What Does A Chemical Peel Do?

Have you ever looked in the mirror and thought to yourself: “Something’s off, I look flat and tired ?!” If you answered “Yes,” it may be time for a chemical peel. The good news is, superficial and medium-strength peels can be done at home, they’re cost-effective, and you’ll notice considerable benefit. What does a chemical peel do to enhance the skin’s natural beauty and radiance?

What Does A Chemical Peel Do? - Woman With Beautiful Skin

What Is A Chemical Peel?

A chemical peel is a noninvasive, cosmetic treatment used to rejuvenate the skin by accelerating cell turnover and stimulating new growth. Also, called chemical exfoliation, peels work fabulously to exfoliate the skin by dissolving the glue, or keratinocytes, that hold cells together. Peels thin the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer of the skin. The thinner this layer is, the better it reflects light, which enhances the overall appearance of the skin.

This improves skin tone and texture, while freshening and brightening the complexion. You’ll be amazed at how smooth your moisturizer and foundation will glide on following a peel. And the healthy glow radiating from your skin will make you smile each time you see your reflection. You can also do peels on the backs of your hands to minimize unsightly age spots and other pigmentation.

Peels come in different strengths, ranging from superficial, medium, and deep. The deeper the peel penetrates the skin, the more fibroblasts are activated in the dermal layer to stimulate the production of elastin and collagen, and the more keratin is broken up between cells. Each type of acid targets specific proteins in the skin to gently exfoliate and stimulate skin peeling.

For instance, lactic acid, a mild alpha hydroxy acid targets the keratinocytes, which make up 95% of the cells in the epidermis. TCA peels work on melanocytes, skin cells associated with pigmentation, and retinoic acid targets the sebaceous, or oil-producing glands in the skin. Lest you think chemical peels are new, consider that Cleopatra did lactic acid peels using soured milk. People living centuries ago knew the beneficial effects acids could have on the skin.

What Does A Chemical Peel Do To Enhance The Appearance Of The Skin?

The benefits of chemical peels are cumulative. A series of peels will yield more impressive results than just a single chemical peel.

  • Unclogs pores
  • Reduces pigmentation and age spots
  • Minimize fine lines and wrinkles
  • Improves skin texture
  • Hydrates the skin
  • Tighten and tones
  • Decreases melasma, sun spots and freckles
  • Gently exfoliates
  • Treats acne and acne scars
  • Boosts collagen and elastin by activating fibroblasts

Types of Chemical Peels

There are many different types and strengths of chemical peels, each varying in application, the degree to which the skin is penetrated, the skin proteins that are targeted, the benefits you’ll see following a peel, and the associated downtime. Dermatologists often use combination peels where two acids are used simultaneously. Following is a list of the different types of peels, ranging from mild to deeper peels:

Lactic Acid Peels

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from fermented milk. Lactic acid and glycolic acid peels are the two most common types of chemical peels and are among the mildest. Lactic acid peels work on the top-most layer of skin to treat superficial skin imperfections. Strengths range from 40-70%.

The large molecular structure of lactic acid makes it a good choice if you’re new to chemical peels. It’s not as irritating as other acids, but is still effective for smoothing, revitalizing, and hydrating the skin. Consider doing a lactic acid peel if you have dry skin. In the beginning, you can do a peel once or twice a week up to two months. For maintenance, a peel done every two to three weeks should be enough to maintain your results.

Glycolic Acid Peels

Glycolic acid is an AHA derived from sugar cane. It’s a fantastic choice for a chemical peel because of its ability to deeply penetrate the skin due to its small molecular size. Glycolic acid comes in strengths ranging from 10% all the way up to 70%. It’s my chemical peel of choice. The higher the acid concentration, the less time you’ll leave the peel on your skin.

Glycolic acid is stronger than lactic acid so it will sting more, but you’ll also notice more of a difference afterwards. I do a 40% glycolic acid peel once a month. It keeps my complexion smooth and radiant, without the downtime, and minus the after-effects, particularly the hyperpigmentaton that is common with some peels.

