Chemical Peel for Acne

Chemical Peel for Acne

There are many treatments for acne: medications, over-the-counter products, face masks, moisturizers, supplements, and even specific diet programs. If you stumbled across this page, that means there’s a pretty good chance you already tried many of them, and they didn’t work. Don’t worry, you don’t have to live with acne. There are always stronger solutions, like the chemical peels for acne.

Unfortunately, however, the more severe the acne condition is - the fewer things work. When scarring is involved, things are even worse. In these cases, chemical peels come to the rescue.  

girl with acne

“Chemical peel” is not the most attractive name, that will make you say: Oooh I have to try this it sounds amazing! To be honest, it seems a little scary. It doesn’t help that one of the most iconic tv-shows, Sex, and The City, immortalized chemical peels as a recipe for disaster. Remember Samantha’s burned, red face? Yap, me too! But, don’t worry! Today, chemical peels are considered one of the most effective treatments against moderate to severe acne outbreaks and scars. They are also used to treat wrinkles and discoloration. I’m not going to lie to you, we are talking about putting acid on your face, so of course, there are risks.

Let’s try to break it all down and give you all the information you need to make a safe decision that will get you that flawless skin you always wanted. Below you will find a detail explanation about the procedure of chemical peels and the most famous types there are, as well as, their use.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

chemical peels

The term “chemical peel” refers to a procedure where a chemical solution, like salicylic acid, is applied to the skin. This is done in order to remove the top layer of skin, which is most affected by acne scars, wrinkles, and other problems. After the recovery time, new skin grows back, smoother and younger looking.


Types Of Chemical Peels

The most popular way of classifying chemical peels is based on their concentration or depth. The three main types are:

Superficial/light chemical peel

Superficial peels are the most popular and widely used type of chemical peel. This is because light chemical peels cause little to no skin irritation, and the recovery time is super quick!

When we are talking about superficial peels, even though the name implies peeling the skin,  what really happens is just fast exfoliation of the dead skin cells on the epidermis. This type of peel doesn’t penetrate deeper skin layers, which is why it doesn’t require long recovery time. You can even have the procedure on your lunch-break, go back to work, and continue with your usual daily activities.

You can have light peels every two to five weeks, depending on the desired results. You can expect to see results against mild acne, fine wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and dry skin.

chemical peel

The most commonly used light chemical peel agents are glycolic and salicylic acid. If you go to your dermatologist and ask for a superficial peel treatment, you will probably get one of these two, with a 20-30% acid concentration. The difference between them is that glycolic is alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane, while salicylic is beta-hydroxy acid - a close cousin to AHA, only slightly less irritating to the skin. AHAs loosen the “glue” between skin cells on the surface of the epidermis and work well with water. Beta-hydroxy acids are oil soluble, which make them a little more effective, but weaker than AHAs. Studies show that BHA peels control sebum excretion, acne as well as remove dead skin cells.

Over-the-counter acne chemical peels are typically alpha-hydroxy acids. Salicylic acid is actually the only beta-hydroxy acid used in skin-care. Beta hydroxy acids are larger molecules, work by removing dead skin cells, have a milder effect, and go well with oils - this makes them great for oily skin prone to pore clogging.

Medium chemical peel

medium chemical peel

Medium peels treat acne, as well as acne scars, since they remove cells from the epidermis, and also parts of the dermis - our deeper skin layer. They boost collagen elastin production which will make your skin more elastic. One famous medium chemical peel is the trichloroacetic acid, with concentration up to 50%. You can repeat the peel after three to nine months, after consulting with your dermatologist.

Deep chemical peel

A deep chemical peel is the kind of peel you get only once in your lifetime. The acid penetrates the epidermis, upper and middle layers of the dermis. They are specifically designed to treat acne scars, deeper wrinkles, and even precancerous growths. The concentration of deep peels is up to 90%, usually combined with oils. They work by breaking proteins and stimulating collagen production.

You need to see your dermatologist to diagnose the severity of your condition before deciding what type of peel to get.

Most Popular Chemicals Used In Peels

woman treating her face

Another way to classify peels is based on the acid used as the peeling agent. Here are the most popular chemical  agents, and their characteristics:

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is known as a superficial peeling agent, meaning it’s used in light chemical peels where only the epidermis is penetrated. As a BHA (beta hydroxy acid), it’s effective in treating oily skin, clogged pores, sunburns, uneven skin tone, dull, sensitive, or dry skin. Salicylic acid peels can be done on the face, neck, and other body parts. You can repeat treatment with salicylic acid in two to four weeks.

  • Improves the look and texture of the skin.
  • Minimizes large pores - gives the skin a smooth appearance.
  • Repairs damaged skin by stimulating collagen which gives the skin a youthful look.
  • Treats mild to moderate acne outbreaks.
Side-effects and precautions
  • People allergic to aspirin should avoid salicylic acid peels. Tell your dermatologist if you have any allergies before treatment.
  • One week before and after treatment waxing should be avoided.
  • Don’t workout 24 hours after treatment.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure.

