As we age, the accumulated effects of sun exposure, pollutants, acne, and scarring can damage our skin and cause us to look older than we are. Such skin damage can be treated with a chemical peel, a non-invasive procedure designed to promote cell growth and produce smoother, clearer skin.
Chemical peels are also used to treat melasma (a skin condition characterized by irregularly shaped patches of brown skin commonly found on the face and neck), and pre-cancerous changes in the skin. Chemical peels can be performed on the face, neck, chest, arms, hands, and legs.
What are some of the most common benefits of this procedure?
A chemical peel can restore a more youthful appearance to wrinkled, unevenly pigmented, sun-damaged, or blotchy skin. However, a peel cannot reverse the aging process or completely remove deep scars. Wrinkled skin that is loose and sagging may also require a face-lift, laser resurfacing treatment, or combination of procedures for best results.
How is a chemical peel performed?
All chemical peels involve applying a chemical solution to remove the outer layers of skin so that a smoother, more evenly pigmented, glowing layer of skin can appear. There are three basic categories of chemical peels. Each type works differently, and produces different results. Your doctor may choose from the following three types of chemical peel, or he/she may tailor the treatment to the needs of your skin. In general, the stronger the chemical, the deeper the peel, and the more impressive the results. However, the deeper the peel, the more pain you’re likely to experience and the longer the recovery time will be.
Light peels: Alphahydroxy acids (AHAs), Betahydroxy acids (BHAs) Light or “lunch hour” peels are the mildest of the chemical peels. These peels include glycolic, lactic, and fruit acid peels (AHA) or Salicylic Acid (BHA). They burn off only the outer layers of the skin to smooth out fine wrinkles and/or rough, dry skin. AHA and Beta lift peels may also be used to improve the texture of sun-damaged skin, balance out skin pigmentation, or diminish some types of acne scars. These peels are often repeated to achieve the desired results.
The application of AHA and Beta lift peels are relatively fast and simple. These peels are generally performed in the doctor’s office. No sedation or anesthesia is required, since the patient only experiences a slight stinging when the solution is applied. The treatment usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes, but the doctor may vary the concentration of the chemical solution or the length of time of the treatment.
The doctor will begin by thoroughly cleansing the area to be treated. Next, he/she will apply the AHA solution, wait up to 15 minutes, and then remove it. After the procedure, no ointments or salves will be necessary to cover the treated area. Monthly or weekly repetition is common.
Medium peels: Trichloroacetic acids (TCA) solution is used for medium depth peels. This is generally used to treat skin with moderate sun damage, surface wrinkles, and/or uneven tone or pigment abnormalities. Full-face TCA peels take approximately 15 minutes. Generally, TCA peels are performed in the doctor’s office or in a surgery center as an outpatient procedure.
Before applying the chemical solution, the doctor will thoroughly cleanse the area to be treated. A sedative may be given, but TCA peels often do not require anesthesia because the solution itself has a numbing effect on the skin. At first, the patient may feel a warm or burning sensation, followed by stinging. Sometimes two or more TCA peel treatments, at intervals of one to two months, are necessary to achieve the desired results. The TCA peels can be used in varying concentrations, the higher concentrations may require oral or liquid anesthesia medication.
Deep peels: Phenol acid is the strongest chemical peel solution, and it is used for the deepest possible chemical peel. Phenol peels are used to treat skin with coarse wrinkles and blotchiness. They may also be effectively used to treat patients with pre-cancerous growths.
Phenol peels should be used with caution because they can cause permanent lightening of the skin. For this reason, phenol peels are not recommended for most patients with very dark skin tones.
Full-face phenol peels take approximately one to two hours, but small-area phenol peels (such as on the upper lip) may take about 10 – 15 minutes.
After completing the procedure, the doctor may apply petroleum jelly or a waterproof dressing tape to the treated area. This covering will be left on for a day or two. Unlike AHA and TCA peels, Phenol peels are only used once and create dramatic results.
How long does it take?
AHA and TCA peels for the full face generally take 10 – 15 minutes. Full-face phenol peels may take between one and two hours. Phenol peels for small portions of the face, such as the upper lip, may take only 10 to 15 minutes.
