A chemical peel is a skin-resurfacing procedure in which a chemical solution is applied to the skin to remove the top layers. The skin that grows back after a chemical peel is smoother and younger looking.
Chemical peels are used to treat wrinkles, skin discoloration and scars — typically on the face. A chemical peel can be done alone or in combination with other cosmetic procedures.
Chemical peels can be done at different depths — light, medium or deep — depending on your desired results. Each type of chemical peel uses a different chemical solution. Deeper chemical peels produce more-dramatic results, but also involve longer recovery times.
A chemical peel can cause various side effects, including:
- Redness. Normal healing from a chemical peel involves redness of the treated skin. After a medium or deep chemical peel, redness might last for several months.
- Scarring. Rarely, a chemical peel can cause scarring — typically on the lower part of the face. Antibiotics and steroid medications can be used to soften the appearance of these scars.
- Changes in skin color. A chemical peel can cause treated skin to become darker than normal (hyperpigmentation) or lighter than normal (hypopigmentation). Hyperpigmentation is more common after superficial peels, while hypopigmentation is more common after a deep peel. Changes in skin color are more common in people who have darker skin and can be permanent.
- Infection. A chemical peel can cause a flare-up of the herpes virus — the virus that causes cold sores. Rarely, a chemical peel can lead to a bacterial or fungal infection.
- Heart, kidney or liver damage. A deep chemical peel uses carbolic acid (phenol), which can damage the heart muscle and cause the heart to beat irregularly. Phenol can also harm the kidneys and liver. To limit exposure to phenol, a deep chemical peel is done in portions at 10- to 20-minute intervals.
Chemical peels can't decrease pore size or eliminate deep scars or wrinkles.
A chemical peel isn't for everyone. Your doctor might caution against a chemical peel or certain types of chemical peels if you:
- Have taken the acne medication isotretinoin (Amnesteem, Claravis, others) in the past six months
- Have a dark complexion
- Have a personal history of ridged areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue (keloids)
- Have abnormal skin pigmentation
- Have a history of frequent or severe outbreaks of cold sores
Why it's done
A chemical peel can be used to treat various skin problems. Depending on the issues you're addressing with the procedure, you'll choose a chemical peel in one of three depths:
- Light chemical peel. A light (superficial) chemical peel removes the outer layer of skin (epidermis). It can be used to treat fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone and dryness. You might have a light chemical peel as often as every two to five weeks — depending on your desired results.
- Medium chemical peel. This type of chemical peel removes skin cells from the epidermis and from portions of the upper part of your middle layer of skin (dermis). A medium chemical peel can treat wrinkles, acne scars and uneven skin tone. You might repeat a medium chemical peel after three to nine months to maintain results.
- Deep chemical peel. A deep chemical peel removes skin cells from the epidermis and from portions of the mid to lower layer of your dermis. Your doctor might recommend a deep chemical peel if you have deeper wrinkles, scars or precancerous growths. A deep chemical peel can only be performed once.