What is a chemical peel?
You might have first heard of these popular treatments by watching Sex and the City — and been nervous to try them ever since. But don’t let a show steer you away from glowier skin! Simply put, a chemical peel is an umbrella term for a range of topical chemical skin resurfacers. (Think of professional peels as a more intense version of at-home chemical exfoliators.) Peels are non-invasive, but they can still pack a skin-resurfacing punch. Depending on the intensity of the peel, these formulas can fade age spots, soften fine lines, and leave skin significantly younger-looking. Like any skincare treatment, peels are not one-size fits all. They come in a range of intensities with different active ingredients, including salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and trichloroacetic acid. These ingredients promote cellular turnover at different depths. The most intense peels may rely on a small amount of phenol to resurface skin. Before you sign up to get your skin sloughed, read on for everything you need to know.
What concerns can chemical peels address?In short: chemical peels are developed to resolve a great deal of skin woes, most of which come from aging and sun damage. Chemical peels can fade hyperpigmentation, surface-level scarring, and fine lines. This treatment can also promote a generally brighter, smoother, more youthful-looking complexion.
How do they work?As we age, our cellular turnover slows down (which is why you might notice a duller complexion with every birthday). Peels can speed up the process by manually shedding dead cells. All peels contain active chemical exfoliants (usually an acid). Once the peel is applied, the chemical exfoliator goes to work, breaking up dull, dead skin cells and removing them. Once that layer of skin sheds, younger-looking skin takes its place. (Note: the amount of skin shedding depends on how strong the peel is and how deep it penetrates the skin.)
Do they hurt?If you’ve ever tried an at-home chemical exfoliator, you already have an idea of what a light chemical peel feels like. Relatively speaking, the process is virtually free of discomfort — though you may experience a slight stinging or tingling sensation. Usually, there is no need for pain reliever medication during the treatment. Medium and deep peels are an exception; these formulas are usually spiked with anesthetic.
How much do they cost?You might want to start saving up. According to data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2017 the average price of a chemical peel was around $700. However, prices can vary depending on the intensity of the specific peel (light peels can cost in the low triple digits) and/or location (cities are generally pricier).
What are the risks?
While professional peels can provide intense resurfacing, they pose some risks. Possible side effects include redness, flakiness, sensitivity, and infection. In rare cases, hyperpigmentation and scarring are possible, as well as potential heart, kidney, or liver damage from the carbolic acid (phenol) in deep peels. Unfortunately, individuals with deeper complexions are at higher risk for hyperpigmentation. Chat with your provider about your individual risk factors.
Are they right for me?If you’re seeking smoother, brighter-looking skin, you could be a candidate for a chemical peel. (If fading deep-set wrinkles is your objective, however, you probably won’t be satisfied with your results.) Be sure to tell your doctor if you are using acne medication. Additionally, if you have open cuts and/or frequent cold sore outbreaks, abnormal skin pigmentation, or keloid scars, steer clear from peels.
What outcome can I expect after treatment?Immediately post-peel, your skin will likely look flushed and/or fully raw, depending on the intensity of the peel formula. After a deep chemical peel, your skin will likely swell, throb, and feel like it’s throbbing or uncomfortably tight, with redness lasting up to a month. For light peels, expect to see full results about a week post-procedure. The deeper the peel, the longer the healing process (one to two weeks) — and the more drastic the results.
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