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What Is A Chemical Peel?

A flawless complexion is lying just beneath the surface of your skin, and a professional chemical peel might be what you need to reveal it.

Considered one of the most effective and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures available, the chemical peel is a key player in today's beauty industry. In actual fact, it's been going strong for well over 150 years!

It dropped off for a few years in the 1990s due to the introduction of laser technologies and complications caused by side effects. But made a swift comeback in the new millennium thanks to a pioneering plastic surgeon who created newer, safer formulas with lower acid concentrations.

Today many dermatologists and doctors prefer deep chemical peels over laser and surgical facelifts.

But it all began in the mid-1800s with Ferdinand von Hebra, an Austrian scientist, physician, and founder of the Vienna School of Dermatology. Hebra developed groundbreaking treatments for skin resurfacing by combining caustic substances like phenol and nitric acid which would become today's chemical peel.

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An absolute pioneer in the industry he was also the first to apply scientific classifications to skin diseases.

Hebra's chemical peel became a top-secret treatment for 1920s Hollywood stars and didn't get mainstream recognition till 1946 when an American plastic surgeon, Joseph Urkov introduced croton oil to the mix. He published an article claiming to of successfully treated 2,000 patients for various skin disorders. The phenol-croton peel was now a commercially viable product.

Renowned plastic surgeons and dermatologists Thomas Baker and Howard Gordon legitimized the phenol-croton peel in the 1960s by discussing and demonstrating its impressive results at their Annual Baker Gordon Educational Symposium

A flawless complexion is lying just beneath the surface of your skin, and a professional chemical peel might be what you need to reveal it.  Considered one of the most effective and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures available, the chemical peel is a key player in today's beauty industry. In actual fact, it's been going strong for well over 150 years! #ChemicalPeelBenefits #ChemicalPeel

But by the 1990s chemical peels had fallen out of favor due to serious complications and risky side effects, but mostly due to the introduction of new laser skin therapy technologies like C02 therapy

It wasn't long before a new generation of doctors put the phenol peel back on the map when a pioneering plastic surgeon, Gregory Hetter MD gave it a major do-over. He had been studying phenol acid and croton oil for nearly twenty years and believed there was a far better, safer way to perform deep medical peels.

He published his discoveries in 2000 showing that the old formulas created by Baker and Gordon using 55% phenol and 2.1% croton oil were significantly higher than needed, leading to unnecessary risk for the patient. He also found that the active ingredient that rejuvenates the skin, was croton oil, not phenol acid. The Hetter Peel is used today in many doctors' offices.


Firstly, if you're new to facial peels don't be put off by the word 'chemical'. It sounds a lot harsher than it is, and just covers a variety of exfoliating acids, some of which like Hydroxy Acids are naturally derived. Lots of studies have been documented by doctors treating various skin conditions with facial peels. 

Chemical face peels are categorized according to how deeply they penetrate the skin, and the job they do once inside the skin.

TCA peel for acne before & after photo

Light/Superficial peels penetrate and act on the epidermis, the outermost layers of the skin. With continued treatment (most doctors' offices recommend a course of 5-6) these peels will even out the skin tone by reducing surface marks like acne scars, freckles, melasma, and sunspots.

Medium/Deep grade peels go much deeper by penetrating the dermis at various levels depending on the concentration and application time. These peels give significant results for aging and more mature skin. They can have a lifting effect and will reduce deep wrinkles and atrophic acne scars. But have longer recovery times than superficial peels.

This stinging sensation means a lot of really good activity is going on in the skin as the acids interact with proteins in the skin which causes deep exfoliation and peeling of the outer layers.

This resurfacing process stimulates collagen and elastin production and increases new cellular turnover. 

Many acids are natural humectants, so they bind water to the skin, making them perfect for dehydrated skins. 

Depending on which type of peel you choose it can either help control acne breakouts, reduce wrinkles, lift saggy skin or fade acne scars and dark pigmentation marks.


Retinol / Tretinoin Peel

Retinol and tretinoin are forms of vitamin A. Studies in 2004 showed 1% tretinoin peel was just as effective at reducing pigmentation and melasma in dark-skinned patients as 70% glycolic acid.

It is chemically similar to Retin-A and has similar effects on the skin. Like; stimulating fibroblast activity (collagen-producing cells), stimulating cell division (skin cell regeneration), and contributing to sealing moisture into the skin at the deepest level.

This peel is classed as superficial with studies showing its effectiveness in treating acne and anti-aging concerns.

It also has antiseptic properties which are why it's effective on acne. Other studies published in the Indian Dermatology Journal showed that 91.4% of patients with acne scars showed improvement when treated with a combination of retinoic and glycolic acid.

Gylcolic Acid Peel

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids are a group of naturally occurring acids generally classed as light/superficial peels depending on the concentration and application time. You will commonly need a course of 4-6 in order to get the desired results.

AHAs resurface the stratum corneum (outer-most-layer of the epidermis) and stimulate collagen and cellular turnover. They can also hydrate the skin due to being water-loving molecules. Glycolic Acid in varying concentrations has been proven to greatly reduce melasma/hyperpigmentation and acne scarring.

TCA Peel

Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA) is related to acetic acid which is derived from vinegar. It has been used in face peels for over 20 years and is classed as medium to deep depending on the concentration.

TCA peels up to 50% can be bought online for at-home use, but it is strongly advised that these peels be carried out by a professional. They reduce deeper wrinkles, freckles, atrophic scarring, and pigmentation caused by sun exposure.

Phenol-Croton Peel

The Phenol Acid and Croton Oil peel is the grandaddy of chemical peels. When the phenol acid reacts with the active croton oil it causes an intense exfoliating action in the skin. The formula has been reworked quite a bit since its creation in the 1800s. Depending on the concentration and how long it is left on the skin, the is a super deep peel that needs to be performed with a topical anesthetic by a physician only. This type of peel is suitable for more mature skin and has a reputation for giving spectacular results similar to that of a facelift.

As you can see from the before and after photos, chemical peels can give remarkable results. But, it is not the easiest of treatments. Remember, you often need a course of them and between treatments, it's crucial that you stay out of the sun to avoid damage to your skin.

So, now you know a little more about chemical peels– would you get one?

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Welcome to my little piece of cyberspace! I'm Gabrielle, and I show women how to cut through the marketing BS, understand skincare labels, find non-toxic beauty products —and achieve their skin glow goals!

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