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How do Chemical Peels work?

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

How much is a chemical peel and does it work?

Chemical peels have come a long way from the painful, red and skin-shedding treatments of years before. Now, we can reap the beautiful results of new skin without the effects of a sunburn. But how do you know if your peel worked when the actual peeling didn't occur? How Does a Chemical Peel Work?

In-office chemical peels, administered by a licensed professional, are designed to help exfoliate the outermost layers of the skin, promote radiance, stimulate collagen and target the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

“A chemical peel uses chemical agents to resurface the skin by inducing a controlled wound and removing a specific layer of the skin, whether that’s superficial, medium or deep,” says board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, “As a result, the peel promotes growth of a healthy, fresh, new top layer of skin, helps the appearance of different types of pigmentary conditions and improves the appearance of pores, texture, fine lines, wrinkles and more.” 1 Dr. Kenneth Howe of Wexler Dermatology explains, "The chemical solution used in the in-office treatment typically contains peeling agents such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid or trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Chemical peels exfoliate our skin by loosening attachments between skin cells,” he says. “While naturally occurring exfoliation takes place when enzymes called proteolases break up the bond between skin cells (called the desmosome), a chemical peel breaks up the desmosome by the direct action of the acid.” 2 Why Doesn't Everyone Peel? Peeling of the skin can happen after a chemical peel, however, not always. The likelihood of your skin peeling is a process of a few things: the concentration of the acid used, the type of acid used, and how long the chemical was left on. “Lightening glycolic peels often produce little in the way of visible desquamation, but salicylic acid or TCA peels are more likely to cause more visible shedding,” says Dr. Howe. “Patients will also peel less after their skin has been naturally exfoliated, like if they’ve recently peeled from the sun.” 2

Dr. Levin agrees that the strength and type of peel used are major factors in how much peeling you’ll experience. Additionally, how you care for your skin afterwards can also determine how if and how much your peeling will last. “Immediately after the peel your skin will likely feel tight, it might be a little red and any visible peeling will be fluffy or light,” she says. This typically lasts around five days. “But if you’re using a gentle cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen, it’s going to enhance the healing process and the results as well as the down-time.” 1

Did it Even Work if I Didn't Peel?

Rest assured, your peel is still working even if you don’t see peeling. “Visible peeling results from the peeling agents action on the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin), but peeling agents also exert influence deeper in the skin,” Dr. Howe says. 2 Even though your skin didn't peel, the dermis and epidermis (the outermost layers of skin) are still undergoing changes. “Peels can reduce visible pigmentation by their action on the basal layer of the epidermis and they stimulate collagen production by their activity in the dermis.” What’s more, it’s important to give yourself time to see results — they won’t be immediate. “You don’t judge the success of a peel by how much you peel, but by the end result the peel will produce,” says Dr. Levin. “Depending on the type of peel, I tell my patients they’ll start to see results as early as seven days after their peel or up to two weeks after their peel.” 1

You can expect to pay between $150 and $800 depending on the severity of the type of peel and the location. Having a deep peel done in a dermatology office will cost you much more and have much more elaborate results as well as longer down time than having a peel done in a spa.

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