When you hear the words “chemical” and “peel,” you probably don’t immediately think that’s something you want for your face. It sounds a little scary, but actually, chemical peels offer a range of skin health and cosmetic benefits. According to Dr. Amanda Champlain of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Carrollton, Texas, “One of the coolest things about chemical peels is how versatile they are. A good chemical peel improves skin tone and texture, manages chronic skin conditions, and even offers some anti-aging benefits. Generally speaking, peels are a budget-friendly, effective cosmetic dermatology treatment.” In this blog, Dr. Champlain shares more information about what you can expect after your first chemical peel.
What is a Chemical Peel & Why Would I Get One?
If you’ve never had a chemical peel before, you may be wondering what this treatment even is. Simply speaking, chemical peels are exactly what their name suggests. They are facial treatments that use chemicals (commonly-used ingredients include salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or trichloroacetic acid) to peel layers of skin, revealing healthy, new skin below. There are many different types of chemical peels. Depending on your specific needs and your dermatologist’s recommendation, you may choose a chemical peel option that ranges from very light (just the surface of the skin) to improve uneven skin tone and other mild symptoms, or you may choose a chemical peel that goes deeper to address fine lines, wrinkles, scars (including acne scars), adult acne symptoms, and other concerns.
Am I a Good Candidate for a Chemical Peel?
Chemical peels offer improved appearance for a wide range of skin tone and texture concerns. However, peels aren’t appropriate for every cosmetic need. Specifically, chemical peels aren’t recommended if your scars or wrinkles are very deep, and peels aren’t able to tighten sagging skin. For the most part, reasonably healthy people can safely receive chemical peels, but there are some health conditions and skin characteristics that make chemical peels less effective and increase the risk of adverse effects, including:
- Individuals who are receiving isotretinoin treatment for acne
- Individuals who have a personal or family history of scar tissue abnormalities such as keloid scars
- Women who are nursing, breastfeeding, or actively trying to get pregnant
- Anyone with open sores, lesions, infections, or poorly managed chronic skin conditions
- People who spend large amounts of time outdoors receiving direct sun exposure
- Individuals with naturally darker skin tone may be at an increased risk for pigmentation concerns related to chemical peels.
Do I Need to Do Anything to Prepare for My Chemical Peel?
According to Dr. Champlain, “We know you can get a chemical peel at the spa or even perform one at home, but before you do, we really recommend you talk to a dermatologist. This ensures you have the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about which chemical peel procedure is right for your skin. And, honestly, we encourage you to let one of our medical professionals perform the procedure to avoid any negative effects like pigmentation issues, scarring, and infection that happen when peels are improperly performed.”
Once you’ve decided that a chemical peel is the right option, your dermatologist will partner with you to develop a plan to prepare for your chemical peel treatment visit, which may include:
- Taking an antiviral medication to prevent skin infection
- Using a topical retinoid cream for a few weeks before your treatment to promote cell turnover and decrease healing time after your visit
- Applying topical bleaching agents like hydroquinone may also be recommended in the weeks leading up to your treatment as this can help to create an even skin tone and prevent hyperpigmentation after the procedure
- Using sunscreen daily and avoiding direct sun exposure whenever possible
- Applying a good moisturizer in the morning and evening to keep skin hydrated
- Reviewing and possibly discontinuing use of certain cosmetic products, hair removal chemicals, face masks, and other products that may increase the risk for adverse effects from chemical peels
- Forgoing shaving, plucking, or waxing in the area for at least 24 hours before your chemical peel
- When necessary, arranging for a ride to and from the office if you’ll be receiving a sedative
What Happens During a Chemical Peel?
In most cases, chemical peels are performed in your dermatologist’s office with no anesthesia or mild local numbing. For patients who are receiving deeper chemical peels, mild sedative medication may be used on the day of the procedure. Before we begin the process, we cleanse and dry the skin thoroughly, and then use thick emollients, gauze, or other methods to protect your eyes, hair, nose, and mouth.
The peel itself involves applying a chemical solution to the skin and allowing it to sit. You may notice some stinging or discomfort as the solution sits on the skin. Then, depending on the type of chemical peel used, the dermatologist may apply a neutralizing agent to the treatment area. Most often the entire area is treated at once, but sometimes deeper chemical peels are performed in small sections which allows the dermatologist to carefully monitor your response and adjust treatment.
Dr. Champlain says, “Some stinging or burning is normal during a chemical peel, but we never want anyone to be in excessive discomfort. At every step of treatment, we’ll do everything we can to ensure our patients are completely comfortable. That includes coming up with a good at-home care plan following the chemical peel to ensure you heal quickly and comfortably.”
What Should I Expect After My Chemical Peel?
According to Dr. Champlain, “Patients can be really fearful going into a chemical peel because they’ve heard horror stories about people who had bad reactions. When they’re done correctly by a professional and the right chemical peel solution is used for your skin type, you should see really good results with minimal discomfort and downtime.” Below, Dr. Champlain walks through the top 10 things you should expect after your first chemical peel.
1 – Side Effects are Common, but They Should be Mild & Short-Lived
There’s a common misconception out there that chemical peels are really painful or the side effects are severe. Each person will react differently to skin treatments of all kinds, but for the most part, the side effects following chemical peels should be mild and healing should be completed within two weeks.
