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Types of Chemical Peels & How to Choose the Right Peel

Chemical peeling is one of the most effective and reliable methods of improving the general health and appearance of the skin, delivering results with little to no down-time, and at a cost that is more accessible and affordable than you might think.

Chemical peels have been used for decades to successfully treat a diverse range of skin conditions including: acne and acne scars, age spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, melasma, and even Rosacea.

How do Chemical Peels Work?

A chemical peel is a type of skin resurfacing treatment that uses a chemical solution to remove the top layers of dead skin. Through this process of chemical exfoliation, chemical peels reveal the underlying newer, brighter, smoother skin, and unclogging pores and correcting skin discoloration, giving the skin a vibrant glow. The chemical solution is applied to the surface of the skin and targets the top layers of the skin in order to release dead skin cells. This “controlled trauma” to the skin stimulates the natural peeling of the skin, which improves the health and appearance of the skin.

In general, the type of chemical peel you choose will depend on the desired depth of penetration, your desired outcome, and the length of recovery time you are willing to commit to. Typically, the deeper the peel, the greater the results, but deeper peels are also associated with longer recovery periods and a higher risk of developing side effects.

Types of Chemical Peels

There are three different types of chemical peels, these include:

  • Superficial peels, which use mild acids like alpha-hydroxy acid to gently exfoliate. It only penetrates the outermost layer of skin.
  • Medium peels, which use trichloroacetic or glycolic acid to reach the middle and outer layer of skills. This makes it more effective for removing damaged skin cells.
  • Deep peels, which fully penetrate the middle layer of the skin to remove damaged skin cells; these peels often use phenol or tricholoracetic acid.

Choosing the Right Chemical Peel

When attempting to choose the right chemical peel to address your skin concern(s), it is helpful to have an understanding of the individual peeling agents and their specific uses and benefits.

Superficial Peels

Superficial peels, also known as lunchtime peels, use mild acids such as alpha-hydroxy acid to penetrate the outer layer of skin. These light chemical peels gently exfoliates to remove impurities, detoxify pores, promote hydration and boost collagen production. These peels can be used to treat the face, neck, chest or hands are an ideal treatment for busy people who are unable to take time off work for deeper peels.

These peels are ideal for treating mild skin discoloration, acne, rough texture, fine lines and epidermal and mixed melasma. They are also helpful in stabilizing oily or acne-prone skin, treating blackheads, hydrating and improving skin tone.

Superficial peels require little to no downtime depending on the depth of the peel (determined by the number of layer of peel solution applied). Recovery time can range from as little as 30 minutes to seven days. Treated skin will be red and may scale with more aggressive treatments (proper after care will limit this and should be applied until the skin heals). Makeup can usually be worn the day after treatment.

Agents frequently used for superficial chemical peeling include salicylic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, pyruvia acid, TCA (trichloroacetic acid), Jessner’s solution and retinoic acid.

Medium Peels

Medium depth peels penetrate deeper, through the outer layer and into the middle layer of skin to remove damaged skin cells. Stronger acids are used in these formulas such as glycolic or trichloroacetic acid.

These peels are ideal for reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, treating uneven skin color (age spots, freckles, actinic keratosis, melasma and other forms of skin discoloration), acne, scars, Rosacea and lentigines. A medium peel can also smooth rough skin and even treat some precancerous skin growths such as actinic keratosis.

Medium peels require can take up to 14 days to heal.  Treated skin will be red and swollen initially, and swelling can worsen in the first 48 hours post treatment.  Sun exposure should be avoided during the recovery time, and depending on the depth of the peels, makeup may need to be avoid for 5-7 days post treatment.

Agents frequently used for medium depth chemical peeling include TCA (trichloroacetic acid), Jessner’s solution and glycolic acid.

Deep Peels

These facial procedures uses trichloroacetic acid or phenol which penetrates deep into the middle layer of skin, removing damaged skin cells.

These deep peel treatments remove moderate lines, freckles, age spots, and scars. It results in dramatic improvements in the appearance of treated skin, but it can only be performed once.

After a deep chemical peel, the treated area will be bandaged, requiring up to 21 days to heal. The skin must be soaked up to six times a day, and ointment must be applied for the first fourteen days. Sun exposure should be avoided completely for three to six months. It is necessary to have several follow-up appointments to monitor recovery.

Agents frequently used for deep chemical peeling include TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and phenol. Phenol is rarely used for full-face peeling due to it’s dual risks of cardiotoxicity and hyperpigmentation.

Acid Types

Corrective peels are often categorized according to the peeling agent(s) used including: Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) Peels, Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Peels, Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA) Peels, Jessner Peels, Retinol Peels, and Phenol peels.

AHA Peels

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are derived from sugars found in fruit carboxylic acids, provide many desirable benefits which aside from exfoliation include added hydration, antibacterial properties as well as pigment-inhibiting and hyperkeratinization-reducing capabilities. In addition to a more radiant, youthful appearance, AHAs also shrink the appearance of pores and have the ability to reduce acne.

The versatility of AHAs makes them safe and effective for all skin types, and ideal for those who desire very superficial to superficial peel. The percentage of AHA (percentages cover a wide range, from 10-70 percent) and your skin type and condition will determine peel depth, but professional AHA treatments generally reduce the stratum corneum, increase cellular turnover and promote the production of collagen and elastin.

With the wide range of available AHAs in chemical peeling solutions, it is important to understand their specific uses, and which skin types and conditions are likely to benefit from each.

