If the phrase “chemical peel” brings to mind the infamous Sex and the City scene where Samantha wears a veil to hide her inflamed complexion, it’s time to shed some misconceptions. (See what we did there?) Actually, peels are some of the most effective, versatile treatment options out there. “Chemical exfoliation stimulates cellular turnover rate, bringing younger cells to the surface and improving skin’s barrier function,” says Inna Knyazevych, esthetician and co-owner of IN-GLO Med Spa. “It treats fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne scarring, and can even help to boost hydration levels of the skin.”
In other words, peels are a multi-faceted way to approach taking care of your complexion. And these days, there are so many different peel types and strengths, even the most sensitive complexions can benefit. Just make sure to discontinue use of retinols, BHAs, and AHAs three-to-five days before your treatment and religiously apply sunscreen afterward—as well as follow any additional pre- and post-care instructions from your doctor.
Wonder which skin peel is right for you? Here, we’re ranking at-home and in-office peels from least intense to most. Keep scrolling to discover the best one for your skin type.
Best for: Sensitive skin
If you’ve never tried a peel before or have very reactive skin, look no further. “One of the most gentle options, enzyme peels, are comprised of fruit enzymes that help to dissolve dead skin on the surface,” says esthetician Shani Darden. Because they’re activated by water and aren’t powered by a certain pH level (like most chemical peels), they only exfoliate away dead skin cells and not live, healthy cells too, explains Rhea Souhleris Grous, aesthetics director at Union Square Laser Dermatology. Enzyme peels are readily available for at-home use in addition to in-office treatments.
Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)
Best for: Dry skin
Glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid all fall under the AHA category. “Water-soluble AHAs are more hydrating for the skin and result in a plumping effect post-treatment,” says Lindsay Malachowski, esthetician at SKINNEY Medspa. At-home versions are available, but if you’re looking for more dramatic results, head to your esthetician or dermatologist. “In-office procedures are used with stronger concentrations and penetrate deeper into the skin,” says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. Either way, you’ll experience little to no downtime.
Try: GLO Skin Beauty Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant, $56
Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)
Best For: Oily or acne-prone skin
Remember salicylic acid, the ingredient found in all your pimple-fighting products as a teenager? It’s considered a BHA, and in peel form, and it’s worthy of all your adult acne struggles, too. “Salicylic acid is keratolytic, or keratin-dissolving, so it can penetrate into the pore to dissolve dead skin cell build-up,” says Dr. Engelman. “It also encourages the shedding of the top layer of skin, preventing the pores from becoming congested again.” In-office options may have minor side effects like redness, dryness, and flaking.
Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA)
Best For: Skin with fine Lines, textural issues, and hyperpigmentation (including melasma)
This vinegar relative is no joke. “When TCA is applied to the skin, it causes the top layers of cells to dry up and peel off over a period of several days to one week,” says Malachowski. “It provides excellent exfoliation while stimulating collagen production.” Though at-home options do exist, you should definitely entrust a professional with this one. You can expect three to seven days of peeling, depending on the strength of TCA used, says Dr. Engelman. Ask your doctor about Skinceuticals’ new in-office Smart TCA Peel, which contains 15 percent of the hero ingredient, and comes with a post-peel anti-inflammatory cream to quickly return the skin’s temperature to a comfortable level. In seven days’ time, it will leave you with happy, glowing skin.
Best For: Skin with severe hyperpigmentation and wrinkling
Admittedly, we’re entering Samantha Jones territory here. This tried-and-true carbolic acid-based peel has been around since the 1960s and should only be administered by a dermatologist or plastic surgeon (seriously). “Phenol peels remove part of the epidermis and can even be absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Knyazevych. They’re so powerful, they can also remove certain skin growths, she says. Redness, swelling, peeling, and crusting can remain for several days and even weeks. Worth it, considering the dramatic spot and scar-busting results can last up to 10 years.
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