A common recovery timeline may look like:
- First few hours – you’ll notice some redness, tingling, or burning
- First few days – you may notice some dryness, irritation, and mild swelling
- Two to Three days – your skin may look flaky or peel, and discolorations or imperfections may temporarily be more noticeable
- Three to four days – you may breakout or notice skin looks tan or slightly darker than usual
- Five to seven days – all side effects should start to subside, and your skin should begin to look and feel “normal”
- Seven to fourteen days – you’ll see the formation of healthy, new skin, but you may notice some redness or skin that is darker or lighter than usual for up to a month
2 – Your Skin Will Peel
Dr. Champlain says, “It is called a peel for a reason. The chemical is applied to peel away the existing layer of skin. After three to five days, you’ll start to see the skin peeling away. This should be similar to how your skin flakes away after a sunburn. You should gently remove the flakes when cleaning your face, but avoid pulling or picking at the peeling skin as this can cause irritation and increase the risk for infection.”
3 – One Treatment is Great, but Multiple Chemical Peels Deliver Maximum Results
Many people think they’ll achieve the results they want after just one chemical peel. It usually takes several treatment sessions to see the desired outcomes. Most people notice some improvement after their first chemical peel, but with multiple treatments over the span of several months, patients will be astonished by how much better their skin looks.
4 – You Will Likely Need to Visit the Dermatologist for Follow Up Appointments
According to Dr. Champlain, “While most people have very mild reactions following chemical peels, it’s important to pay close attention throughout your recovery period and let your dermatologist know right away if you notice signs of infection or have other concerns. Because of the potential for rare but serious health risks, we like to schedule follow up visits with our patients after chemical peels. This also gives us a chance to check progress and adjust ongoing treatment plans.”
5 – You May Need to Skip the Cosmetics for Awhile
For the first 1-2 weeks, you should not use any makeup. Chemicals and other substances in cosmetics can unnecessarily irritate the skin and prolong the healing process.
6 – Adjust Your Skincare Routine & Follow the Dermatologist’s Instructions
According to Dr. Champlain, “The body’s natural healing process is the reason chemical peels are so effective at improving skin’s appearance, so it’s essential to allow your skin to heal after treatment. I usually work with patients to plan ahead for their aftercare, including making product recommendations based on skin type for cleansing, moisturizing, promoting cell turnover, and of course, protecting healing skin from sun damage.”
While each person should talk to their dermatologist about a specific post-peel skincare plan, some basics include:
- Let the product work – You’ll start to see some dryness and other changes to your skin within the first few hours of application. To allow the product to work and avoid unnecessary skin irritation, you should avoid other skincare for the first 24 hours after your peel.
- Use dressing & medications – If you receive a deeper chemical peel, your dermatologist may apply dressings and healing ointments after your treatment. Follow your dermatologist’s recommendation for removing and replacing bandages and apply healing medications as recommended.
- Stay hydrated – As your skin is drying out and peeling away, it’s even more important to maintain hydration from the inside out by drinking plenty of water.
- Don’t pick at it – We know the dry, flaky skin is just begging to be pulled off, but try not to scratch, pull, or pick at your skin. This can increase the risk of scarring, and oils and germs transferred from the hands can lead to infection.
- Address pain & swelling – In most cases, taking a mild over-the-counter pain reliever is effective in managing discomfort. For very deep chemical peels or those who have a very low tolerance for pain, your dermatologist may prescribe something to help with your discomfort during healing. Additionally, you may be instructed to use cold compresses to manage symptoms during the first day and help avoid swelling and inflammation.
- Gently clean skin – After the first day, you should start washing your face in the morning and evening, using cool water and a gentle cleanser.
- Moisturize – Apply moisturizer at least twice a day to promote the healing process and protect the skin. Even if you typically have oily skin and only use a light moisturizer, you may need to use a good, thick moisturizer as your skin recovers following a chemical peel.
- Skip the exfoliant – Chemical peels are exfoliating, so you don’t need to use any exfoliant for the first week after treatment. That includes avoiding the use of exfoliating brushes and scrubs as well as cleansers or toners that contain a chemical exfoliant.
7 – Don’t Skip the Sunscreen!
Sunscreen is a must every day, but following a chemical peel, sun protection is even more essential. The skin is more sensitive to damage from the sun’s UVA/B rays. You should avoid exposure to the sun immediately after your treatment, and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher before going outdoors. Immediately following your chemical peel, you should not use chemical sunscreens. Instead, use a physical sunblock to avoid an adverse response to the ingredients in some chemical sunscreens. Additionally, keeping the treated area physically shielded from the sun by wearing hats, scarves, or other protective coverings may be recommended after your chemical peel.
8 – Avoid High Temperatures & Overexertion
To combat potential side effects like redness, tingling, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, you need to keep your skin cool. That means limiting time outdoors, taking cooler showers or baths, and avoiding overexerting yourself during exercise. In most cases, you can return to your regular routine after the first two weeks.
9 – You Might Break out
Dr. Champlain says, “Many patients receive chemical peels to help improve the appearance of acne scars or combat the symptoms of adult acne, so when they hear that they may break out after their chemical peel, it’s upsetting. Unfortunately, the combination of larger amounts of dead skin and inflammation from the procedure can lead to pimples. We know how frustrating it can be, but after this initial breakout, the skin should clear up within just a few days and look healthier.”
10 – Be Patient – True Results Take Time
Dr. Champlain says, “I always remind my patients that changes to the skin take a long time to accumulate, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it takes time to correct irregularities and damage. Cosmetic procedures do not restore youth overnight. The results of your chemical peel treatment plan will depend on the time you invest and your commitment to consistent treatment and at-home care. Be patient. If you’re concerned that a peel hasn’t had the desired effect, contact your dermatologist or ask about your results during your follow up visit.”
Schedule an Appointment at U.S. Dermatology Partners
When you’re ready to learn more about your chemical peel options, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team would love to hear from you. We’re happy to offer personalized consultation and treatment planning visits. You can complete our in-office scheduling form to request your consultation today. Once you’ve submitted your request for a consultation, our team will reach out to confirm your appointment date and time. We look forward to hearing from you.
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