Pros and Cons of Chemical Peels: Experts Break It Down

Pros and Cons of Chemical Peels: Experts Break It Down featured image
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

Like mom jeans, scrunchies and Doc Martens, chemical peels are making a comeback. While it’s fairly certain everyone has fallen back in love with at least one ’90s-revival fashion trend of late and it’s easier than ever to jump head first into a trend without ample knowledge (thanks, TikTok!), it’s always smart to prep yourself on any treatment before you take the leap.

My skin-care journey has been a tumultuous one, with painful, cystic breakouts starting when I was just 13 and lasting into my 20s. While I was consulting my dermatologist about how to address my problem skin, I remember chemical peels coming up time and time again as an option, but I was always too scared to try, largely on account of my lack of knowledge on the treatment.

Nowadays, while noninvasive skin treatments like lasers, microneedling, radiofrequency and more have taken center stage, chemical peels remain one of the most popular and effective methods of rejuvenating skin and addressing an array of skin-care concerns from scarring to acne and more. Like anything, though, chemical peels have their pros and cons. If you’re considering starting your peel journey, here is what the experts have to say about the pros and cons of chemical peels.

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What Are Chemical Peels?

Before we can understand the pros and cons of chemical peels, it’s important to take a look at what a chemical peel is and what it means. “Chemical peels are light, medium or deep ways to exfoliate the skin by putting chemicals on the face that help to flake and/or peel the skin,” explains Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD. “They can be used on all different skin types of variable races and ethnicities and on both males and females. The percentage and potency of the chemical peel is what is most important, as some peels are too strong for certain races and ethnicities.”

“Chemical peels have been used for ages (dating back to Cleopatra or before!) to improve the look and texture of the face,” adds Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD. “They have gone in and out of favor with dermatologists for decades and are currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Depending on what you want to achieve, a mild to moderate peel may be a great option, but there are always going to be risks of peels if you have an infection or skin condition, so check with your dermatologist before any peels that are deeper than a superficial one.”

“Chemical peels are one of the most popular procedures and my Montclair, NJ office,” Dr. Downie continues. “There are probably at least a hundred chemical peels on the market today, but the most popular chemical peels are glycolic acid peels, salicylic acid peels, lactic acid peels or a combination of the three in addition to, Vi Peels, trichloroacetic acid peels and phenol peels.”

How Do You Know If a Chemical Peel Is Right For You?

As with any skin-care treatment, one of the most important thing to know when it comes to chemical peels is whether or not the procedure is right for you. While it may seem simple, Dr. Downie’s advice on determining whether or not a chemical peel is right for your skin is hugely important: consult your dermatologist.

“Typically, patients do not know if chemical peels will work for them,” Dr. Downie explains. “They need to seek the help of a board-certified dermatologist who has expertise in skin to help figure out what will work best for them. I also do not recommend that people purchase chemical peels over the internet as this type of behavior has resulted in serious chemical burns and sometimes permanent scarring.”

Pros of Chemical Peels

They Are One of the Best Skin Rejuvenators

“I believe peels remain one of the best skin-rejuvenation procedures for fair-skinned individuals that we have developed over the past 3,500 years,” says Spokane, WA dermatologist Wm. Philip Werschler, MD. His reasoning: “They can help even skin tone, reduce fine lines, improve overall texture, decrease acne scarring, smooth large pores, and remove rough spots and skin tags.”

They Are Cost-Efficient

Unlike other exfoliating treatments such as microneedling or lasers, chemical peels are typically more budget-friendly. According to Wayne, NJ facial plastic surgeon Jeffrey B. Wise, MD, “Because peels can yield excellent results for little expenditure, patients are able to complete our recommended series of treatments or come into the office for a skin ‘refresh’ without worrying too much about overspending.”

They Are Noninvasive

“Chemical peels offer a noninvasive and effective solution for addressing a variety of skin concerns, such as fine lines, the look of discoloration, acne, rough texture, and even actinic keratoses, but they don’t seem to have the ‘wow factor’ that lasers and newer combination lasers such as HALO or MOXI have with the public,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger.

“In many ways, I think of them as an introduction to skin resurfacing, but not the ultimate choice for someone with significant sun damage or wrinkles due to the risks of deeper peels versus the lesser risks with lasers when performed appropriately by appropriate physicians. Overall, it’s a great way to ‘dip your toe’ into trying more advanced skin treatments before treatments like lasers.”

Cons of Chemical Peels

A Lack of Quality Control

While the majority of peels done are of the “lighter” variety that aim to target texture and tone, stronger peels can cause scarring when put in the wrong hands, says Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD, who stresses that visiting a board-certified doctor or aesthetician is the way to go. “The internet has allowed inexperienced people to claim ‘expertise’ by simply purchasing a peel and watching a DIY video. When it comes to chemical peels, buyer beware.”

They May Require Substantial Downtime

Chemical peels are not a one- size-fits-all situation, and they require customization, depending on skin type. While Concord, CA plastic surgeon Eric Mariotti, MD praises them for this reason, he says that deeply exfoliating peels often come with some baggage. “Deep peels, such as the texture-improving phenol peel, are not benign procedures, as the recovery can take weeks. Plus, you need to avoid sun exposure for up to several months afterwards.”

They Can Be Imprecise

“In general, chemical peels have gradually fallen out of favor as they can be imprecise compared to resurfacing lasers,” adds Omaha, NE dermatologist Daniel Schlessinger, MD. “In contrast to peels, modern lasers are able to be fine-tuned to remove precise amounts of skin to specific depths and/or improve pigmentation and facial redness (e.g., with intense pulse light [IPL] or broad-band light [BBL]). This results in safer, more predictable outcomes which minimize the risks of scarring or color changes.”

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