It would be understandable if you were a little put off by the phrase, "chemical peel". It doesn't sit particularly comfortably with most people, especially when you suggest they apply this peel to their face.
It is and it isn't what it says on the tin though. It is no longer about shedding our skin like a snake and is more along the lines of the more gentle skincare acids – such as glycolic, salicylic and mandelic – that have been a part of our beauty routines for years.
A chemical peel is an advanced version of exfoliating. It lifts away the accumulated layers of dirt and grime that haven't been caught by your everyday regime and polishes away the build-up of dead skin cells that block pores and cling to our skin, making it look dull. Really, it's a fresh face, bottled.
Whereas a traditional chemical peel used to be confined to dermatology clinics and specialist spas, formulators have worked hard to create at-home equivalents that are as powerful as possible, whilst still safe for home use, so we don't risk overdoing it.
They come in a variety of strengths and can be incorporated into your skincare regime as and your skin needs it, without any down time or side effects. Plus, there are a number of different types of peel type available, each catering to a different skincare concern, from blemishes, to dull appearance, pigmentation or lines and wrinkles.
What do peels do to the skin?
Peels exfoliate deeper than face scrubs, while simultaneously getting to the core of all your skincare concerns safely and efficiently. They are often gentler than physical scrubs which can be abrasive, particularly if you suffer from skin sensitivity. With enhanced formulations, this new generation of products are constantly improving, taking away the risk of stinging and allowing even the more sensitive-skinned to benefit.
Exfoliation (removes the build-up of dead skin cells and excess oil) which is essential for a clear and radiant appearance. Peels go one step further than a scrub, cleanse or acid-based toner, they maintain healthy skin by boosting cell renewal while also maximising the benefits of your other skincare products.
Knowing your skincare acids is crucial to choosing the correct product for your skin type. The difference between AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) is the level of exfoliation. They have different chemical compositions and therefore work differently on your skin. AHAs (lactic or glycolic acid) increase cell turnover and renewal rates, stimulating a burst of exfoliation. BHAs (such as salicylic acid) are a larger molecule and work by removing dead skin cells. BHAs love oil (AHA’s are water loving) so it’s great for oily, acne prone skins and for unclogging pores.
No need for gloves, most acid solutions are simply applied to your face (and neck if the label advises) to freshly cleansed skin. This ensures that there’s no barrier of other creams or pollution for it to fight through. But do give yourself a good patting down after cleansing, as water can neutralise the effects of the chemicals in the peel.
Once applied, it’s important to adhere to whatever instructions are on the label. Some stronger peels need to be removed after 10 minutes and some can be slept in.
The best time to use a peel is at night when the skin is in regeneration mode while you sleep. Our skin is 3x more receptive at night, especially since it doesn’t have to protect itself from pollution, dirt and pollution and can focus on recovering and renewing.
- If you don’t already use an SPF in your morning routine, do it now. Your skin will be more photo-sensitive whilst being treated. Choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
- Redness should last only a few minutes after your peel.
- According to skincare guru (aka The Skin Whisperer) Nataliya Robinson, "the only sensation which is OK is tingling. Other skin sensations (burning or itching) may indicate inflammation or that the skin has been damaged." If you experience this, wash the product off your face immediately and apply a cool compress to calm the skin. Robinson suggests using products with hyaluronic acid for added moisture, and green tea or aloe vera for its soothing properties. "It’s essential not to use aggressive anti-ageing products post-treatment that can cause irritation."
- Avoid using retinoids or having facials too soon after, both of which can be too strong and can therefore irritate skin post-peel.
The Hydroxy Acid Alphabet
Hydroxy acids fit into three categories: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA), Beta Hydroxy Acids(BHA) and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). All three groups of acids are derived from various natural sources, such as sugarcane, fruit and willow bark. They also work similarly, but each one produces slightly varied results. The main difference? BHA is lipid- or oil-soluble, which makes BHA more effective on oily skin.
Though there are various types of acids, glycolic, lactic, mandelic and salicylic acids have the most clinical research behind them and the most studies supporting their efficacy. That’s why they’re also the most commonly used acids in skin care products. Here’s what else you need to know about each of them:
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
- GLYCOLIC ACID
This naturally occurring sugarcane-derived AHA has long been considered by many professionals to be the best performing acid. As the smallest hydroxy acid molecule, glycolic acid can penetrate the skin the deepest and the fastest.
Why it works: Like all AHAs, glycolic acid exfoliates the skin by dissolving the cellular glue and exfoliating superficial, dead skin cells. Because glycolic penetrates the deepest—and some studies suggest all the way into the dermis—it has been shown to be the most effective at stimulating collagen production, thus better promoting deeper wrinkle reduction.
Who will benefit from it: Aside from reducing wrinkles, glycolic acid is also effective at reducing photodamage, which makes it ideal for those with more mature skin. If you have dry skin, you’ll also find glycolic particularly useful, because it draws moisture to the skin and helps prevent transepidermal water loss. It also increases the hyaluronic acid levels in the skin.
What else you need to know: It’s important to know that because glycolic acid penetrates quickly, it can be more irritating than other AHAs and is sometimes not tolerated well by sensitive skin types.
