Chemical Peels: What You Need to Know

Young woman wearing dry cracking skin treatment.
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The older we get, the older we look. That's just the way it goes. Unfortunately, there is no fountain of youth, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to slow the aging process. Although we can't exactly do that, we've gotten pretty good at giving the illusion that we can. These days, people spend billions of dollars every year to try to look younger. There are anti-wrinkle creams, pills packed full of antioxidants, facelifts, other surgeries and a whole slew of homemade remedies that people swear by -- and even though many of them are a waste of time and money, some actually do work.

One treatment that does tend to work is called a chemical peel, and unlike a lot of procedures it doesn't try to hide behind its name. A chemical peel is just that. Doctors use chemicals that literally peel away layers of skin. That might sound scary, but if you've got all the facts it makes a little more sense. Chemical peels have the ability to make you look younger by eliminating the appearance of skin imperfections such as sunspots and acne scars [source: Levine]. The best part is that chemical peels work by taking advantage of a natural biological process that is constantly at work in our bodies. Most people probably don't even know it's happening.


Not all people have the same kind of skin. Over the years, you are subjected to different factors based on where you live and what you do. Luckily, there are several types of chemical peels to suit different individual needs, but they aren't cheap. If you decide you're going to get a chemical peel, be ready to break out the checkbook. The cost varies depending on the type of peel you get and the extent of your skin damage. There are also a few possible side effects you'll want to be aware of before you make your decision.

Keep reading to find out if a chemical peel is the right treatment for you.



Purpose of Chemical Peels

Skin is the biggest organ on the human body. It also happens to be the most exposed, and that means it takes a beating day in and day out. Every time we step outside, we expose our skin to harmful ultraviolet rays, changes in climate, pollutants and other elements that do damage. They can give us sunspots, wrinkles and other blemishes that make us look older. Luckily, we have a few biological processes working in our favor, and chemical peels give us the ability to use those processes to our advantage.

Here's what you need to know. We are constantly shedding our skin. In fact, we shed our entire skin about once a month, and as fast as we shed those cells, our body makes new ones to replace them [source: Vogin]. Often when we develop imperfections such as sunspots or scars, they only affect the top few layers of skin. So logic would tell us that removing those layers of skin would help remove those imperfections.


That's where a chemical peel can help. It literally removes layers of skin so that newer, healthier skin cells can surface. In the process, blemishes and other imperfections are peeled away. Depending on the extent of the damage, one treatment might not completely eliminate imperfections, but it can make them much less obvious.

Bottom line: The purpose of a chemical peel is to erase imperfections and improve skin tone and texture by removing layers of damaged skin. Read on to learn what's involved in different types of chemical peels and which might be best for you.


Glycolic Acid Peel

As far as chemical peels go, glycolic acid peels are among the mildest and most popular. That's largely because glycolic acid is considered to be natural. It comes from sugar cane and belongs to a family of acids called alpha-hydroxy acids or fruit acids [source: Pollick]. Think of it this way: If the fruit acids formed a football team, glycolic acid would be their star quarterback. It is by far the most popular and well-known acid of the bunch.

Glycolic acid has many uses. In fact, it's used in high concentrations to remove rust from metal, and anything with a glycolic acid concentration of more than 10 percent is considered a hazardous material [source: Pollick]. Keeping that in mind, most glycolic acid peels have a concentration of 50 percent or higher [source: Hilinski]. That means you're actually using a hazardous material on your skin, but considering what you're trying to accomplish, that makes sense.


During a glycolic acid peel, the solution is applied using a sponge and left on the skin for a predetermined amount of time based on concentration. It penetrates the skin and breaks the bonds that hold each layer together. Once the desired number of layers have been separated and removed, the acid can be washed off with water. Immediately after a treatment, the skin will look red and continue to peel for several days. The entire process from treatment to recovery can take a week or more [source: Hilinski].

