This article has been reviewed by Dr. Aznaida T. Pandapatan, a board-certified dermatologist that practices both medical and cosmetic dermatology.
Chemical peels can be intimidating for newcomers and people with sensitive skin, but they’re needed to unlock a great and radiant complexion. In other words, skipping them is out of the question. Thankfully, you can enjoy all their benefits without worrying about irritation by mastering the technique of at-home chemical peels and knowing all the how-tos. From how you prepare the complexion to aftercare and what products to use, every detail is essential to sail through the world of facial peels without experiencing bad reactions. Rest assured, this post will teach you everything you need to know to do a chemical peel at home that’s just right for your skin. To get expert advice and find out all the ins and outs of facial peels, we turned to Dr. Aznaida T. Pandapatan, a board-certified dermatologist and founder at Pandapatan Dermatology Clinic.
What are chemical peels?
A chemical peel is a solution applied to the skin that aims to remove its outermost layer. Technically, it causes a controlled injury to the skin to trigger the natural renewing process and encourage the growth of new cells. Renewed skin is much smoother, radiant, firmer, evener, and less prone to breakouts and premature aging signs. That said, chemical peels have numerous benefits for the skin, and most often, they’re used to:
- Smoothen rough texture
- Enhance radiance on dull skin
- Reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles
- Minimize acne
- Regulate excess sebum
- Brighten dark spots
- Diminish acne scars
- Unclog pores
- Increase product absorption
Types of chemical peels
Chemical peels come in different strengths and use various chemical solutions to exfoliate the skin, primarily acids. Depending on the depth they go into the skin, chemical peels can be classified as:
- Superficial peels: These are the mildest and use 10–20% chemical solution to slough off the outer layer of skin (epidermis). They’re great to use at home and for starters and target early wrinkles, mild and moderate acne, uneven tone, and dullness. Depending on your skin’s tolerance, you can do a light peel every week.
- Medium peels: Use 20-50% solution and can reach the dermis (the middle layer of the skin). They aren’t recommended for home use and should be performed by a professional in an in-office treatment. Medium peels address deep wrinkles, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation.
- Deep peels: Provide the most dramatic results and are often used to treat melasma and saggy skin. Use 50-70% chemical solution. These are also not for home use and are only performed by professionals.
By the same token, depending on the solution used, chemical peels can also be classified as AHA peels (lactic, glycolic, and malic acids), BHA peels (salicylic acid and lipohydroxy acid), TCA peels (trichloroacetic acid), Jessner’s peels, and tretinoin peels. While AHA, BHA, and tretinoin peels can be safely performed at home if the right strength is used, TCA and Jessner’s peels should only be done by a professional because they’re more aggressive.
The difference between AHAs and BHAs is that the former are water-soluble, so they work more on the surface to remove dead cells and debris, while the latter are oil-soluble, so they can penetrate beneath the surface to remove bacteria and oil trapped inside the pores. Also, AHAs are humectants, meaning they can pull water from the atmosphere into the skin. For this reason, AHAs and BHAs are often used together in facial peels to act on different layers of the skin.
How to pick the right chemical peel for you
You should choose a chemical peel according to your type of skin, how sensitive it is, and what concerns you want to address.
- Oily and acne-prone skin: Should use a combination of AHAs and BHAs to remove impurities from both the surface and deeper layers. Tretinoin peels are also often recommended for acne-prone skin because they promote pimple healing and prevent bacteria from clogging the pores and triggering breakouts.
- Dry skin: AHAs work best for dry skin since they also increase hydration due to their humectant activities. Lactic acid is the mildest among AHAs, so it can work more delicately to revive a dry complexion without dehydrating it.
- Sensitive skin: Overall, it can use any type of superficial peel but in very moderate concentrations. Ideally, people with sensitive skin should start with a low concentration of peeling solution and gradually increase the strength as the skin builds tolerance.
- For fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots: AHAs and tretinoin are the most researched chemical peels for diminishing age spots.
- For acne scars: Since they’re unlikely to be improved with superficial peels, acne scars should be addressed with in-office treatments.
Equally important is to consider your skin tone. It’s well known that chemical peels can respond unpredictably to people with dark skin (specifically Fitzpatrick types IV to VI) because of the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. While people with fair skin aren’t refrained from using any depth of chemical peels, those with darker tones should only use superficial peels at home, preferably no more than 10-15% glycolic acid, 1-5% tretinoin, and 2% salicylic acid.
