Chemical Peels 101: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Some procedures for revitalizing, repairing, and making your skin radiant sound scary — like chemical peeling. What in the world is that, and how can it help your skin? Chemical peels have been around for a long time and help correct several skin issues! If you do not know about the benefits of chemical peels, this is a helpful insight to give you an idea of how this procedure works. 

If you’ve ever asked your dermatologist about removing signs of sun damage or improving fine lines on your skin, the two words “chemical peel” have probably come up. You might have even heard friends rave about their results.

Here’s the lowdown: “A chemical peel is a resurfacing technique used to improve the quality of the skin,” says Debra Wattenberg, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

While that sounds simple enough, the treatment can be an intense option, depending on the chemicals used and how deep they go into the skin. “A peeling solution, most commonly an acid, is applied to the skin to remove the outer layer,” says Dr. Wattenberg. Before you book an appointment (or pass on it altogether), here’s what you need to know about chemical peels, how they work, and if they’re right for you and your skin.

What Are Chemical Peels?

A chemical peel is one of the many tools a dermatologist might use to help remove age spots and improve acne scars and uneven skin tone.

How Chemical Peels Work

“The majority of chemical peels use various acids on the skin to create a controlled wound,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. While we typically think of wounds as bad things, in this circumstance they’re not. The treatment takes advantage of the skin’s ability to heal itself, and as a result, the wound-repair process can actually improve the appearance of pigmentation and skin texture, Dr. Zeichner adds.

Types of Chemical Peels

Not all chemical peels are alike, so you can expect a different experience depending on the strength of the acid and the depth of the peel, says Wattenberg.

Here are the three major types.

1. Superficial or Light Chemical Peels

“These types of peels are used to treat mild acne or uneven skin tone, or just to brighten up your skin, and most commonly they contain glycolic or salicylic acid,” says Wattenberg. Salicylic acid can help minimize acne bumps on the face and in other troublesome areas, like the back. Because this acid is are a beta-hydroxy acid, it can travel into pores and follicles and treat acne at its core. Meanwhile, glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid that stays on the surface of the skin and acts as a peeling agent.right up arrow It is a light peel, so you can expect dryness and mild exfoliation, says Wattenberg. And because this type is so superficial, the peels can be done every two to five weeks. “But remember, even the glycolic and salicylic acids can vary in strength,” says Wattenberg. That means there are varying degrees of what’s considered a light peel.

2. Medium Chemical Peels

These can be used to correct the physical signs of more extensive sun damage, deeper lines, and more significant wrinkling, says Wattenberg. “Traditionally these peels contain trichloroacetic acid (TCA) in combination with other chemicals, and peeling may continue for five to seven days,” says Wattenberg. TCA is a type of acid that can reach a number of depths in the skin (depending on how much is used), so it’s considered the workhorse of chemical peels.

3. Deep Chemical Peels

This is the most aggressive type of chemical peel. These require more downtime and are usually reserved for those with extensive sun damage, wrinkles, and fine lines, says Wattenberg. “These may contain stronger combinations of TCA, phenol, and other chemicals,” she adds. Phenol is the strongest chemical used in deep peels, and it can penetrate to the lower layers of your skin.

Who to See for a Chemical Peel

“The depth of the peel, the skin type, and the issue you are addressing should determine who should be performing the procedure,” says Wattenberg.

Certain light chemical peels are available over the counter at relatively low concentrations of active ingredients, and other light peels can generally be performed safely at medical spas or in an aesthetician’s office, says Zeichner.

Medium and deep peels are a different story. “Professional peels contain high concentrations of the active compound that penetrates deeply into the skin, so it is important that it’s performed by a professional like a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to make sure you have an even, safe, and effective peel,” Zeichner adds. Be sure your dermatologist or surgeon is board certified by looking them up on the American Board of Dermatology or the American Board of Plastic Surgery websites.

Wattenberg’s rule of thumb: “The deeper the peel, the darker your skin, the riskier the procedure, and therefore the need to see a more trained and qualified professional.”

When to Get a Chemical Peel

First and foremost, talk to your doctor about chemical peels and whether you’re a good candidate. “Chemical peels are a great option if you have dark spots, fine lines or wrinkles, prominent pores, or irregular texture,” says Zeichner.

Potential Skin Benefits of a Chemical Peel

As for the benefits, a light chemical peel may help improve your skin texture and tone, and decrease the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles. Meanwhile, if you have a medium chemical peel, your skin will likely appear markedly smoother, and a deep peel offers a dramatically different look and feel to your skin.

In addition to the cosmetic benefits, chemical peels can be used to treat acne scars as well as skin conditions that affect the color of the skin.right up arrow Chemical peels may also help remove precancerous skin growths.

