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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Sautel

Chemical Peels: What even are they?

What is it? You hear people talk about them all the time, but not enough to know much about them.

A chemical peel is a procedure in which a chemical solution is applied to the skin to remove the top layers. Essentially, a controlled burn to the area. The term "chemical peel" sounds so scary, but really when you see a well-trained practitioner, the process should be anything but scary.

Chemical peels can treat wrinkles, correct scars, pigmentation, and help treat acne. There are many different types of peels that have different depths. I offer light to medium depth peels, deeper peels must be done under the care of a doctor and generally have recovery time associated.


  • Active viral or bacterial infections ( We won't want to spread them around the area or to others. This includes cold sores. If you have history of cold sores [even only ever one time], tell your practitioner so they can avoid the area or you can start treatment with a doctor to hopefully prevent any lesions from opening up due to the trauma of the chemical peel on the skin.

  • Open lesions or cold sores (seriously, working on broken skin is a no-no, especially cold sores which can spread. )

  • Atopic dermatitis or eczema

  • Recent chemotherapy or radiation

  • Sunburned skin ( This skin is already damaged, even the exfoliation of a regular facial is too much. )

  • Inflammatory rosacea

  • Accutane use within the last year

  • Allergies to the ingredients

  • History of complications associated with scarring

  • Delayed wound healing

  • Those with pre-existing medical conditions should consult their physician prior to receiving any peels.

  • Recent surgery, laser, injectables or other medical procedures in the area must be fully healed before receiving peels.

  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding. Most peels haven't been tested on pregnant or breastfeeding people, and therefore must be approached with caution or avoided for the duration of the pregnancy or breastfeeding. Consult with your practitioner and medical provider to decide if a peel is right for you during this period.

  • Special consideration for clients that pick their skin: clients who pick may do best with lighter peels that either cause no outward peeling or only light flaking or choose other skin treatment options. You should not pick at shedding skin in the peeling stage because you can cause scarring if the shedding skin pulls off live tissue with it.

Like anything, chemical peels aren't without risks, and a good practitioner will warn you about these and adequate pre and post care often reduces the risks.


  • Redness (especially directly following a peel), scabbing, swelling (those last two are more typical of deeper peels, but can occasionally happen with lighter peels)

  • Scarring - especially when picking or peeling shedded skin

  • Changes in skin color- Two different types (hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation) Hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin)is most typical in clients with darker skin tones and your practitioner should prep you carefully and/or choose a peel or other modalitythat is friendly to darker skin types. While it is most typical in darker skin, lighter skin is not immune and peels can bring up old pigmentation to the surface. If you see some, it may be treatable within the series or you may need an adjustment in home care to treat it. Hypopigmentation (loss of pigmentation in the skin) can happen to almost anyone of any tone but is not usually treatable, but may be less noticeable with time.

  • A chemical peel can lead to infection or flare up infections you didn't know you had like cold sores, fungal infections, or bacterial infections.

Depending on the particular peel, a client can expect light flaking to sheet peeling ( What many people think of when they think of peels). When I bring up the idea of a peel to a client, I like to know how much peeling they feel like they can put up with. This helps me to choose the type of peel or strength of peel that I might use. I can pick based on this as well as what skin concerns the client would like to address. Certain acids do better treating certain skin conditions.

In order to prepare for a chemical peel, I and many other estheticians and practitioners require the client to be on an approved skincare routine. This is so important because it reduces the risk of complications during and after the chemical peel. I say this because the procedure being a controlled burn to the area, means that some of the other ingredients you put on the skin before and after a chemical peel can interact with your skin or the acids used in a way to cause the peel to go too deep, resulting in possible burns, scarring, and skin damage. The client being on an approved home care routine will also further the results of the peel, for the best results on an expensive treatment, follow your practitioner's instructions.

Typically, for a week or two before a peel, a client should stop using active ingredients, meaning acid based ingredients, retinol, etc. A gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF should be sufficient, unless otherwise directed.

During a peel, your skin should be thoroughly cleansed, and your practitioner should follow the protocol of the particular peel they are using. They will all be slightly different, but typically involve cleansing and degreasing the skin before the peel is applied. At this point, your practitioner should also apply some protection to your eyes, nose, mouth, and any areas like permanent makeup that we want to avoid. This is usually done by applying things like Vaseline to the areas so the peel doesn't penetrate areas we do not want peels on. I like to warn clients ahead of time the amount of sensation that they should feel from the peel before I apply the peel so they know what to expect and know to speak up if anything feels wrong or more intense than they think it should. If a reaction occurs, there should be a protocol for removal or neutralization of the peel. Depending on the peel, it may be removed or neutralized after a period of time to stop the peel working or left on for the rest of the day, your practitioner should let you know this and any after care that you need to do to care for the peel.

After the peel, you should expect to be told by the practitioner about when the client should notice peeling or flaking ( typically days 3-7, if any, though this varies by peel and sometimes also by person). Aftercare should be discussed and usually I tell my clients to reach out with questions or concerns and then I check on them within about a week to see how they are doing. At this point, you may want to schedule your next treatment (peels get the best results in a series.

Typical peel aftercare (may differ according to peel protocol):

  • Wash with gentle cleanser morning and night for 1-2 weeks followed by moisturizer and SPF

  • Avoid sunlight exposure and use extra sun protection

  • No swimming, tanning, exfoliation. Avoid excess heat/ sweat inducing activities for about 48 hours post peel.

  • No picking or peeling off skin. Let the skin fall off naturally.

If you are interested in doing a chemical peel or learning more about them and if it is the right treatment for you, schedule a consultation.

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