How to prepare skin for a chemical peel
If you plan to do a chemical peel at home, you need to have your skin ready for it. Applying retinoids or exfoliants (like glycolic acid) 2-4 weeks before the treatment is known to speed up the healing process and shorten the recovery time after chemical peels. The theory is that skin will get used to the rate at which cells die and grow so that it won’t be taken by surprise by the peeling solution. Also, according to a study, “topical retinoids or a prepeel solution can help to create a smooth skin to achieve a more even penetration of the peel.” In layperson’s terms, the peel will work more effectively if pretreated with retinoids.
Doing skin cycling three weeks in advance is a good practice to prepare the skin for chemical peels. It’s basically a method that involves alternating the use of retinol, exfoliants, and moisturizer in a four-day cycle to give your skin time to adapt and recover. You can read more about it and learn how to do a skin cycling routine here.
What to avoid before a chemical peel
It’s important to avoid using retinoids or exfoliants for one week beforehand. Both can disrupt the moisture barrier, and you definitely don’t want to apply a chemical peel on vulnerable skin. For the same reason, you should steer clear of products with high amounts of alcohol, fragrance, and sulfates while doing chemical peels because all can strip skin of moisture and dehydrate it. And never perform chemical peels on damaged, sunburned, or over-exfoliated skin because you risk compromising its integrity. Finally, cosmetic procedures such as microneedling and hair removal treatments should be avoided for at least one week before.
How to do a chemical peel at home
Do it at night
Chemical peels temporarily increase skin sensitivity to sunlight, so you should only do them in the evening. Also, since chemical peels regenerate the cells, and the skin repairs the most while you sleep, you get the most out of the renewing benefits of facial peels by doing them at night.
Do a patch test first
To avoid a skincare disaster, perform a patch test 24-48 hours before you intend to do the chemical peel. This will help identify possible reactions or sensitivities and signal if your skin will react to the peeling solution. Apply a dab of the solution on a small part of the skin behind your ear or underside of your jaw, let it act for 5-10 minutes, and rinse off with lukewarm. Wait 48 hours without applying anything to the tested patch. If you don’t experience any reaction, such as persistent redness, swelling, or irritation, you can safely use the chemical peel on your face.
If it’s your first time using chemical peels, it’s advisable to start low and slow so that your skin can gradually build tolerance. For example, for the first application, leave the peeling solution for only one minute. The second application—ideally done 3-4 weeks after the first one—leave the solution for two minutes, and so on, until you reached 5-10 minutes. You can do the same with the strength of the peel, especially if your skin is easily reactive. Start with a 5-10% concentration and gradually increase to 15-30%.
Considering you have everything prepared, and it’s a good day for a chemical peel (aka you don’t have active breakouts, sunburned or irritated skin), here’s how you safely do a chemical peel at home:
- Cleanse your skin: Use a gentle cleanser to wash your face and prepare it for the peeling solution. Avoid formulas with alcohol, fragrance, and sulfates, as they can strip the skin of moisture.
- Apply the solution: Apply a thin layer evenly across the face and leave it in according to the product instructions, usually between 1 to 10 minutes. While a mild tingling and stinging sensation may be experienced, if anything becomes too uncomfortable, immediately rinse off the solution.
- Rinse off: After 1-10 minutes, remove the solution with lukewarm water or, if the product comes with one, a neutralizing solution.
- Follow up with a moisturizer: Apply a healing ointment or emollient moisturizer with ceramides and fatty acids to soften the skin and support the recovery process.
- Use sunscreen in the morning: Use a lightweight and non-comedogenic sunscreen with at least 30 SPF in the morning.
How to care for your skin after a chemical peel
After a chemical peel, the skin will peel and be left red, tight, dry, slightly irritated, and quite sensitive for the following 3-5 days. So by assessing a proper aftercare regimen, you keep these adverse effects at bay and encourage better and faster healing.
First thing first, don’t use retinoids, exfoliants, and other potent actives for the first 3-4 days after you have had the chemical peel. The rule of thumb is to limit your skincare routine to a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen until your face has recovered (usually 1-2 weeks). Use a gentle and hydrating cleanser that does not deplete essential moisture, and apply a lightweight sunscreen every morning.
