I’m just like the rest of the world in that I’ve always thought that getting an in-office chemical peel resulted in an alarmingly irritated face à la Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. So, rather than sign up for a dermatologist appointment in order to try out the formerly daunting exfoliating treatment, I’ve opted for at-home peels pads (hello daily use of Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel Pads ($88) and uber gentle resurfacing fruit enzyme masks to slough off dead skin.
And that was all fine and dandy, because I saw them chip away at my post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or PIH (AKA the ghosts of breakouts past) day-by-day, but all of the sudden I started craving instantaneous results. And so, I booked my first in-office chemical peel with just a dash of trepidation.
“A peel is an anti-aging treatment with a host of benefits that include exfoliation, but it also builds collagen, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, boosts radiance, shrinks pore size, diminishes dark spots, clears the complexion, and can even help with rosacea,” says Dennis Gross, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist with an eponymous skin-care line.
Essentially, it’s like a bulked-up exfoliation treatment: “Chemical peels accelerate your skin’s exfoliation through the use of acids, resulting in a more uniform complexion,” says Jordana Mattiolo, CompleteSkinMD aesthetician in NYC. This all goes to say that I needed one—immediately.
What it’s *really* like to get a chemical peel
I arrive at Mattiolo’s office bright and early one morning with a freshly cleansed face, eager for the treatment that promises baby-fresh skin. The first thing she does is examine my complexion under a harsh light. She confirms that my PIH could use some fading, and so Mattiolo decides to give me mixture of a brightening solution peel, that uses mandelic and citric acid to even skin tone, and a glycolic acid peel to resurface skin.
There are different peels for everyone, though. “I use over 30 different peels—we have different acids for different skin types,” Mattiolo tells me. “My glycolics range between 20 and 70 percent. For you, we’re going to use a 20 percent since I’m layering different acids, but the 70 percent isn’t scary.” Not only do peels differ in acid type, but in how they’re used, too. She explains that she can control the results of a peel based on differentiating factors like the combination of acids used and how long the peel is left on the face.
My skin type is normal but acne-prone, so I’m not necessarily a sensitive skin type. Those with a sensitive complexion don’t have to hesitate before getting a professional peel though, because peels can be toned down, too. “There are peels for everyone,” Mattiolo explains. “For my sensitive skin clients, I do either a lactic acid or a glycolic acid, depending on their complexion.”
With that, she starts swiping the acids on my face. All I feel is the cool sensation of the acid solution, with only a slight tingle. “The peel is left on for about a minute, and there’s a tingling sensation, but that depends on the type of peel or how experienced the patient is with peels,” says Dr. Gross. “A peel can be left on for up to five minutes. You can feel the acids doing their job, but you won’t experience any pain.” The brightening solution is left on my skin for roughly a minute, then Mattiolo wipes it off and slathers on the 20-percent glycolic from Neostrata. A mere 60-seconds later and the peel is done.
When Mattiolo neutralizes my skin, which, during the several-minute treatment only felt a bit itchy, my complexion is completely soothed. She then tells me to look into a mirror, and—once I do—I’m honestly shocked. “Your skin’s not going to physically peel—it’ll just feel amazing instantly. That’s the nice thing about this treatment,” she says. “It’s instant gratification. Some require a bit of downtime, but this isn’t one of them.” It’s true—already, my complexion looks brighter and more clear.
In even better news, your skin only looks more radiant as the days go on. “Over time, your dead skin cells microscopically come off because this peel loosens the glue within the skin cells,” says Mattiolo.
While you can say I’m newly addicted and would get a peel every day of my life, that’s not necessary in order to reap the full benefits. “I recommend a professional peel once per month,” says Dr. Gross. “If you’re treating something like stubborn acne, we may recommend one twice a month, but it also depends on the strength of the peel you’re receiving.” Mattiolo recommends getting one two to four times a year, but if you’e working on a particular issue, do them “monthly until you’re happy,” she tells me.
Though there’s no downtime, you still need to be gentle with your skin as it heals. “It’s best to stay on the mild or gentle side after a peel,” says Dr. Gross. “For about three to five days after, use a gentle cleanser, hydrating serum or oil, moisturizer, and, of course, SPF.”
It’s been a week since my chemical peel, and I’ve got to say that my acne scars have faded a little. My skin’s been glowy and more even, too, and I’ve already scheduled my next peel. So basically, my only wish is that I could take Sammy J. under my wing and show her how it’s really done—no veiled hats needed.
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