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Mandelic Acid Peels

Mandelic acid is an aromatic AHA derived from bitter almonds. It’s a great peel for treating acne because of its anti-bacterial properties. It also quells inflammation, evens out skin tone, stimulates cell turnover, eliminates blackheads, and reduces fine lines. A build-up of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin can make for a dull, lackluster complexion.

Mandelic acid peels are a good option for first-time peel users, and those with sensitive skin, because it doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply as some of the other acids, which makes it less irritating. It’s often used in conjunction with salicylic acid, and is a popular ingredient in cosmetics and skincare.

Salicylic Acid Peels

Salicylic acid is an oil-based beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that works well to reduce pore size, and to decrease the inflammation, irritation and redness associated with acne.

It’s a good choice for acne-prone skin. BHAs penetrate more deeply into the skin than do AHAs to soften and break apart keratin, the bond that holds cells together. Salycylic acid peels can be used by those with skin conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis.

Jessner Peels

Jessner peels use a combination of lactic acid, salicylic acid, and resorcinol (in the same family as carbolic acid) to remove the outer-most layer of skin to decrease scarring, lighten pigmentation, improve skin tone and texture, eliminate blackheads, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Lactic acid is used for its moisturizing effects, salicylic acid is a keratolytic that is able to dissolve the bonds between skin cells and resorcinol is a natural antiseptic. However, modified Jessner peels replace resorcinol with trichloroacetic acid. Jessner peels differ from other chemicals peels, in that they’re self-neutralizing, and are left on the skin for up to eight hours.

Jessner peels can be either superficial, moderate, or deep, depending on how many layers of acid are applied. They’re recommended for those with dark complexions, and are typically performed four or five times a year. Redness, mild swelling, stinging, and of course peeling, are normal reactions after getting a Jessner peel.

TCA Peels

TCA peels use trichloroacetic acid to plump and renew the skin by exfoliating dead skin cells, stimulating new cell growth, remodeling the dermis, and uniformly distributing melanin. They are considered to be a moderate to medium-deep peel. TCA peels are predictable and have been used for years. They can produce dramatic changes in the skin’s appearance.

Because tricholroacetic acid works on the melanocytes in the skin, TCA peels are a good option for those with melasma, a pigmentation disorder that causes uneven gray and brown patches on the face. They are applicable for all skin types, although people with dark complexions will need to use preconditioning agents, such as AHAs and retinoids, before applying the peel. Acid concentrations range from 5-30%. Burning and stinging is normal following a TCA peel.

Carbolic Acid Peels

This type of chemical peel, also called a phenol peel, is an aggressive, deep peel that yields dramatic results. It is usually performed just once, and is administered by a professional. People receiving the peel are sedated. Carbolic acid peels treat deep wrinkles, photo aging, and acne scarring. Deep peels cause significant swelling and downtime of at least a week is to be expected.

What Strength Peel Should I Use?

If you’re new to chemical peels, start by doing one every four to six weeks using a low-concentration acid. As your skin adjusts, you can gradually increase both the strength of the peel and the frequency. Milder peels can be done more often, with stronger peels needing more time in between to give the skin time to heal. Always gauge how your skin reacts and proceed from there.

Those with sensitive skin should opt for less aggressive peels performed less often until the skin has adjusted. Skin type also factors in. For instance, salicylic acid is a good option for people with oily skin, whereas lactic acid works well for dry skin. This, however is a generalization. Never do a peel if you have open wounds or are sunburned. I lay off my Retin-A for a couple of days before and after I do a peel, this applies to high-concentration retinol products, as well. I also don’t exfoliate two days before and after a peel.

More is not better when it comes to chemical peels, doing them too often can degrade the barrier function in the skin so always use discretion. Having said that, I’m a huge fan of at-home peels. They’re one of the best ways to keep your skin looking bright and refreshed on a long-term basis. If you do them consistently and safely, you’ll be more than pleased with the results.