Glycolic acid peels are mild when compared with some of their more hazardous counterparts, and as a result the outcome might not be as noticeable as you'd like. It's typical that multiple peels will be necessary to achieve the desired result. The upside is that there are very few complications associated with glycolic acid peels.

Keep reading to find out about a similar chemical peel that, like the glycolic treatment, also targets the superficial level of the skin.


AHA Peel

AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acids, which are also commonly referred to as fruit acids. We've already talked about how glycolic acid is the top dog in the alpha-hydroxy family, but it's not the only acid used for AHA peels. Lactic acid and citric acid might be used in combination treatments, and chances are you've already had experiences with both [source: Hilinski]. Lactic acid is responsible for that burning sensation you feel in your muscles when you do something strenuous, and citric acid is found in all citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons. Another alpha-hydroxy acid commonly used in chemical peels is salicylic acid [source: Levine].

Many AHA peels are sold in over-the-counter kits, but the concentration of acid tends to be low and consequently the results tend to be less noticeable. For more visible results, AHA peels can be administered in higher concentrations by a qualified physician. The solution is usually applied with a sponge, and the amount of time it's left on the skin depends on its concentration. Alpha-hydroxy acids help separate dead skin from healthy skin, and once this process is complete they can be neutralized using water. All in all, it shouldn't take more than 10 days to completely recover from an AHA peel.


The results of an AHA peel aren't necessarily drastic. In fact, it might take multiple treatments to achieve your desired result, but it can be effective in smoothing skin and evening out skin tone. It also tends to be a popular treatment for acne and reducing acne scars [source: Bernstein]. If you have sensitive skin, you'll probably want to stick with an AHA peel as opposed to some of the deeper peels on the market. You doctor should be able to help you decide which type of AHA peel is best for you.

Keep reading to find out about the strongest type of chemical peel.


Phenol Peel

Phenol peels and glycolic acid peels are at opposite ends of the chemical peel spectrum. Glycolic acid peels are considered mild, and phenol peels are incredibly strong. Often referred to as deep peels, they tend to give the most dramatic results but also require the most recovery time. The end result, however, is believed to last for years to come.

The procedure can take less than half an hour to perform, but afterward patients often look like victims of severe sunburn. The skin will be red and crusty, followed by scabs and flaking. It might take one to two weeks before patients feel comfortable going out in public, and some practitioners say the sunburned look could last as long as three months [source: Loftus].


If you think you can handle waiting three months to see the final result, the effects of a phenol peel have been shown to be very satisfactory [source: ASAPS]. Your skin could look smoother, tighter and, if you're lucky, blemish-free. Unfortunately, the treatment doesn't come without risk, and it isn't necessarily right for everyone. A phenol peel will often leave skin looking permanently bleached, which makes it less than ideal for people without fair complexions.

If the phenol sounds like too strong of a treatment, read on to learn more about a middle-of-the-road chemical peel.


Trichloroacetic Acid Peel

If AHA peels and phenol peels are at opposite ends of the chemical peel spectrum, then trichloroacetic acid peels fall right in the middle. Aside from being used in chemical peels, trichloroacetic acid is also commonly used to kill some types of warts [source: Mayo Clinic]. Since chemical peels remove layers of skin, using the same chemicals to remove warts makes sense.

Trichloroacetic acid peels are great for evening out skin tone and getting rid of imperfections, and, unlike AHA peels, they can even get rid of finer wrinkles. The results tend to be more noticeable than those of AHA peels, but less drastic than those achieved with phenol peels. Recovery time follows the same pattern. It takes longer to recover from a trichloroacetic acid peel than an AHA peel, but much less time than a phenol peel.


Unlike phenol peels, trichloroacetic acid peels can be effective for people with darker skin. They are less likely to leave your skin looking permanently bleached, but that doesn't mean there isn't any chance of discoloration. As far as popularity goes, trichloroacetic acid peels are right up there with AHA peels. This is largely because the concentration of trichloroacetic acid can be altered to produce results similar to those of both AHA peels and phenol peels [source: AAD]. Even better, the whole procedure takes less time than watching a sitcom.

