What’s It Like to Have a Chemical Peel?

Vanguard Dermatology chemical peel treatment What’s It Like to Have a Chemical Peel?

You’ve heard people sing the praises of getting a chemical peel, and you’ve seen the celebrity results in magazines. But you’re suspicious. You need more details. Just the words “chemical peel” sound painful. What’s it really like? Does it hurt? Is there much downtime? Learn what to expect from a chemical peel facial treatment so you can make an informed decision if a chemical peel is for you.

Why Get a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels are a skin resurfacing treatment, which means that they can alter the tone and texture of your skin. They remove layers of skin cells, promoting new cell growth for stronger and smoother layers of skin on your face, neck or hands. People get chemical peels for a variety of skin issues, including acne scars, wrinkles and fine lines, age spots, melasma (brown or grey patches that appear on the face), freckles, rough feeling skin, sun damaged skin and blotchy or uneven complexion. Chemical peels help smooth your skin’s texture by reducing scarring from acne and causing fine lines to fade. Peels can also even out your skin’s coloring and tone by causing discolored spots and patches on your skin to grow faint. There are three levels of chemical peels: superficial, medium and deep. Superficial peels only remove the top layer of skin through light exfoliation with a mild chemical, like alpha-hydroxy or salicylic acid. Superficial peels help to clean pores, even out the skin and give your face a new glow. This level of peel is great for people with sensitive skin, active acne or darker skin tones (deeper skin peels can cause hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones). A medium chemical face peel will treat both the outer and middle layers of skin with a stronger acid, like glycolic or trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Medium peels are used to treat pigmentation issues, sun damage and acne scars. They are also used as a skin wrinkle treatment. The deep peel uses a phenol-based formula to reach the deeper layers of your skin to help with more serious sun damage, to reduce acne scars and to tighten skin.

Getting Ready for a Peel

Your first appointment will be a consultation with your dermatologist. During this time, you should ask some questions and expect to answer some of your doctor’s questions. The American Academy of Dermatology outlines these 9 questions to ask in your consultation: Will a board-certified dermatologist perform the chemical peel? How many chemical peels has the doctor performed on people with my skin coloring? What will I need to do before and after the peel to get the best results? What results can I expect? What are the potential side effects? Do I have a higher risk for any complications? Will I have downtime? May I see before-and-after photos or speak with patients you treated with a chemical skin peel? How much will the treatment cost? Your doctor should also get some important information from you, like any acne medications you are taking, other cosmetic treatments you have received, any supplements or other medications you take, if you scar easily, or if you get cold sores frequently. During your consultation, your doctor will probably give you a pre-treatment plan for the few weeks leading up to your chemical peel. Your doctor may either have you stop using retinoids a couple of days before your procedure or take retinoids to help increase the penetration of the acid to your skin. This will depend on your doctor and on the kind of peel you are getting. Your skin care specialist may also recommend the following changes at least a week before your peel: stop waxing or exfoliating or bleaching your facial hair, take an antiviral if you tend to get cold sores, and stop using facial scrubs.

The Procedure

Before your peel, the area being treated will be washed, and your hair will be tied back. You will also have your eyes covered with protective goggles or gauze. If you are having a mild or moderate peel, the area being treated will be numbed, and you might be given the option of taking a sedative. For a deep peel, you will probably be sedated with medicine administered through an IV. You will also have an anesthetic applied to your skin. The skin care provider will then apply a solution to your skin using a sponge, brush, cotton tipped applicator or gauze. Your skin will begin to turn white (or possibly turn grey in a deep peel). If you are awake for the peel, you might feel stinging on your skin. For a light peel, the doctor will apply a neutralizing solution and then wash the face. For a medium peel, the doctor will apply cool compresses to your face. And for a deep peel, the doctor will do the peel in 15-minute intervals so that you are not exposed to too much of the phenol solution.


After a light peel, your skin might be dry, red and irritated. Applying a soothing ointment like petroleum jelly will help. You can expect your skin to fully heal anywhere from 1-7 days. Recovery after a medium peel is a bit more intense. Your skin will probably be swollen, red, tight, and stinging. You can find relief from applying petroleum jelly, using ice packs or a fan blowing on your skin and taking a painkiller like Advil or Aleve. Your skin will take 7-15 days to heal, during which it will crust over and may have brown splotches. The redness can take some months to fully dissipate. The after effects of a deep chemical peel are significant redness and swelling -- your eyes may swell shut. You will also feel throbbing and burning from the treatment. Your doctor will place a watertight dressing over the treated skin and prescribe painkillers. After about 2 weeks, the new skin will grow, although you may have cysts and white spots for several weeks and redness for several months. It’s also important to know that your skin might grow back to be lighter or darker than previously and might not be able to tan. No matter what level of peel you get, you should make sure that you have specific instructions from your doctor as to when it is okay to start applying makeup again and what products you can use to clean and moisturize the treated area. You should also stay out of the sun until your skin has healed.

Call Vanguard Today

Ready to get your peel on? Contact Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area to schedule your consultation. The board-certified doctors at Vanguard will advise you on the best chemical peel to pursue and expertly perform the chemical peel when you are ready for brighter, smoother skin.

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