“Honey, I’ve had a little something done.” In that famous Sex and the City episode, Samantha and Carrie—so good at hyping up Fendi baguettes, cosmopolitans and irritating men—demonized the chemical peel for an entire generation. Developed in the ’50s as a method for minimizing deep wrinkles and scars on the face, chemical peels are liquid acid mixtures that are applied to the face, neck and/or hands to cause exfoliation that results in the peeling and shedding of dead skin. “They’re powerful tools for refining skin texture and tone, and treat a variety of skin conditions such as sun damage, dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles, superficial scarring, and acne,” says New York dermatologist Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD. Although at-home versions are a dime a dozen, dermatologists and plastic surgeons recommend receiving these treatments in-office because they can be performed using a stronger concentration of ingredients for more effective results. These are the three most common types:
Also referred to as “lunchtime peels,” these 20-minute fast fixes are great for first-time peelers. “Milder concentrations of salicylic and glycolic acids, as well as lower-percentage trichloracetic acid (TCA)—between 10 and 25 percent—are used to penetrate only the outer layer of skin, gently exfoliating it to smooth rough areas, as well as improve mild acne, hyperpigmentation and fine lines,” says Covington, LA dermatologist Christel Malinski, MD. Expect mild redness that subsides after a day or so. Often, the skin won’t physically peel.
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“These are commonly made up of around 25–35 percent TCA and target deeper layers of skin to treat more substantial wrinkles and sun damage,” says Dallas dermatologist Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD. “As a result of the increased penetration, they can significantly improve skin texture and fine lines, and can also be used to treat some types of precancerous skin growths, such as actinic keratoses.” Medium- strength peels require about a week of healing time, as “skin is noticeably red and the peeling is heavier,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Igor Chaplik.
These potent peels use phenol to target lower layers of skin—so deep, in fact, that many of them are done in surgical centers. “They produce injuries within the dermis to treat moderate- to-severe sun damage and wrinkles,” says Dr. Houshmand. “While deep peels can offer the most dramatic improvement, they also come with a longer recovery—up to three weeks, during which the skin sheds severely—and a greater risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation, or hypopigmentation, especially in those with dark skin tones.”
An important thing to remember when doing any kind of peel is that the acidic formulas leave skin very sensitive to the sun. “Wearing a physical sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher post-peel is critical to ensure skin stays protected as it heals,” Dr. Levin says.
Gentle enough for daily use, Dior Capture Youth Age- Delay Progressive Peeling Creme ($95) clarifies, smooths and energizes skin; Murad Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel ($65) combines alphahydroxy, betahydroxy and transexamic acids; and 96-percent natural Sephora Collection Glow Peel Pads ($15) use glycolic acid from sugar cane to unclog pores.