Dermatologists and plastic surgeons have relied on professional-strength chemical peels for decades, and some of the before-and-after images I’ve seen over the years are incredible. In the right hands, a deep peel can transform the skin. But recently, at-home versions have been dominating the skin-care space, as people want serious results, but in the comfort of their own home. The goal? Deep exfoliation to improve fine lines, brightness and discoloration.
“At home peels, like most other DIY medical procedures, have gained popularity recently,” says Dr. Adrienne O’Connell, medical director and president of Laguna Beach Aesthetics. “With the advancement in solutions and treatments, it makes it tempting to just treat yourself at home.” The key word being “tempting,” because it would not be safe to use an in-office product at home unless you’re qualified to do so. Here, everything to know about at-home chemical peels, according to leading skin experts.
How do at-home chemical peels work?
“Chemical peels are skin exfoliants that rely on alphahydroxy (AHA) or betahydroxy acids (BHA)—glycolic, lactic, salicylic or trichloroacetic acids—to allow the skin to shed dead skin cells to make the skin look younger and healthier,” explains Boston facial plastic surgeon Jaimie DeRosa, MD. “At-home peels are generally less potent than professional peels that contain prescription-strength concentrations of active ingredients. Doing peels at home without professional guidance may be less expensive and more convenient, but it may take longer to achieve a desired result due to lower concentration of the compound.”
At-home peels often come as pre-soaked pads, or in the form of a bottled liquid that can be applied as a mask (the formula will either be rinse-off or leave-on). “The acids contained in the peel work as an exfoliant for dead skin cells on the outer layer of the skin, uncovering new and smooth skin underneath,” adds Dr. DeRosa.
Which one is right for your skin?
For beginners: NYC-based medical aesthetician Joie Tavernise, founder of JTAV Clinical Skincare, adds that AHAs are generally considered more gentle and are suitable for various skin types. “They work by loosening the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily sloughed off,” she explains. If you’re new to the world of at-home chemical peels, she recommends starting with mild peels, as they are gentler options. “Glycolic acid peels with a low concentration of 10 percent are often recommended for beginners. They provide a good introduction to chemical exfoliation without being too harsh on the skin.”
For acne-prone and oily skin: “The most common BHA used in at-home chemical peels is salicylic acid, which is oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate the pores and exfoliate deep within,” says Tavernise. “It’s particularly effective for acne-prone and oily skin types because it helps to unclog pores and reduce the appearance of blackheads and blemishes.”
For dark spots: “If you suffer from hyperpigmentation, I would recommend a peel with glycolic acid,” says Dr. O’Connell.
How do they differ from professional peels?
“Professional peels are administered by aestheticians, dermatologists or other trained professionals in a clinical setting,” Tavernise explains. “Professional peels use higher concentrations of active ingredients, such as stronger AHAs or BHAs, as well as other peeling agents like trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or phenol. The higher concentration and potency of these peeling agents make professional peels more effective in treating specific skin concerns, such as severe sun damage, deep wrinkles, acne scars, or hyperpigmentation. Professional peels can penetrate deeper into the skin and provide dramatic results compared to at-home peels, and they are usually performed as in-office procedures with specific pre-treatment and post-treatment care instructions.”
Dr. O’Connell adds that in at-home peels, you can expect to find a much less potent concentration of salicylic acid—2 percent or less—and glycolic acid at 10 percent or less. “This differs from medical-grade peels, which can run upward of 20 to 30 percent.”
Are at-home chemical peels safe?
When used correctly, Dr. O’Connell says a peel can leave your skin glowing. “However, when used incorrectly, it can damage your skin. They can over-exfoliate the skin, leaving it dry and irritated, and they can even cause hyperpigmentation and scarring. Therefore, it is crucial to follow the instructions and/or consult with a medical professional.”
“Start slow,” stresses Rachel Roff, aesthetician and founder/CEO of Urban Skin Rx. “Even if the directions say it’s safe to use daily, or every other day, just start with once a week to make sure your skin can tolerate it.”
“When using chemical peels, one should keep in mind that painful chemical burns, increased pigmentation and formation of scars may occur while using them, so it is better to avoid resorting to higher concentrations of acids and contact a skin-care professional if excessive redness or irritation occurs,” Dr. DeRosa adds.
What to Do After a Chemical Peel
DeRosa says it’s also a good idea to have a post-peel product on hand to soothe the skin. “I like Alphascience Regen [Hx], which is great post-treatment option. It is free of fragrance and alcohol and achieves soothing relief in minutes.”
Roff agrees, saying it’s crucial not to forget to moisturize your skin after a peel. “Don’t forget to moisturize! The high concentration of ingredients can be very drying, so you need to protect your skin’s barrier.” It’s also essential to wear SPF after using an at-home chemical peel, as skin can become more vulnerable to sun damage. “Always wear SPF daily, and make sure not to overuse the peel, or it will increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun even more,” Tavernise says.