A chemical peel is a skin-resurfacing procedure in which a chemical solution is applied to skin to peel away the top layers. The skin that grows back after a chemical peel is smoother and younger looking.
Chemical peels are used to treat wrinkles, skin discoloration and scars — typically on the face. A chemical peel can be done alone or in combination with other cosmetic procedures.
Chemical peels can be done at different depths — light, medium or deep — depending on your desired results. Each type of chemical peel uses a different chemical solution. Deeper chemical peels produce more-dramatic results, but also involve longer recovery times.
Chemical Peel Treatments
A chemical peel can be used to treat various skin problems. Depending on the issues you’re addressing with the procedure, you’ll choose a chemical peel in one of three depths:
Light chemical peel
A light, or superficial, chemical peel removes the outer layer of skin (epidermis). It can be used to treat fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone and dryness. You might have a light chemical peel as often as once a week for up to six weeks — depending on your desired results.
Medium chemical peel
This type of chemical peel removes skin cells from the epidermis and from portions of the upper part of your middle layer of skin (dermis). A medium chemical peel can treat wrinkles, acne scars and uneven skin tone. You might repeat a medium chemical peel every six to 12 months to maintain results.
Deep chemical peel
A deep chemical peel removes skin cells from the epidermis and from portions of the mid to lower layer of your dermis. Your doctor might recommend a deep chemical peel if you have deeper wrinkles, scars or precancerous growths.
Prepare for Chemical Peel
Before you have a chemical peel, your doctor will likely:
Review your medical history
Be prepared to answer questions about current and past medical conditions — especially any heart, kidney or liver conditions if you’re considering a deep chemical peel. Tell your doctor about any medications you’re taking or have taken recently — particularly those that might make your skin sensitive to the sun — as well as any cosmetic procedures you’ve had in the past. Be sure to tell your doctor if you’ve been using a retinoid cream (tretinoin), which can enhance the penetration of some chemical peels.
Do a physical exam
Your doctor will inspect your skin and the area to be treated. This will help him or her determine what type of chemical peel you might benefit from most and how your physical features — for example, the tone and thickness of your skin — might affect your results.
Discuss your expectations
Talk with your doctor about your motivations and expectations, as well as the potential risks. Make sure you understand how many treatments you might need, how long it’ll take to heal and what your results might be.
If you decide to proceed with the chemical peel, you might also need to:
Take antiviral medication
If you have a history of herpes infections around your mouth, your doctor will likely prescribe an antiviral medication before and after treatment to help prevent a viral infection.
Use glycolic acid lotion
If you’re having a light chemical peel using glycolic acid, your doctor might recommend using a glycolic acid lotion for two weeks before treatment to ensure a more uniform peel. Using the lotion ahead of time also helps you find out if you’re sensitive to glycolic acid.
Use a retinoid cream
If you’re having a light or medium chemical peel, your doctor might recommend using a retinoid cream (tretinoin) beforehand to shorten your treatment time and speed the healing process.
Use a bleaching agent
Your doctor might recommend using a bleaching agent (hydroquinone) and a retinoid cream (tretinoin) before or after the procedure to prevent skin darkening.
Avoid unprotected sun exposure
Too much sun up to two months before the procedure can cause permanent irregular pigmentation in treated areas. Discuss sun protection and acceptable sun exposure with your doctor.
Avoid makeup and hair products
Your doctor might recommend avoiding cosmetics, moisturizer and hair products — such as conditioner, mousse and hair spray — for 24 hours before a medium or deep chemical peel.
Arrange for a ride home. If you’ll be sedated during a medium or deep chemical peel, you’ll need help getting home after the procedure