What is a chemical peel?
A chemical peel uses a chemical solution to improve the skin's appearance by removing
the damaged outer layers. It can reduce or remove fine lines under the eyes and around
the mouth. It can:
Correct uneven skin color (pigmentation)
Remove precancerous skin growths
Soften acne or treat scars caused by acne
Treat wrinkles caused by sun damage and scarring
Treat skin blemishes common with age and heredity
Chemical peels can be done on the face, neck, chest, hands, arms, and legs. Chemical
peels will not treat deep lines, change pore size, or remove deep scars.
Possible complications from chemical peels
Possible complications from chemical peels may include the following:
Change in skin color. For certain skin types, there is a risk of skin color change due to irritation. The
change can be short-term (temporary) or long-lasting (permanent). Taking birth control
pills, being pregnant, or having a family history of brownish discoloration on the
face (melasma) may raise your risk of developing the abnormal pigmentation.
Scarring. Chemical peels can cause scarring. But if scarring happens it can usually be treated
Infection. Exposing skin to bacteria sources before it is done healing can risk infection. This
can happen if you start using makeup too soon after a chemical peel.
Cold sores and fever blisters. People who tend to get cold sores or herpes simplex infections may have cold sores
or fever blisters after a chemical peel. Medicine may be prescribed to prevent an
Most complications after a chemical peel happen when post-treatment instructions are
not followed correctly. Be careful to follow all instructions from your healthcare
provider. A chemical peel is most often done for cosmetic reasons to improve appearance
and self-confidence. It may be done with a facelift or other cosmetic procedures.
But a chemical peel is not a substitute for a facelift. It does not prevent or slow
the aging process. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about medicines you are
taking and any unusual scarring tendencies.
What substances are used for chemical peels?
Chemical peels use alphahydroxy acids, trichloroacetic acid, and phenol. The exact
formula used may be adjusted for each person.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
These include glycolic, lactic, and fruit acids. They are the mildest of the peel
formulas. They create light peels that can often provide smoother, brighter-looking
skin. AHA peels may be used to do the following:
AHAs are sometimes used together with a mild beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Salicylic acid
is a BHA often used for hyperpigmentation and discoloration from acne scarring.
AHA peels may cause the following:
Generally, no anesthesia is needed for AHA peels. That’s because they cause only a
slight stinging feeling when applied.
Protecting your skin from the sun is important following AHA peels.
Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)
TCA is used for stronger peels. It can be used in many concentrations and is used
to do the following:
TCA can be used on the neck or other body areas. It may need pretreatment with tretinoin
or AHA creams. This procedure is preferable for people with darker skin.
Anesthesia is not usually required for TCA peels because the chemical solution acts
as an anesthetic. But you may be given medicine (a sedative) to help you relax before
and during the procedure. Two or more TCA peels may be needed over several months
to get the desired result. But mild TCA peels may be done more often. The results
of a TCA peel are usually less dramatic than a phenol peel and they don't last as
You should avoid sun exposure for a few months after a TCA peel. The procedure also
may cause some unintended color changes in your skin.
Phenol is the strongest of the chemical solutions and produces a deep peel. A phenol
peel is mainly used to do the following:
Correct blotches caused by sun exposure, birth control pills, or aging
Smooth out coarse wrinkles
Remove precancerous growths
Should be used on your face only. Scarring may result if used on the neck or other
Is not recommended for people with darker skin
May pose a risk for people with heart problems
May permanently remove facial freckles
May cause permanent skin lightening
May leave lines
May be more painful and require anesthesia
Usually requires skin to be pretreated for up to 8 weeks with retinoic acid
Recovery may be slow and complete healing may take several months.
After a phenol peel, new skin may lose its ability to produce pigment. The skin will
be lighter and will always have to be protected from the sun.
About the procedure
The procedure involves a chemical solution that is applied to the skin for several
minutes until it is washed off and neutralized. The solution causes a layer of skin
to separate and peel off. The healing process may take anywhere from 1 day to 3 weeks,
depending on the type and strength of the peel. The new skin underneath is usually
smoother, less wrinkled, and more even in color than the old skin.