Lactic Acid is a naturally occurring acid derived from a variety of sources, most commonly sour milk. Cleopatra is believed to have bathed in it as part of her beauty rituals.
Why it works: Like glycolic acid, lactic acid exfoliates as it increases moisture levels in the top layers of the skin, improving barrier function and resistance to dryness and flakiness.
Who will benefit from it: Like all AHAs, lactic acid is great for general exfoliation and skin brightening. But because this is a larger molecule, lactic acid does not penetrate as deeply into the skin's surface as glycolic acid, making it somewhat gentler. Dr. Bakshandeh explains: “Those with sensitive skin often prefer lactic products over glycolic acid products because they tend to see less inflammation in the skin after use, but get similar desired results.”
What else you need to know: Studies show that low concentrations and medium (12%) concentrations of lactic acid can increase epidermal and dermal firmness and thickness of skin as well as reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles. It can also clear sunspots by accelerating cell turnover and directly inhibiting melanin production.
- MANDELIC ACID
Mandelic Acid is a naturally occurring acid derived from bitter almond and wild cherry.
Why it works: Mandelic acid is a highly effective, multitasking acid that helps address fine lines, firmness, acne and discoloration. And because mandelic is a slightly larger molecule, it’s better for sensitive skin types and for skin types with higher concentrations of melanin because it doesn’t trigger post-inflammatory responses or pigmentation like we see from other AHAs.
Who will benefit from it: Because of its antimicrobial properties, it’s effective against acne and clogged pores. In fact, in a clinical study comparing a mandelic-salicylic acid combination peel with a glycolic peel, the combined mandelic-salicylic peel saw better overall results and had fewer side effects.
What else you need to know: According to Dr. Jacobs, in preliminary trials done using cutometer technology to measure skin elasticity, mandelic acid also proved effective at improving skin elasticity. He believes mandelic acid is going to be one of the next big ingredients in skin care.
Beta Hydroxy Acid
- SALICYLIC ACID
Salicylic Acid is a naturally occurring BHA derived from willow bark.
Why it works: According to Dr. Jacobs, salicylic acid is both highly keratolytic and comedolytic, which means it not only dissolves dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, but it’s also able to get down into the pore, dissolve the oil and break apart the debris inside that commonly leads to acne.
Who will benefit from it: Unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and can penetrate and clear inside the pore, making it ideal for acne-prone skin types. When used regularly, salicylic acid not only helps clear existing acne, but it also prevents new acne and blackheads from forming. Additionally, it can correct dark spots without irritating your skin thanks to its topical anti-inflammatory benefits. “While some AHAs and other acids can trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, you won’t see that with salicylic acid,” Dr. Bakshandeh explains. “It’s a very safe and predictable acid. I use it to treat patients with darker skin looking to correct sun and age spots and hyperpigmentation issues.”
What else you need to know: It should be noted, that while salicylic acid is proven effective against some acne, it does have its limitations. While BHA has been shown to be mildly antibacterial, it has not been shown to kill the most common bacteria that leads to acne. For this reason, salicylic acid is often paired with antibacterial ingredients or benzoyl peroxidefor the best results. Salicylic acid can also be mildly drying to the skin, so it’s important to moisturize when using it. Dermatologists recommend a salicylic acid formulation that contains 0.5% up to 2%.
Polyhydroxy acids, which have been called the next generation of AHA’s have become more widely known in recent years. This group includes acids such as gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic.
Why they work: Not only do they exfoliate skin in a manner similar to AHAs, PHAs also possess antioxidant properties, meaning they can help protect skin against free radical damage. PHAs provide additional humectant and moisturizing benefits, too.
Who will benefit from them: Because of their larger molecule size, PHAs don’t penetrate skin as deeply as AHAs like glycolic acid, making them less irritating to sensitive skin—even skin affected by rosacea and atopic dermatitis (of course, get the all-clear from your dermatologist before using any exfoliant on affected areas).
What else you need to know: PHAs have been shown to boost the benefits of other treatments when used in tandem with retinoids to improve acne, with hydroquinone to improve discoloration and with lasers and microdermabrasion to enhance post-procedure results.
How to Use Hydroxy Acids
While using hydroxy acids is common and generally safe for your skin, knowing when, how and in what amount can make your product much more effective and less likely to cause irritation. Here are the five commandments when using hydroxy acids for the first time.
- Start slow. In general, when using acids, always start conservatively with a lower concentration and then work up to see what your skin can tolerate.
- Do a patch test. Apply a small amount on the arm and then on the forehead (where the facial skin is the thickest) to see how your skin will respond.
- Use an SPF daily. Studies show that AHAs make skin more sensitive to UV radiation while using the products and for weeks after discontinuing use.
- Consult your dermatologist. It is not uncommon for people to experience mild redness and peeling when first beginning an AHA/BHA skin care regimen. If persistent irritation or redness occurs, consult a doctor.
- If you’re pregnant, beware. Speak to your doctor before incorporating acids into your routine. Some acids, specifically salicylic acid, should not be used during pregnancy.
Whatever your skin type, tone or condition, there is so much research behind hydroxy acids supporting their numerous benefits. Find which ones are right for you and you will likely find yourself with happier, healthier skin. Hello, glow!