What Is a Phenol Peel? Dermatologists Tell All

What Is a Phenol Peel? Dermatologists Tell All featured image
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Nowadays, there are so many different skin-care products and cosmetic treatments to target complexion concerns ranging from acne and rosacea to premature aging and sun damage. At a certain point, though, it can feel like no product or treatment is capable of delivering your desired complexion. In those instances, you may feel compelled to explore the controversial phenol peel, an in-office exfoliating treatment that comes with plenty of pros and cons. Before booking an appointment, though, keep reading to brush up on the basics of the anti-aging treatment.

  • Dendy Engelman, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in New York
  • Kseniya Kobets, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in New York
  • Michael Somenek, MD is a board-certified facial plastic surgeon
  • Rachel Nazarian, MD is a board-certified dermatologist

What is a phenol peel?

A phenol peel is a type of chemical exfoliation that’s performed in-office with a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. The treatment, which has been in existence since the early 1900s, went mainstream in the ‘80s and has wavered in popularity since. 

“A phenol peel is a chemical peel that uses phenol and carbolic acid to improve and smooth skin texture,” says New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. “It is one of the strongest and most aggressive peels available to treat moderate to severe acne scarring, skin discoloration, wrinkles and UV damage.” 

What are the benefits of a phenol peel?

As mentioned, phenol peels are renowned for their ability to drastically resurface the skin. “Different than trichloroacetic acid and hydroxy acid peels, phenol peels penetrate more deeply and are used to treat deeper skin issues such as wrinkles, acne scars and extensive sun damage,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Kseniya Kobets, MD. “They can also be used to firm and tighten crepey skin.” 

How do phenol peels work?

Like other popular peels, phenol peels promote skin shedding to reveal smoother, younger-looking skin beneath. “They work like other types of peels by denaturing and coagulating (dissolving) the protein in the skin, resulting in the shedding of the old skin, which then needs to reform and create new epidermis and dermis (collagen) underneath,” Dr. Kobets explains.

According to New York facial plastic surgeon Michael Somenek, MD, phenol peels are all about controlled damage to the outer layers of skin for the sake of a more even-looking complexion. “Phenol peels prompt the body to initiate a healing response,” he explains. “This leads to the formation of new skin that is smoother, firmer and more even in tone.” 

In other words, yes, phenol peels can make you look younger

But are they worth the risk?

Dr. Engelman, Dr. Somenek and Dr. Kobets all agree that phenol peels should be approached with careful consideration. “Phenol peels are considered quite aggressive compared to other types of chemical peels, such as glycolic acid or salicylic acid peels, and they require careful application by a trained professional,” Dr. Somenek says. “Due to their potency, phenol peels are typically performed under local anesthesia or sedation.”

What’s more, Dr. Somenek says phenol peels come with their fair share of cardiac complications. Because of this, he reiterates the importance of only booking a phenol peel with a reputable licensed professional, if at all. 

“With the addition of many energy-based devices that we have now, we are able to resurface the skin in other ways and minimize the downtime and other things associated with the phenol peel,” he points out. “For those reasons, [the phenol peel] is used less often.”

The treatment itself isn’t the only thing to be mindful of. The recovery time is notable, too. After all, phenol peels require extra TLC to heal properly. 

“Phenol peels are controversial due to the level of strength and deep penetration of the skin,” Dr. Engelman says. “The peel creates a wound that takes one to three months to fully recover.” 

In contrast, Dr. Engelman says other lower-strength chemicals (like glycolic peels) typically take seven to 14 days. Additionally, she says that the pain experienced during that healing period can be quite severe, to the point that a prescription sedative may be necessary. 

How much does a phenol peel cost?

If you’re still considering a phenol peel treatment, it’s important to prepare for the investment. 

“The cost of a phenol peel typically ranges from $3,000 to $7,000,” Dr. Engelman reveals. “This depends on your provider, the level of anesthesia you desire, and any additional customizations made to the procedure.”

 That said, if you opt for a lighter combination peel that merely contains phenol as one of a few ingredients, Dr. Kobets says, you can find options starting around $500. 

Who should get a phenol peel?

In addition to cost, you’ll want to consider your complexion before booking a phenol peel—not everyone is an ideal candidate for the treatment. 

For folks with pigmentation and fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Kobets suggests a light combination phenol peel; for someone with deeper wrinkles, acne scarring or melasma, she recommends deeper phenol peels. But she says to seek the treatment with caution. “I do stress to make sure to pick an experienced professional if considering deeper phenol peels as it takes skill to properly and safely peel at proper depths,” she adds.

While phenol peels can be beneficial for these skin types, both Dr. Engelman and Dr. Somenek recommend opting for something else. 

“I prefer to use and recommend a lower intensity peel and lasers like Fraxel that can deliver similar, effective results without the risks and long recovery time,” Dr. Engelman says.

“I do not recommend phenol peels for my patients because I prefer laser resurfacing for deeper rhytids, severe sun damage, and to diffuse imperfections to the skin,” Dr. Somenek adds. “I’m able to create a smoother-looking skin surface with a fraction of the downtime that someone will sustain with a phenol peel.”

The Takeaway

Phenol peels (in some form) have been around for nearly a century. While effective for creating smoother, younger-looking skin, the treatment isn’t highly recommended anymore. 

“Phenol peels have been around for years but have fallen out of fashion due to their high risks and long recovery, and newer, safer lasers that address similar skin issues,” says New York dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD.

If you decide to move forward with a phenol peel anyway, know that the recovery period can be an exercise in patience. 

“The recovery period for a phenol peel can be significant, with initial redness, swellin, and peeling lasting for several weeks,” Dr. Somenek admits. “However, the results can be dramatic, with significant improvement in the appearance of wrinkles, sun damage and other skin concerns.”

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