Where will the procedure be performed?
These are performed in our office.
How much pain is there?
During the procedure, most people feel a brief burning sensation, followed by a feeling of numbness or stinging. The sensation will vary depending on the type of peel as well as the possible of pain medications in the case of deep peels. The AHA, BHA and TCA peeks are uncomfortable only during treatment. The phenol peel may cause discomfort after the procedure.
What can I expect afterward?
After the procedure, most people experience some facial swelling and reddening. Your doctor may advise you to keep your head elevated.
After a Phenol peel, the eyes often swell shut. Following a Phenol peel, a petroleum jelly or waterproof dressing may be applied to the treated area. This covering is left on for a day or two. After Phenol and deep TCA peels, you’ll need to arrange for someone to drive you home. Ride arrangements do not need to be made after having an AHA or a light TCA peel.
The recovery period is different for each type of peel.
Light peels: Alphahydroxy acids (AHAs) AHA peels generally cause some flaking, redness and dryness, or skin irritation. These side effects diminish over time. Once the body heals itself naturally, the outer layer of skin will fall away. Patients are usually able to engage in normal public activities the day after an AHA peel.
Medium peels: Trichloroacetic acids (TCA). TCA peels may cause significant swelling, depending on the potency of the chemical solution that was used. Swelling should diminish after the first week. The skin will heal sufficiently to resume normal activities in approximately 7-10 days.
After TCA peels, some patients also have outbreaks of small whiteheads, called milia, which are formed in obstructed facial glands. Generally, these disappear with washing, but in some cases a doctor will need to remove them.
Deep peels: Phenol acid. After a phenol peel, your doctor may prescribe a mild pain medication to relieve any discomfort. If a waterproof adhesive is applied to the treated area, it will be removed in 1-2 days, and you’ll be instructed to cover the area with antiseptic powder several times a day. A scab will form and, within 7-10 days, new skin will form. While the skin will be red at first, the color will lighten over a few weeks to a few months.
After any peel, it is critically important that the skin be protected from the sun. Ask your doctor to recommend a sun block with both UVA and UVB protection, and apply it daily.
After the procedure, the doctor may recommend that the patient stop smoking for at least a week. Smoking decreases circulation of the blood in the skin, which can slow your recovery.
In general, the best candidates for chemical peels are people:
- In good physical health.
- Psychologically stable.
- Who understand the procedure.
- Who do not smoke.
- Wanting to look younger and more refreshed.
- Unhappy with the appearance of wrinkles or brown spots, especially around mouth or eyes.
- Free of active skin infections, including most kinds of acne.
- Informed about the appropriate skin tone for the type of peel used.
- Not taking Accutane, nor have taken it for the previous 18 months.
- Free from large or unusual scar formations, such as keloids.
- Realistic in their expectations.
- Willing to accept the limitations involved in the healing process.
The above is only a partial list of the criteria that your doctor will consider in determining whether or not this procedure is appropriate for you. Be sure to ask your doctor if he / she considers you an ideal candidate for a chemical peel.
Other important information:
Partial-face chemical peels are frequently combined with a face-lift, because face-lifts can correct loose and sagging skin, while chemical peels improve the texture of the skin. Aging skin may require both kinds of corrections in order to achieve a healthier, more youthful appearance. Alternative procedures include dermabrasion, laser resurfacing, and injectable fillers. In addition, Retin-A (a prescription medication derived from Vitamin A) is often used to pre-treat the skin by thinning the skin’s outer layer. This pre-treatment allows for deeper penetration of the chemical solution. The pre-treatment period may take up to a month before the chemical peel is actually performed.
Risks and limitations:
Significant complications with chemical peels are infrequent, but potential complications include:
- Temporary or permanent changes in skin tone or uneven tone (especially with Phenol peels). These include
- Hyperpigmentation (a darkening of the skin, treatable in most cases with current bleaching techniques)
- Hypopigmentation (a lightening of the skin, more difficult to treat)
- Cold sore breakouts in patients who have a history of recurring blisters and cold sores, like herpes and shingles. (An anti-viral medication before the procedure can help prevent this.)
- Risks for those with a family history of heart disease (Phenol peel only)