If you’re like me and you love chemical exfoliants but want to take it to the next level, then you might be interested in trying out some chemical peels. Dermatologists and some beauty salons perform all manner of peels, but you can easily and safely do light chemical peels at home.
What is a chemical peel?
A chemical peel involves applying a chemical on your face for a short period of time, which will kill the outer layers of skin. Once these layers slough off, you’re left with fresh skin. They can good for treating a smorgasbord of skin problems, like hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and acne.
Peels are usually classified by how much skin is affected – how deep does the peel go? We’ll be talking only about the most superficial peels here, because the deeper peels are dangerous to do at home. For more on the finer differences between different peel depths, see my earlier post on chemical peels.
Why do we need to exercise caution?
Chemical peels are controlled chemical burns. We’re talking about burning off your skin here – the chemicals we’ll be using can potentially blind you if they get into your eyes, or scar you permanently if you leave them on too long. Going too quick is particularly bad for people with darker skin – you can end up with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which is where your skin gets dark patches after damage (if your knuckles are darker than the rest of your skin, you’re probably susceptible to this). Don’t let these warnings put you off though – with sensible safety precautions, you’ll be right as rain.
How do I start?
The general approach is to gradually build up your skin’s tolerance to the acid. Your skin does not need to flake off to have had a successful chemical peel! In fact, if you’ve built up to it, the only visible sign of your peel is your skin’s new smooth glowiness. Going slowly will also decrease your chances of getting those dark PIH patches.
1. Start off by getting a sunscreen with high UVA and UVB protection that works for you. My favourites are Biore Aqua Base Watery Essence, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Cream and Bioderma Photoderm Milk and Fluid. Sunscreen is super important because deep exfoliating will increase your susceptibility to sun damage, which gives you the things you’re trying to get rid of (hyperpigmentation, wrinkles etc.). You don’t want to come out of this patchier and wrinklier than you started! Alpha hydroxy acids are particularly notorious for inducing photosensitivity (sun sensitivity).
2. Next, choose your peel. The most common beginner peels are the alpha hydroxy acids glycolic acid, mandelic acid or lactic acid, or salicylic acid, or a combination. Each of them have their own pros and cons.
Of the alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid is the most commonly used so there’s the most evidence for its effects, and it’s supposed penetrates further (presumably because it’s a small molecule and can get further through the skin), but this also makes it more likely to be irritating. Lactic and mandelic acid are gentler alternatives.
Salicylic acid peels are usually recommended for acne treatment while the alpha hydroxy acids are usually recommended for anti-ageing, since salicylic acid can get through sebum more easily, but there really aren’t enough studies to make a definitive claim either way. Salicylic acid is structurally related to aspirin, so if you’re sensitive to aspirin, avoid it.
3. Start using a leave-on version of the peel (a chemical exfoliant) after cleanser and before moisturiser. For example, if you’re working towards a glycolic acid peel, you’ll want to start off with 4-8% glycolic acid. Start slow (maybe once or twice a week if you have sensitive skin), and work up to daily. This gets your skin used to the acid. Make sure you wear sunscreen every day!
4. After a couple of months, if you see improvements in the right direction but want more (some people find exfoliants enough!), you’re ready to buy a peel. Buy the lowest percentage of the peel you can find. The approximate percentages for at-home peels for each acid are listed below:
There are also peels which contain a combination of active ingredients. Makeup Artist’s Choice has an excellent range of peels – I’ve tried their 8% Beta Hydroxy Serum so far. I’ve also used [re]fresh Fruit Acid 15% Gel Peel, which contains glycolic, lactic, kojic and pyruvic acids in a thick, easy-to-use base. I’ve also tried Goldfaden MD’s Fresh A Peel, but unfortunately I can’t say much about it because I couldn’t find enough info about its ingredients!
5. Before your first peel, stop using exfoliants, retinoids and benzoyl peroxide for a couple of days, and don’t use them for a couple of days afterwards.
6. For your first peel, you’ll want to leave it on for 1-2 minutes. Everyone has their own way of applying the peels, but here are my tips:
- Apply on a clean face.
- Start applying from the least sensitive areas (forehead, nose, chin) to the most sensitive (cheeks, broken skin, around the nostrils). This means that you won’t have to rinse areas off early when the pain gets too unbearable in one spot only.
- If it’s a peel with a very watery texture, applying with a cotton bud (Q-tip) will keep mess to a minimum. Some people use fan brushes but I feel like they waste too much product.
- If you applied the peel with your fingers, make sure you don’t forget to wash your hands with soap during the waiting time.
- It will sting, especially if you have any broken skin. If the stinging gets unbearable before the time’s up, don’t try to brave it out, just rinse it off. The pain usually gets more bearable over the next few sessions, but keep in mind that a peel is a controlled chemical burn, and too much pain can be a warning that you should stop.
- To rinse off, you can either use cold water or dilute baking soda solution to neutralise the peel, followed by a foaming cleanser. I find it easiest to use a wet towel or just shove my face into the showerhead (with eyes firmly closed) – it’s hard not to make a mess when your face is stinging! I use diluted soap during my wash – the alkaline soap cancels out the acidic peel ingredients so I don’t accidentally go to sleep still peeling.
- Moisturise afterwards, and give your skin a break from any harsh products (retinoids, scrubs, chemical exfoliants, benzoyl peroxide) for a few days.
7. Wait at least a week before your next peel. If the pain was OK for you, you can add 30-60 seconds each time until you hit the recommended maximum. If the pain is too much, go slower. Make sure you wear sunscreen! Your face may peel afterwards, but you might not see any peeling even if the peel was perfectly effective.
Final word of warning: Don’t be tempted into going too quickly – a chemical burn is NOT pretty!