Due to the nature of the treatment, patients are generally advised to wear sunscreen consistently after a trichloroacetic acid peel. As with any peel, the skin will be left red and exposed during the recovery period, but it doesn't take long for new healthier skin to surface.

Now that we've discussed the many different types of chemical peels available, it's time to get our hands dirty. Read on to find out about the possible side effects associated with chemical peels.


Side Effects of Chemical Peels

Chemical peels can be an effective treatment for removing damaged skin cells and allowing newer, healthier cells to take their place. The end result is usually tighter skin with fewer blemishes and fewer wrinkles. It almost sounds too good to be true. Here's the catch: Beauty is rarely achieved without a little bit of pain. It doesn't matter whether you spend time kicking your butt at the gym or you go to a dermatologist to get a chemical peel -- you're going to be sore the next day.

Chemical peels literally involve peeling away layers of skin. Think about the last time you accidentally scraped a need or an elbow. The area was most likely red and sore for a few days. Chemical peels have a similar effect. Treated areas are generally red and tender for days after your treatment, and depending on the type of peel you get, these side effects could last for weeks [source: AAD].


With glycolic acid and other AHA peels, recovery time is usually rather quick. In fact, a complete recovery can be expected in about a week. With trichloroacetic acid peels, it may take a little longer, but the side effects are similar. Phenol peels, however, require much more recovery time and the side effects can be severe. After a phenol peel a patient's skin will be red and incredibly sore. This is followed by oozing and scabbing, and then over the course of about two to four weeks the skin recovers to a state in which it simply looks sunburned. This sunburned look can last up to 3 months [source: AAD]. Phenol peels also might leave the skin looking permanently bleached. In fact, people with darker skin can usually see a definite line between treated and untreated areas.

Althogh phenol peels tend to be the most dangerous peels on the market, all types come with risks. Any of the above procedures can cause permanent scarring, discoloration or infection. This doesn't happen often, but it's always a possibility. If you've previously had herpes outbreaks, you might be in for some cold sores [source: Levine]. Also, patients with heart problems aren't ideal candidates for phenol peels [source: ASAPS]. As with any treatment, consult a physician beforehand and be honest about your medical history.

If a chemical peel still sounds like the right treatment for you, keep reading to find out just how much it's going to cost.


Chemical Peel Cost

If the side effects associated with chemical peels don't scare you, the cost just might. They can range anywhere from $150 to $6,000 or more per treatment [source: Doc Shop]. Let's break it down on a peel-by-peel basis, starting with glycolic acid peels.

When it comes to the most popular of the AHA peels, many physicians charge in the range of $100 to $300 for a glycolic acid peel [source: Doc Shop]. However, you should keep in mind that multiple peels are often required to achieve the desired result. Let's say it takes three peels to get your skin looking young and fresh. If each of those peels costs you $225, you'll end up spending $675. Other AHA peels, such as lactic acid and citric acid peels, are similar in price.


As a rule of thumb, the deeper the peel, the higher the cost, and the jump from a mild peel to a medium peel, such as trichloroacetic acid, is a big one. At the very least it could cost you about $1,000, but some doctors say it's more likely to be closer to $2,000 for your entire face [source: Loftus]. If you think that's expensive, grab your seat because the cost of phenol peels, also commonly referred to as deep peels, can range from $2,000 to $6,000, and in some cases even more [source: Doc Shop].

The prices of a chemical peel vary based on factors such as your geographic location and the extent of your treatment. It is possible to get a chemical peel on only a specific area instead of the entire face. People often target areas with more wrinkles, such as the corners of their mouth and those little crow's feet around their eyes.

If you've got the money and the time to recover, a chemical peel could leave you looking years younger. Read on to find out lots more information about chemical peels.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "Chemical Skin Peel: Deep (Phenol) Peel." (accessed 08/13/2009)
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