Glycolic acid

dermatology treatment

Just as salicylic, glycolic acid is used in light chemical peels, with a concentration of up to 30% - typically done to open the skin and remove clogged pores. Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring substance derived from plants - such as sugar cane, sugar beets, and pineapple. It's recommended for dry skin because it can transfer water molecules from the air into the skin tissue, providing moisture. It's safe to use on sensitive skin. Glycolic acid is used to treat acne scars, discoloration, wrinkles, and other signs of aging on the skin.

  • Moisturizes the skin.
  • Cleans the skin without causing irritation.
  • It’s a very effective exfoliator of dead skin cells.
  • Makes the skin brighter and fresher.
Side-effects and precautions
  • Mild skin inflammation, swelling, and redness.
  • It can make the skin prone to sun damage.
  • It can cause a stinging sensation.

Trichloroacetic acid

TCA peels are applied to reduce brown and aging spots, sun-damaged skin, wrinkles, and acne. Trichloroacetic acid is used in skin products for over 20 years. It's a non-toxic chemical that causes top layers of the skin to dry up and peel off. Recovery time for peels with TCA is usually a couple of days to one week. New, undamaged, and smooth skin surfaces after this period.

You can have a TCA peel done at different depths. The deeper the peel is - the greater the risk for discoloration and other complications. In order to get the best results, a series of two or three treatments is recommended. You shouldn’t do medium TCA chemical peels more frequently than twice a year.

  • TCA peels reduce the appearance of acne blemishes and pocked skin.
  • Brighten the skin.
  • Most effective against melasma.
Side-effects and precautions
  • You can feel discomfort or pain after the treatment.
  • Redness and swelling might appear and last for about 5 days after treatment.
  • The skin can heal with increased or decreased pigmentation. People with darker skin have a greater risk of discoloration.
  • Scarring can also occur as a side-effect. It is important to follow the instructions for post-treatment skin care.
  • If you are prone to cold sores you should consult with your dermatologist before undergoing treatment.

Lactic acid

woman face treatment

Lactic acid is derived from milk and belongs to a class of anti-aging ingredients - AHAs. You can find it in many over-the-counter skin-care products, and it is prescribed against wrinkles and discoloration. Unlike other acids from the AHA group, lactic acid is a great, softer alternative for sensitive skin. Similar to glycolic, lactic acid doesn’t really “peel off” the skin, but rather, it unclogs the pores, and leaves the skin smoother and brighter.

  • Great solution for sensitive skin.
  • Treats hyperpigmentation and age spots.
  • Improves skin tone.
  • Reduces the appearance of pores.
Side-effects and precautions
  • It makes the skin sensitive to sun rays.
  • Unprotected sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • It can cause Irritation, rashes, and itchiness, but only for a short period of time, while healing.
  • You shouldn’t use lactic acid if you suffer from eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.

Carbolic acid (phenol)

Phenol peels are the strongest chemical peels available and are only used for severe skin conditions when all the other methods prove ineffective. They fall in the deep chemical peel category and produce dramatic results, accompanied by an increased risk of more side-effects.

Phenol peels work by destroying the cells of the epidermis and upper dermis, causing these layers to peel off. Because phenol peels are so strong, sometimes they are mixed with water, olive, or croton oil - leading some people to believe that the croton oil makes the peels effective, although this hasn’t been confirmed by science.

As we said, these peels should be done only once in your life. Recovery time takes up to three months, but the results last for decades.

  • Long-lasting results.
  • Gives deep exfoliation.
  • Treats severe acne scars.
  • Reduces hyperpigmentation.
  • It can reverse sun damage.
Side-effects and precautions
  • It can make the skin sensitive to sunlight.
  • It leaves the skin permanently brighter. This is why it’s not recommended for darker skin. The bleached parts can visibly differ from other parts of the skin.
  • Redness and swelling. These effects can last for up to three months.
  • You won't be able to get a suntan anymore.
  • Phenol peels are really expensive.

Research On Chemical Peels

research on chemical peels

In 2012 a study was conducted on a sample of the Asian population. This study has given support for using chemical peels in the treatment against acne and acne scars.

Another study from 2017 has shown that almost all patients in the study tolerated the chemical peeling procedures well, despite reportedly feeling mild discomfort, burning, and irritation. The study concluded that chemical peeling with glycolic acid is a well-tolerated and safe treatment modality in active acne vulgaris while salicylic acid peels are more convenient for treatment of darker skin patients.

A recent study from 2018 supported the use of superficial to medium chemical peels and advised that deep peels should be avoided.

So, Should You Do It?

From all the information above we can conclude that chemical peels can be an effective solution against acne, acne scars, skin discoloration, and wrinkles. Superficial or light chemical peels are considered relatively safe and with no to mild side-effects - and they can safely be repeated after a couple of weeks. The deeper the chemical peel - the more risks involved, that’s a given, but if you think it might be a good option for you - do your research first. Take into consideration your skin color and your skin type when deciding for a chemical peel.

In any case, we recommend that you consult your doctor or dermatologist before deciding to apply a chemical peel of any kind - let us remind you of the ultimate cautionary tale - Samantha’s...

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