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What Is a Chemical Peel?

Here’s the 411 on chemical peels.
  • Wendy Rose Gould
June 05, 2024

When you hear the words “chemical peel” your mind might go to the extreme—it does, after all, sound intense (we promise, they’re not as intimidating as they seem). You may also be wondering what a chemical peel is used for. And to that, the answer is just about everything: The right peel can help address a range of concerns, from fine lines and wrinkles to dullness and discoloration. It’s all about finding a peel that suits your skin type, concerns, lifestyle, and needs. To help determine if chemical peels are right for you—and identify the best approach for your needs—we’ve put together this comprehensive guide. Ahead we’ll answer some of your most pressing facial peel-related questions (starting with: what is a chemical peel, exactly?), explain how peels work, and offer insight on how to safely do an at-home chemical peel for your face.

How Do Chemical Peels Work?

A facial peel is a targeted treatment that uses specific chemicals to help exfoliate dead skin cells and reveal a brighter, smoother complexion. There are several types of peels available, but the Mayo Clinic categorizes them by strength, with light peels being the gentlest, medium peels a level up, and deep peels being the most intense options available.

  • Light Chemical Peel: The primary ingredients vary in mild chemical peels, but often include glycolic acid (a type of alpha hydroxy acid or AHA) and/or salicylic acid (a type of beta hydroxy acid or BHAs). These gently resurface the skin, and at-home peels (more on those shortly) typically fall into this category.
  • Medium Chemical Peel: A medium face peel takes things up a notch, and often utilizes ingredients such as trichloroacetic acid and/or glycolic acid, notes the Mayo Clinic. This goes deeper than a light chemical peel, but isn’t as dramatic as the deepest types of face peels.
  • Deep Chemical Peel: This is an extreme version of a face peel, and should only be administered by a professional in a clinical setting under medical supervision. Most often, this is referred to as a phenol peel, which utilizes a combination of phenol and carbonic acid. The Mayo Clinic notes that downtime is usually two weeks but your skin may stay red for several months.

If you’re debating whether or not a chemical peel is right for you, consult your dermatologist. They can help you identify the best way to manage your specific skin concerns.

What Are the Benefits of Chemical Peels?

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The goal with any chemical peel is to resurface the skin for a smoother-feeling, brighter, and more even-looking complexion. While deep phenol peels and medium peels are effective, they can also be accompanied by some pain and require a few days (or more) of downtime. That’s why we tend to prefer at-home peels, like the L'Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Dark Spot Peel. It’s formulated with a blend of AHAs, BHAs, and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), and helps improve the look of a range of concerns, including fine lines and wrinkles, discoloration, dullness, uneven skin texture, and enlarged pores. Plus, the gentle formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used up to four times per week for brighter, clearer-looking skin, sans a pricey visit to the dermatologist.

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Who Should Consider a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels can benefit many people, but you should determine what your skincare concerns and goals are before using one at home or having a professional treatment done. Light at-home face peels are best for those with minor skin concerns, such as dullness, dark spots, uneven texture, mild acne, or fine lines. Medium peels can target mild to medium tone and texture concerns. Some people opt to have these done professionally as a supplement to their at-home skincare routine.

Deep peels, on the other hand, are only intended for those with severe skin concerns such as deep wrinkles, significant sun damage, or extensive scarring. You’ll likely have at least one consultation with a professional before undergoing this treatment to determine whether you’re a good candidate.

Who Shouldn’t Get Chemical Peels?

Some people should steer clear of chemical peels altogether. This includes anyone with active infections (including moderate to severe acne), sensitive skin or conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, people prone to scarring, and those who are pregnant or nursing.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) notes that in some cases, people of color can develop discoloration following a face peel. That doesn’t mean chemical peels are off-limits for people of color—just that if you have darker skin and are prone to discoloration, peels are best left in the hands of a professional.

Is There Anything You Should Know Before Getting a Chemical Peel?

Facial peels come in all levels of potency, so make sure you know what type of product you’re using and/or what professional treatment you’re getting. When using an at-home chemical face peel, we recommend using a gentle, dermatologist-validated formula like the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Dark Spot Peel.

When seeking a professional treatment, we strongly advise asking lots of questions, doing lots of research, studying before and after images, and reading reviews. For either scenario, it’s also a wise idea to consult a dermatologist to make sure a product or treatment is the right step for you.

How To Do an At-Home Chemical Peel

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Each at-home chemical peel comes with its own set of instructions, so make sure to follow these directions to a T. There will often be information about how to properly prepare your skin, when and how often to apply the product, and details on whether you need to de-activate the formula, wash it off, or let it set.

How To Use L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Dark Spot Peel

To give you a better idea of what it’s like to use chemical peels at home, here’s a brief rundown of how to use the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Dark Spot Peel.

  • Step 1: Wash your face with a gentle cleanser and gently pat dry. Your skin shouldn’t be wet when applying the peel.
  • Step 2: Gently shake the bottle from side to side to mix up the formula.
  • Step 3: Turn the bottle upside down and squeeze the clear tip to carefully dispense the product into your hand.
  • Step 4: Apply to your face and let it sit for 15 minutes.
  • Step 5: Rinse with lukewarm water and follow up with a gentle moisturizer.

Keep in mind that products with alpha-hydroxy acids, including facial peels, can increase your sensitivity to UV rays. Post-peel, you’ll want to be extra diligent about wearing sunscreen. The AAD recommends using a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher to help protect your skin from sun damage.

If you’re looking for a sunscreen to add to your daily routine, we suggest the L'Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Daily UV Lotion. It’s suitable for all skin types and tones and blends seamlessly without leaving behind a white cast. Plus, the lightweight formula helps prime your skin for makeup, which may help to streamline your morning routine.

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What Can You Expect With a Professional Peel: Preparation, Process, and Aftercare

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Professional face peels involve a similar process as above in terms of the application of the product. Often, the peel is applied to freshly cleansed and dried skin, left to set for a designated time, and then deactivated with water or another chemical solution. However, depending on the potency of the chemical peel chemicals you may have more prep and post-care requirements.

Before a medium or deep professional peel, the Mayo Clinic notes that you may need to undergo a consultation that includes a review of your medical history, a physical exam, and a candid discussion of your expectations. They may also recommend or prescribe taking an antiviral medication and adjusting your current skincare routine/lifestyle habits.

Medium professional peels often result in some swelling, redness, and sensitivities, which can be soothed with protective ointments or creams and over-the-counter pain relievers. Typically, you'll be back to business in a week or two, or sometimes less depending on how strong the peel was.

A deep peel is more complex. It’s done in a surgical setting—like an operating room—and you’ll be put under sedation. During the procedure, your doctor will apply the peel, let it set, and then neutralize the treatment. Severe swelling and redness are expected for several weeks along with some crusting and skin peeling on the face. You’ll need to follow strict aftercare instructions that may include changing gauze, applying ointments, and follow-up appointments. Additionally, after a deep peel, you’ll have to avoid the sun—completely—for up to six months.

As you can see, the answer to “What is a chemical peel?” largely depends on the type of peel we’re talking about. At-home variations are often preferred because of their convenience; their gentle formulations offer little to no downtime and you can apply them as desired in your own home. Professional options come with more strings but may be beneficial depending on your specific skincare goals.

Next Up: 17 Common Skin Problems and How to Address Them

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