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What is a Chemical Peel and when should you get one?

October 15, 2010

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The societal obsession with beauty is continually being pursued.  The objective is to find a way to stop or reverse the aging process to allow people to remain beautiful and youthful. Signs of aging are readily noticeable on our skin due to the overexposure to toxins, chemicals, pollutants and the environment. However, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons now offer a way to rid your skin of fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, pigmentation and rough texture. Chemical peels are one way to reduce all these signs of aging.



             A chemical peel, which is also known as derma peeling or chemo exfoliation is a way to rejuvenate the skin by removing the damaged outer layers. The procedure is done using chemical agents, as the title implies, to peel away the skin layers to form new skin. The new skin is fresh, firm, and smooth. It can remove wrinkles, blemishes, discoloration and skin pigmentation. Chemical peels can be used for cosmetic reasons, skin restructuring, and skin restoration purposes. The overall reason for chemical peels is to improve the appearance of the skin, however it does not prevent or slow the aging process. 



            Chemical peeling goes as far back as ancient times even though the people didn’t realize exactly what they were doing. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra and the nobles would bath in sour goats milk, which contained lactic acid. This lactic acid exfoliated the skin by removing the outer layers. To Cleopatra this was a normal beautifying ritual, but what she didn’t know is that she was using the first form of chemical peeling agents. During the middle Ages old wine, which contains tartaric acid was used in the same fashion. At the turn of the 20th century, George Miller MacKee a dermatologist began to use phenol (carbolic acid) in treating patients with facial scars. Over the next several decades chemical peeling increased in popularity.



            From the 1980’s to present time, chemical peeling has exploded onto the skin care scene. Dermatologists and plastic surgeons tested several different chemical acids and developed a wide variety of chemical peels to be used on several different skin depths and several different skin conditions. Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, retinoic acid, Jessner peels, trichloroacetic acid, and Phenol are the most widely used chemicals during facial peeling. The strength and choice of chemicals will be determined based upon the desired outcome. Although nurses and aestheticians can do some forms of chemical peels it is always recommended to get the advice of a medical professional, such as a dermatologist, plastic surgeon or otolaryngologist before receiving any chemical peeling procedure.



            Alphahydroxy acids (AHAs) are the mildest form of chemical peels. Some AHA’s are glycolic, lactic and fruit acids. Mild chemical peels remove the thinnest layer of skin to provide smoother and fresher looking skin. In addition it can remove fine lines, acne, pigmentation and dryness. Superficial peels, such as these can be repeated for several weeks to get desired effects. For medium peels, tricholoracetic acid (TCA) should be used. TCA can be used to remove surface wrinkles, superficial blemishes, and pigmentation. Phenol or carbolic acid is the strongest chemical solution used for chemical peels. This should only be used every 6 months and provides a deep peel. Phenol can treat severe acne scarring, coarse facial wrinkles, overexposed sun damaged skin and precancerous growths.

            During a chemical peel, after the chemical has been applied there may be a burning or stinging sensation until a neutralizer is added depending upon the depth of the peel. The initial reaction on the skin is redness and inflammation. Sun exposure to chemical peeled skin should be avoided for the first week. The newly exposed skin is sensitive and easily irritated until collagen firms the outside layer to protect it from damage. Chemical peels have similar results as a sunburn, where the skin toughens and peels away. Moisturizing and cooling agents can be applied to soothe and reduce painful inflammation. Phenol peels can cause skin to lose pigmentation meaning the skin will be lighter in color.

            Although, chemical peels are mainly cosmetic treatments, that’s not to say it doesn’t treat other skin problems. In certain cases, chemical peels can help with pigmentary disorders, acne, and epidermal growths. So whatever reason you are considering chemical peels, it can help improve your appearance.