Possible Complications of Chemical Peels

While it is a rare result, high-concentration chemical peels can cause permanent scarring, says Zeichner. “The most common potential risk associated with a chemical peel is a permanent or long-term change in the skin pigmentation,” Zeichner adds. People with darker skin tones are more at risk of changes to the skin color.right up arrow “Inflammation can cause the skin to heal with extra pigment in the form of a dark black blotch, or it can block pigment production, leading to a light blotch,” says Zeichner. The good news? “These pigmentary changes usually improve on their own over several months,” he adds.

Still, certain people should avoid chemical peels altogether. If you have a risk of heart disease, you should avoid deep peels with phenol.right up arrow Deep peels can (but rarely) cause serious complications such as heart, liver, or kidney failure.

People who are pregnant, have routine outbreaks of cold sores (a peel can lead to flare-ups), have scar tissue called keloids, or have used the medicine called isotretinoin (Myorisa, Claravis) in the past six months should avoid chemical peels.

Also worth knowing: Deep peels happen in a surgical setting, and you will be under general anesthesia.

How to Prepare for a Chemical Peel

When you visit your doctor, they’ll do an exam and help determine which type of peel is right for you and your skin, says Wattenberg. They’ll also go over your medical history and let you know of any risks with the procedure.

Then if you are getting a medium or deep peel, your doctor will likely ask you to do a special skin-care routine for about two to four weeks prior to your peel. This regime will help you prepare your skin for a better outcome.

The pretreatment regime could include a prescription retinoic gel or cream. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A and help thin your skin’s outermost layer, so that the chemicals can go deeper and more effectively into your skin.right up arrow You might also be prescribed a bleaching agent called hydroquinone in combination with the retinoic product if you have hyperpigmentation or blotchy skin.

In addition, your doctor may ask you to take an antiviral medicine to prevent infection and may suggest that you avoid sun exposure in the weeks leading up to your peel. You may also be advised to avoid facial masks and scrubs as well as hair removal procedures in the week prior to the peel.

Last, be sure to arrange a ride home afterward (especially if you’ll be sedated during the procedure). And when scheduling your peel, don’t choose a date close to an important event, says Wattenberg. “It takes time for the skin to recover from the peel,” she adds.

Chemical Peel Results and Follow-Up Care

After your peel, you can expect different results depending on the type of peel you received. A superficial peel will likely make your skin look brighter, a medium peel can make your skin smoother, while a deep peel will even out your skin tone and reduce wrinkles.

Your follow-up care will also depend on the type of peel.

A light peel takes one to seven days to heal, and there is no follow-up care needed with your doctor. After the peel, you will likely need to apply cream daily as well as sunscreen.

A medium peel can take 7 to 14 days to heal and will require a follow-up appointment with your doctor. To help you heal, your doctor will probably ask you to soak your face and use an ointment each day, as well as apply a cream and completely avoid the sun while your face heals.

A deep peel takes 14 to 21 days to heal, and your dermatologist will likely want you to visit the next day as well as several times after that. You’ll need to do multiple soaks with ointment application per day, use a thick moisturizer after 14 days, and completely avoid the sun for three to six months.

One thing to remember: “It is important to let the skin shed on its own and not to pull the peeling skin — physically removing skin that is not ready to be shed can lead to potential scars,” says Zeichner.

Alternatives to Chemical Peels

Not sold on the chemical peel? There are other options. “Skin resurfacing is a broad category that can be done with retinoids, chemical peels, microneedling, and a variety of lasers,” says Wattenberg. “There are a wide variety of choices, and determining the best procedure requires seeing a professional that can assess your skin and your issues, and determine the best option to achieve your goals.”

For example, when it comes to addressing acne scars, Zeichner prefers lasers or microneedling to chemical peels. “These can penetrate deeper into the skin than most peels to better address the irregular collagen that leads to scars,” he says. One review of research shows that lasers have become more popular than deep peels (at the same time, though, superficial chemical peels are on the rise).

Microneedling creates small puncture wounds in the skin that help stimulate the production of collagen.right up arrow Collagen is a protein that keeps our skin looking plump and smooth.right up arrow Lasers can stimulate the production of collagen, too. An ablative laser, for example, removes the epidermis and heats up the dermis (the layer of skin below the epidermis), which creates more collagen.


Whether you’ve always wanted to try a chemical peel or you only recently heard about the procedure, it’s important to discuss your options with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.

A light, medium, or deep peel could be best for you, depending on what needs to be addressed. Or your doctor may suggest a completely different procedure altogether, like lasers or microneedling.

Also, if you aren’t able to take the whole recovery time needed for a deep peel, it might not be the best option for you.

“Chemical peels are not for everyone,” says Wattenberg. But there are still plenty of positives. “Chemical peels are a great addition to some skin-care routines, and they can help you achieve your desired result more quickly than just using at home regimens,” she adds.

The medical experts at Shino Bay are well-versed in chemical peels and other procedures that can improve the quality of your skin and make you feel good about yourself, inside and out! We also carry top-of-line products to help you care for your skin daily.

Call us today to discover everything we can do to help you have radiant skin. 954.765.3005 or find us on Facebook.

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