What moisturizer you use after the chemical peel is another key factor in how well your skin will recover. Because the skin loses its lipid barrier, which consequently increases water loss and reduces resistance to bacteria, most dermatologists recommend applying a healing and antibacterial ointment with emollients and occlusives for the next week. Emollients help restore the epidermal barrier while occlusives seal moisture into the skin to reduce water evaporation and maintain it hydrated.
Look out for products with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids, as these are lipids identical to those found in the epidermal barrier. Petrolatum is also often applied by doctors after in-office treatments due to its antibacterial powers and occlusive ability to coat the skin with a protective film and reduce moisture loss. For example, CeraVe Healing Ointment is a great product to use after chemical peels because it contains all the aforementioned ingredients to restore damaged skin.
To control inflammation and calm the skin, you may also use cool compresses or ice packs. And never but never pick, rub, or scratch your peeled skin because it can result in scars.
And finally, give your skin enough time to repair and regenerate before doing another chemical peel or applying exfoliants and retinoids. Usually, it takes 1 to 2 weeks for the skin to recover completely.
What to avoid after a chemical peel
- Picking at the skin
- Exposing your skin to the sun without sunscreen
- Letting the skin dry out
- Using retinoids
- Going to the spa, sauna and intense physical exercise
- Performing another chemical peel before the skin is fully recovered
- Drinking alcohol
- Exposing your skin to cold weather, wind, or excessive heat
Side effects of chemical peels
The adverse effects are mostly temporary and include redness, swelling, stringing, tingling, burning, irritation and dryness. Nonetheless, chemical peels are aggressive treatments and can cause severe damage to the skin if misused. Be mindful when picking the peeling agent and the depth of the peel you want to use. Also, chemical peels increase photosensitivity and may result in melasma and hyperpigmentation if you expose your skin to the sun immediately after the procedure.
- What is the best chemical peel for beginners?
Superficial peels are most suitable for beginners. A 10-15% glycolic or lactic acid peel should be a good start for most people.
- Can I do a chemical peel every week?
According to Dr. Aznaida, “the minimum gap between peels is ideally 2 weeks.” But depending on your skin tolerance, you can do a superficial chemical peel up to once a week. However, you should never do a chemical peel before your skin is completely regenerated.
- Can I use chemical peel with retinol?
To avoid compromising your skin's lipid barrier, you should not use retinol for at least one week prior to a chemical peel and one after the treatment.
- How long does it take skin to recover from a chemical peel?
The skin usually takes 1 to 2 weeks to recover from a chemical peel. You'll know your skin is fully recovered if it no longer peels and looks and feels plump, radiant, soft, and moisturized.
- Why skin looks worse after a chemical peel?
“A chemical peel is meant to remove and slough off the aged cells on the topmost skin layer, to reveal the fresh new ones underneath. It's therefore expected that your face will be more or less uneven, reddish, blotchy, and mildly irritated. These are all normal, but if you think what you may be experiencing is out of the ordinary, it's ideal to contact your dermatologist asap,” advises Dr. Aznaida T. Pandapatan.
- How to treat breakouts after a chemical peel?
According to Dr. Aznaida, “during breakouts after a chemical peel, it is ideal to use mild cleansers, light moisturizers, and avoid picking on the breakouts as this may lead to scarring. If breakouts are persistent or worsening, it is more cost effective to have a consult with your board-certified dermatologist.”
- Why is my skin not peeling after a chemical peel?
If your skin is not peeling after a chemical peel it could be due to several reasons. You either used a lower percentage of the peel that did not effectively slough the topmost skin off. “This could also be due to delayed peeling. Some patients experience delayed shedding of skin (especially on the legs),” says Aznaida. “There could also be micro-peeling that is happening. Meaning, you shed off the skin cells on tiny clumps so you cannot appreciate sheets of skin being sloughed off. This usually depends on the percentage and chemical used,” she adds.
Products we recommend
- Chemical Peels for Dry Skin
- Chemical Peels for Oily Skin
- Chemical Peels for Hyperpigmentation
- Glycolic Acid Peels
- Salicylic Acid Peels
- Lactic Acid Peels
Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.
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