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Side Effects

Redness, dryness, flakiness, crusting, sensitivity, mild irritation, and blistering (with deeper peels) are normal side effects of chemical peels and are to be expected. The deeper the peel, the more pronounced the side effects and the longer the downtime. Be prepared for you skin to also feel very tight and dry, at least the first couple of days following a peel.

Symptoms typically resolve within a few days, but deeper peels will take a minimum of a week. Moisturize often and be sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen when going outside. Refrain from using products with tretinoin and retinol for a few days afterwards and don’t exfoliate. After all, you just did!

Key Points

Improved skin tone and texture is a brilliant way to look and feel younger. As long as you use common sense, chemical peels are a powerful anti-aging strategy you can utilize from the comfort of your own home. They don’t take a lot of time, and they’re very cost-effective. Peels are one of those little-effort, big-reward type of deals.

Have you done a chemical peel at home? What type of acid did you use? Let me know in the comments:)



(1) NCBI: Melanocyte function and its control by melanocortin peptides

(2) ScienceDirect: Keratinocyte – Molecular and Cellular Basis of Hypertrophic Scarring

(3) Medical News Today: Sebaceous hyperplasia: Treatment and home remedies

(4) sharecare: How does a chemical peel work?

(5) healthline: About TCA Chemical Peels

(6) Medical News Today: What is melasma?

(7) NCBI: Skin Resurfacing Chemical Peels

8 thoughts on “What Does A Chemical Peel Do?”

  1. What a great list of different options!! I had no idea some of these existed. 

    I have eczema and have been looking for some alternative treatments online, so glad I found your list here :

    I remember my old dermatologist mentioning salicylic acid before, but I did not know there were acid peels that could help with various skin conditions. Thanks so much for spending the time putting all this information together for people like me, I look forward to using my new-found knowledge!

    • Hi Gabriel, 

      Thank you for reading. Yes, there are a variety of different peels, depending on what you having going on with your skin. You could do a salicylic acid one or a Jessner peel that has salicylic acid in it. Peels are fun and cost-effective and are a great way to keep your skin glowing. 

  2. Thanks so much for sharing great information. I’m glad to know more about chemical peels and what they are and how they work.

    A friend told me I should do one to feel better, but as the word chemical was there, I wanted to know more about this topic before I tried my hand at it.  

    After reading your article it’s clear to me this is what I need, and I will follow your tips and will start with a low concentration acid. I’m sure it will help. 

    • Thank you for reading. Chemicals peels are fabulous for enhancing your skin’s natural beauty. I can certainly understand how the word “chemical” could be concerning. Peels are safe, though, as long as you use common sense and caution. Best of luck to you in doing your first peel… 

  3. Nice post.

    I do experience flatness and tiredness in my face mostly after having a hectic day, it is really nice that chemical peels are cost effective. According to Dr. Amber, the plastic surgeon she said it improves the texture and pigment for healthy and fresh skin and also to remove wrinkles. I would like to try a glycolic acid peel because of its deep penetration in the skin. Thanks for letting us know this…

    • Hi Alexy,

      Thanks for reading my post on chemical peels. I feel flat and tired after a hectic day too. It’s when I feel that way after a full night’s sleep that gets me down. Chemicals peels get rid of dead skins cells and are amazing for rejuvenating the skin and making it look – well, not tired. They’re great for smoothing complexion and decreasing and unclogging pores. Do try a glycolic acid peel. You’ll love the results:)

  4. Hi, this is an eye opening post on the different ways to do a chemical peel. I will visit the website more often so that I can learn more skin care tips and tricks, and to improve my knowledge of how to take care of my skin better than I am now. 

     I love the way you have identified the natural sources of the chemicals that are useful for beauty peels. Nice post. Cheers!

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thank you. Skin care is just as important for men as it is for women so I appreciate you revisiting my site. I post a new article every week so please do stop by. 


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