Colder weather and grayer skies are typically key indicators that it’s time to begrudgingly bring out your happy lamp again. Coincidentally, these dreary days also mark the beginning of what dermatologists, estheticians, and skin experts lovingly refer to as “peel season.” Signifying the cooler months in fall, winter, and part of spring, this time of year is when “your risk of having a rebound reaction, especially with hyperpigmentation, after a [chemical] peel is lower,” says Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Michelle Henry. “Because it's cooler weather and the sun is not out as frequently, we're not as readily participating in outdoor activities. So our risk of having excess UV exposure after a peel is much lower.”
For those who’ve never experienced a treatment, chemical peels contain concentrated amounts of exfoliating acids and active ingredients that ultimately help your skin shed its top layers, in turn improving upon issues like dark spots, collagen production, and acne healing. And while the pros are substantial, these potent formulas can also leave just-treated skin vulnerable to sun exposure and heat, increasing the risk of worsened hyperpigmentation or inflammation from otherwise benign activities. Peel season provides the ideal conditions for administering treatments without complications and opens the floodgates for patients to meaningfully move the needle on their skin goals.
Why all the fuss over chemical peels, you ask? Well, as it happens, these skin-shedding treatments are especially buzzy due to their ability to do quite a bit of heavy lifting. In fact, the number of “skin treatments,” including chemical peels, performed between 2020 and 2021 increased by 37% and remained the third most popular, non-surgical skin procedure category according to annual reporting by The Aesthetic Society. TikTok’s #chemicalpeel hashtag has over 595 million views alone as videos showcasing snake skin-like peeling processes and enviable results regularly go viral.
But as these trending procedures become increasingly popular, misinformation persists. “There is a misconception that chemical peels are not for dark skin. That is completely false,” advises Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Nkem Ugonabo. “You have to be more careful because of the propensity to hyperpigmentation which is why you choose your peels carefully for skin of color.” Similarly, horror stories of peels gone wrong and sensationalism characterizing them as overly intense has caused many to shy away completely. However, in truth, playing it safe and simple with chemical peels is fairly easy as they are highly customizable and vary widely in ingredients, strengths, and application methods. “We're in a great time for peels because there are so many variations that we could typically always find something that will work for you,” says Dr. Henry.
All chemical peels have some benefit for every skin issue and tone, but certain ingredients are preferred for different cases. Understanding the peel landscape can help guide you when pursuing your next — or first — treatment. To set the stage, TZR spoke with experienced dermatologists and estheticians to breakdown the best peel types to consider for your specific skin concern.
For Mild To Moderate Acne
“The primary peels that I use to help treat and clear acne are going to be a blend more often than not,” says Licensed Esthetician and Owner of Glowdega skin care and studio Hadiyah Daché. “They are almost always gonna be a blend of [trichloroacetic acid], mandelic acid, and salicylic acid.” Salicylic acid is a popular acne peel ingredient, both blended and on its own, due to its ability to break down oils, calm inflammation, and repel acne-causing bacteria.
The aforementioned trichloroacetic acid, or TCA, is a particularly versatile peeling agent used in acne care for its ability to effectively release dead skin build up that contributes to chronic breakouts. It is one of the most powerful exfoliating acids and its use is restricted to specific percentages and professional licenses in certain states. “The downside to [TCA] is that you can overdo it. You can cause more hyperpigmentation or you can cause some burning,” explains Daché. While TCA can be safely applied to to all skin tones, make sure you’re working with an experienced and properly licensed professional when considering a TCA-containing peel.
(Dr. Henry and Dr. Ugonabo underscore that while chemical peels are useful for acne, they should be considered as additive to comprehensive routines including topical or oral medications.)
Not all acne is treated the same with chemical peels. When selecting a peel, most skin service professionals will choose the strongest peel their client can tolerate to elicit the best results. “If it’s very, very cystic [acne] I actually work backwards,” says Daché. “So I may start with a peel that's almost like nothing, just getting the skin as prepped as possible.” Using milder chemical peels can help avoid further inflammation. “[Chemical peels] are creating a general environment of inflammation and acne is inflammatory,” explains Dr. Henry. “If you’re really inflamed, I might not do a super strong TCA peel that’s gonna inflame your cysts. I might do a milder salicylic acid peel.” Simple, one-acid peels like salicylic acid, lactic acid, or even enzymes can help reduce inflammation first and prepare skin for stronger peeling treatments later.