Glycolic Acid

Out of all the AHAs, glycolic acid penetrates the skin the deepest, making it the best option for exfoliation. This is due to glycolic acid’s small molecular structure, which allows it to penetrate deeper into the dermis. It’s also a great option for bringing a healthy glow back to aging skin.

Glycolic acid is used to dissolve and allow dead skin cells to slough off. The result is a smoother skin surface with clear pores.

For instance, glycolic acid’s degreasing properties make it ideal for oilier skin types however, this characteristic tends to make it too dehydrating for drier skin types. Conversely, lactic acid works best for drier skin types, or those with sensitive skin as it penetrates more slowly. Glycolic and lactic acids are two of the most frequently used AHAs and between them they cover a wide range of skin conditions.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is derived from sour milk and is used for the mildest, most gentle of chemical peels. It contains keratolytic AHA that smoothes skin and improves texture and is less irritating and drying, delivering smoother, softer and younger-looking skin while it helps diminish fine lines, acne, and hyperpigmentation (brown spots).

A lactic acid peel does not come with the skin irritation or recovery time of deeper chemical peels, and it is therefore a good choice for people with sensitive skin or who have rosacea. Because a lactic acid peel is so gentle, results are not as intense as with other chemical peels. A series of up to eight sessions may be required to achieve full results, with “maintenance” lactic peel treatments thereafter.

Malic Acid

Malic acid is derived from apples and pears and is one of the gentler acids used in chemical peels. Like other AHAs, it exfoliates the top, superficial layer of the skin, which in turn does everything from smooth out texture to fade discoloration to help unclog pores. Malic acid promotes cell turnover, leaving skin brighter and more even, and also helping to keep pores unclogged.

Malic acid is a larger molecule than other alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic or lactic acid. This decreases its penetration into the skin, but makes it gentler than its other AHA counterparts. It’s also a good choice for those with sensitive skin and for whom other acids may be too irritating.

Malic acid also has the added benefit of acting as a humectant meaning it’s an ingredient that attracts moisture to and traps it in the skin. This added hydration capability, coupled with its larger size and decreased penetration, makes malic acid a much gentler option than other skincare acids.


TCA, which is synthetically derived and consists of acetic acid and chlorine, was first studied in the mid-1990s. Further research indicated that TCA was a safer and more predictable peeling agent than those that penetrate deeper, such as phenol. In the 80s, the combination of solid carbon dioxide with TCA became known as the medium-depth peel, and today TCA is a popular choice for both superficial and medium-depth peels.

TCA peels are medium-depth peels that treat fine surface wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, blemishes, scarring, and uneven surface texture. TCAs are the preferred chemical solution for darker-skinned patients and may be used on the neck and other areas of the body. Multiple treatments may be required, however, recovery time is short depending on the depth of the peel (determined by the number of layers of peel solution applied), as little as no time with very superficial lunch-time peels, to 1-4 weeks with deeper peels.

Percentages range from 6-30 percent, though percentages higher than 10 percent should only be used when the skin is properly pre-treated and prepared with appropriate daily care products.


Salicylic acid – the only beta hydroxy acid (BHA) appropriate for topical use – is an effective treatment for acne, sensitive skin conditions, rosacea, and concerns such as uneven texture, hyperpigmentation, and photodamage. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble and can go within the skin’s surface to exfoliate and help dissolve oil and dead skin that clog pores.The properties of salicylic acid were first described in the late 1800s, and further explored in the 1940s when the agent was blended with other ingredients such as lactic acid and resorcinol.

Salicylic acid is a versatile exfoliation treatment that is appropriate for most skin types and generally applied in superficial percentages (20-30 percent).

Jessner (Blended Acid) Peels

The peel formulation of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol first studied in the 1940s became the foundation for the modified Jessner’s solution, which is considered the first blended acid chemical peel. Popularized by Dr. Max Jessner in the 1950w, this particular blend of 14 percent each of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol is still widely used today to significantly improve acne and hyperpigmentation, as well as reduce the signs of aging. Resorcinol is a commonly used flaking agent and keratolytic that dissolves impacted surface cells upon contact and enhances topical penetration.

The new modified Jessner’s chemical peel solutions used today are known to provide a uniform peel depth, providing a safe and suitable option for nearly all skin types.

Retinol Peels

Retinoids, which include all forms of vitamin A, can stand alone or be applied with another peeling agent for additional exfoliation. Retinoic acid, retinaldehyde, and retinol are the most common retinoids found in professional treatment products. Percentages of retinol and retinaldehyde can go as high as 10 percent. Retinol peels are ideal for skin in need of rejuvenation as these ingredients help smooth, brighten and even skin tone by boosting collagen production and increasing cellular turnover without irritation. Retinol also serves to enhance the absorption of vitamin, antioxidants, and other active ingredients contained in these advanced formulas thereby maximizing their benefits.

The Latest in Chemical Peels

Today’s chemical peels combine the combined the best peeling agents to maximize the benefits of these treatments while eliminating or reducing discomfort and downtime, and providing additional benefits including hydrating, soothing inflammation, and infusing the skin with antioxidants.

Because of their ability to deliver dramatic results, with little to no-downtime, the renewed interest in chemical peels is not surprising. Though each has unique advantages, blended peels have risen to the forefront for their versatility, reliability, and effectiveness. The wide range of benefits they provide is simply unparalleled.

PLEIJ Salon + Spa offers a range of chemical peel to address the complete range of skin-related concerns. We invite you to schedule a skin analysis and consultation appointment. During this service we will assess your skin’s precise condition, taking note of lifestyle factors to help us create a customized treatment program for your personal skin care needs.

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