The term chemical peel refers to treatments that use a chemical solution to remove the sun- and age-damaged uppermost top layer of the skin. Nothing actually “peels” off, but the underlayer of skin that the treatment uncovers looks much smoother and less lined than the old layer. Chemical peels also help reduce skin imperfections other than wrinkles, such as acne scars and unwanted pigmentations (things like freckles, age spots, and melasma). They’re frequently applied in conjunction with other skin rejuvenation procedures, such as laser treatments and microdermabrasion.
Some peels are more aggressive than others — in other words, they work at greater depths. The depth of a peel depends on the chemical used and on how long it is applied to the skin.
Phenol Peels: Similar to a CO2 Laser
Phenol peels are generally considered the strongest type of chemical peel. Their effects are impressive — similar to those of an ablative CO2 laser. But, just as with a CO2 laser, phenol peels result in significant downtime (at least a week of recovery) and present the risk of hypopigmentation (whitening of the skin). In addition, with a phenol peel, your skin may lose its ability to make pigment, or tan. You will therefore have to carefully protect it from the sun for the rest of your life. Because of its significant side effects and risks, the phenol peel is used less frequently today than in the past.
There are several types of medium-strength peels, including those that use trichloracetic acid (TCA). Because of its milder effects on the skin, the TCA peel carries fewer risks than the phenol peel, although you will still probably want to wait at least a week before returning to your social routine. TCA peels can be used on the neck or other body areas, as well as on the face, and they’re safer than phenol peels for people with darker skin tones.
AHA Peels: No Downtime
The mildest peels use alphahydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic, lactic, or fruit acids. These are “lunchtime” peels — ones that impose no real downtime. With an AHA peel, fine lines and superficial skin problems are “lifted” away, giving your skin a smoother, more radiant look. Deeper wrinkles and problems, however, will remain untouched. AHA side effects include some minor redness and swelling, but these usually disappear within 24 to 48 hours. For best results, you’ll probably need several treatments, spaced 2 to 3 weeks apart.
As with any skin rejuvenation procedure, it’s important to consult an experienced physician before choosing or undergoing any kind of chemical peel.