peel this strong at home.
Are you doing your own chemical peels at home? Or getting ready to try it? Please let me know in the comments!