“If someone's just coming in for fine lines and wrinkles I will try to get the strongest peel that their skin type will allow for,” says Dr. Henry. “TCA is great and higher concentrations of glycolic acid are probably two of my favorite go-tos.” There are also Jessner peels, which are a mix of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol. You can modify them in different ways to make them more effective. One of the ways chemical peels address aging is by forcing the skin to repair itself and subsequently build new collagen. Some peeling ingredients, like glycolic and retinoic acid, also have collagen stimulating benefits of their own. “Any peel is going to help and the deeper the peel you use the more benefit you're going to get,” Dr. Henry says.
Hyperpigmentation, sun spots, and uneven skin tone after summer-filled fun leads a majority of clients to the treatment room at the top of peel season. “The top concerns [amongst my clients are] definitely acne and hyperpigmentation by far. And I think for a lot of clients that's kind of just one concern. They are more concerned with pigmentation over anything else,” says Daché. She stresses how important pre-peel consultations are in order to manage client expectations. Without proper management of what’s causing hyperpigmentation first, dark spots are bound to return.
“I’ll use retinoic acid peels [for hyperpigmentation],” says Dr. Ugonabo. “Aside from that, something with vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid. That one is really good for hyperpigmentation. I also use other lightening agents such as kojic acid and then depending on the extent of the hyperpigmentation and if the patient is interested in using hydroquinone, that is an ingredient as well that we can use in a peel.”
For particularly dark hyperpigmentation, Daché has found success with a phytic acid peel. Phytic acid is a milder exfoliating acid with melanin-suppressant benefits. Although it’s hard to find in peel formulations, Daché appreciates the ingredient’s ability to target dark spots while remaining suitable for sensitive skin and skin of color. “The good thing about having pigmentation is just about any peel can do it because some peels may inhibit tyrosinase, which is the enzyme that helps make pigment,” explains Dr. Henry. “But, the action of peeling itself helps to brighten the skin.”
Some peels cause the skin to visibly shed while others exfoliate on a microscopic level. Peels that cause obvious shedding can help more noticeably remove surface hyperpigmention and soften fine lines. Many branded peels such as MelanX, the Cosmelan peel from Mesoestetic and VI Peels are cult favorites for their viral-worthy peeling processes and dramatic results — particularly on dark spots. (I recently received the VI Precision Plus peel which contains Dr. Ugonabo’s star pigmentation-fighting ingredients of retinoic acid, hydroquinone, L-ascorbic acid, and kojic acid as well as TCA, salicylic acid, and phenoic acid. Emily Mariscal, senior medical esthetician at The Few Institute, administered my peel and described the VI Precision Plus as her “workhorse peel” that she uses for a wide range of skin conditions due to the formula’s versatility and safety profile for all skin tones.)
Things to Consider Before Your Peel
Start A Comprehensive Skin Routine
First-time peelers should expect to have a standard facial or consultation appointment with their provider prior to a peel to ensure your skin is prepared for the treatment. If you haven’t already, you’ll also be advised to begin a routine including exfoliating acids and brighteners to acclimate your skin and reduce the risk of peel-induced hyperpigmentation.
You’ll Likely Need More Than One Peel
Best results come after a series of peels. For moderate to severe concerns, be ready to commit to between two and six peels with several weeks between each treatment to achieve your goals. Peels can vary in price, anywhere from $150 to $800 per peel, depending on formula, provider and where you’re located. Your provider may also offer a discount on peel packages.
Consider Your Lifestyle When Choosing Your Treatment
Many peels have downtime where you may visibly peel and not be able to exercise or have extended sun exposure. Some peels, like the VI Precision Plus, include home care kits where you’ll be required to apply additional peel products and follow specific instructions over the course of many days. Be honest with your provider about upcoming plans and what you are willing to do on your own to help choose the best peel formula for you.
You May Not Need A Peel
Chemical peels can rejuvenate skin or aid in maintenance even if you’re not up against a chronic skin condition. Still, lasers, topical products, facials, and other treatments may be required before or in tandem with a peel for best results. Talk with an esthetician or dermatologist you trust about which treatments are worth your effort.