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Chemical peels: what you need to know about the world's oldest aesthetics procedure

From who they suit to the various types and what they feel like, we've got the lowdown on these effective skin rejuvenators

If the thought of a chemical peel leaves you shuddering with memories of the days when similar treatments left you looking like a skinned tomato, think again!

Fortunately today’s peels are gentler, working their magic without too much unsightly shedding, and are touted by many as the secret to glowing skin.

What are chemical peels?

Chemical peels are a type of exfoliation, but instead of using physical scrubs, a chemical liquid – usually an acid or enzyme – is applied to carefully remove dead cells on the skin’s outer layers.  This solution penetrates the uppermost layers of the skin and dissolves the ‘glue’ that holds the skin cells together, causing them to peel off and be replaced with new ones.

As one of the oldest aesthetic treatments in the world, chemical peels have been used in some form or other for thousands of years, and were a popular procedure offered by dermatologists in the '90s. However, they were often seen as hardcore, with strong acids being used to strip the top layer of skin, forcing patients to hide away for at least a week while fresh, new skin grew.

How do peels benefit your skin?

Removing the dead upper layers can improve texture and radiance, and leave skin looking more youthful and smoother. It’s these dead, damaged skin cells that cause dullness, congestion, blackheads, spots and an uneven complexion.

Peels stimulate healthier skin, keep blemishes at bay, reduce fine lines and help address pigmentation concerns.

What type of peels are available?

The amount of skin removed, i.e the depth of the peel, depends on the type and strength of the product used and how long it is left on the skin. There are light, medium and deep peels to treat different concerns, and a good dermatologist or aesthetician will know the right combination of acids for your skin.

Standard ingredients in a chemical peel include alpha hydroxy acids (lactic acid, glycolic acid, malic acid, citric acid) and beta hydroxy acid – salicylic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds usually derived from plant-based sources. They all act on the surface of the skin as chemical exfoliants, but their molecules differ in size and subsequently penetration and potency.

What does it feel like to have a peel?

A chemical peel involves the application of a solution to the surface of the skin which usually causes it to tingle, sting and/or burn. The stronger the formulation and the longer it’s left on, the more powerful the ‘peel’.

Downtime will depend on the depth of the peel – as acid-based formulas are used, it’s likely there will be some redness and stinging and possibly some slight swelling within 48 hours of the treatment. In the case of a light peel, recovery time will be minimal. For deeper peels recovery may take a little longer, due to the number of skin cells that need to regenerate.

How often should you have a peel?

Aestheticians tend to suggest a course of more gentle peels which will give results without the need to hide away from the world. In the majority of cases, weekly or bi-weekly sessions over six to eight weeks can provide good results.

Who are the ideal patients for chemical peels?

Chemical peels are most effective for patients with lighter skin tones, though the treatment can still be suitable for those with darker skin or pigmentation – however, with melanin-rich skin there is a risk of worsening of dark spots or hyperpigmentation so it's important to see a dermatologist with expertise in the use of peels for your skin tone.

Superficial peels such as AHAs or BHAs that break the bonds that hold skin together are best as they will also dissolve oil and debris within clogged pores while shrinking enlarged pores and helping to lighten dark spots.

As these peels only work on the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) and do not penetrate the deeper layers, they are less likely to cause scarring and discolouration. Post peel care is the same as with lighter skins, with stringent use of broad spectrum sunscreens applied throughout the day: it’s always a good idea to be extra vigilant with sunscreen after a peel, to protect your new skin and reduce any chance of hyperpigmentation or dark spots.

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