As someone who reaches for my anti-acne cleanser at the first sight of a new breakout, the only thing worse than a glaring red pimple staring back at me in the mirror is the dark mark it leaves behind when it’s finally gone. Acne marks can last for months—sometimes even years—and when no over-the-counter creams and acne-targeting systems seemed to lighten my hyperpigmentation, I decided to seek out other options.
Since I didn’t feel like the hyperpigmentation on my face was severe enough to warrant a laser treatment, and my fear of needles made me reluctant to try microdermabrasion, my dermatologist helped me figure out that a chemical peel was the best option for me. This procedure consists of a chemical, or a mixture of chemicals, that is applied to the face, neck, or chest to exfoliate the skin. As it peels, new layers are revealed, thus improving the appearance of spots, wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation.
There Are Different Types of Chemical Peels
The acids used in peels often determine how strong they are. Superficial chemical peels are often mild and gently exfoliate the outer layer of the skin, so they use gentler acids like alpha hydroxy. Medium-strength peels use stronger acids like glycolic and trichloroacetic (TCA) and penetrate the skin’s middle layer. And as the name suggests, deep peels fully penetrate the skin’s middle layer, but might sometimes require the patient undergo some type of sedation. The acid you’re treated with would depend on the severity of your issue and a consultation with your dermatologist.
I was nervous, excited, and hopeful when I walked into the office for a peel the very first time. I started with a very mild salicylic acid treatment at a very low percentage—typically, you’ll usually start off with a 5 percent or 10 percent mixture and then work your way up to around 70 percent. Over the years, I graduated from salicylic acid to glycolic acid, a medium-strength peel.
You May Have to Stop Using Certain Products Prior to Treatment
First things first: I’m a makeup addict and wear foundation on a daily basis. But as common sense might tell you, you should never wear makeup when you go for any type of facial treatment. I had become so comfortable with no one outside of my family seeing my makeup-free face, but I had to learn how to feel secure leaving the house and entering the office without so much as a lick of BB cream ahead of my treatments.
I had also been prescribed a day lotion and a night cream to assist with healing my acne, but when I started peel treatments, my dermatologist instructed me to stop applying the night cream at least five days before and after I underwent a peel. Turns out, some products—like creams containing tretinoin, which I was using at the time—can burn your skin if used directly before or after a chemical peel treatment.
“Patients should ask about the amount of downtime they should take before and after the peels, as this can vary from a few hours to many days or weeks,” says Dr. Rhonda Q. Klein, a dermatologist who owns Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut. “Ask if any medication needs to be stopped prior to the peel, if prophylaxes with antibiotics or antivirals are required, and what post-procedure creams or products should be used.”
Sometimes It Feels Like a Soft Prickle…and Sometimes You Want to Claw Your Face Off
Once your face is squeaky clean and free of any products, your dermatologist will start applying the acid with a cotton ball and let it sit for two to five minutes. Full disclosure: I have the pain tolerance of a toddler. So when I first started getting the treatments, they definitely stung a little and my face would start getting red. At that point, the doctor would instruct me to wash it off to avoid burning my skin. But over time, my face got used to it.
However, some treatments were definitely worse than others. The most painful treatment I received was with 50 percent glycolic acid. I kept exhaling and squirming and trying to think about anything other than picturing my skin melting off. You’re usually given a small, handheld fan to cool your face down when it starts to burn—always take the fan! Treatments with stronger acids like glycolic and TCA will often warrant the use of a neutralizer solution—which basically provides a wave of skin-cooling relief. While your level of discomfort will depend on the acid used and your tolerance for pain, chemical peel treatments never feel like nothing.
Once the treatment is over, you should wash your face with cold or warm water—never hot water. But the most life-changing tip of all? Washing with a mild facial cleanser gives you instant cooling relief. Your dermatologist’s office may be able to provide a supply of facial cleansers, so be sure to ask if any are available.
Moisturizer Will Be Your Best Friend
Moisturizer with sun protection, to be more specific. Your dermatologist will tell you a minimum of 50 times to wear sunscreen when going out after your treatment. “The skin is exfoliated and the top layer or more is removed, so skin is extremely sensitive to the sun,” says Klein. “Sunscreen is best used after a peel, and patients should avoid the sun to avoid discoloration.”
Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Sunscreen with SPF 55 is a favorite that I always keep in my purse when I visit for treatments, but feel free to ask your dermatologist for his or her recommendations. “ISDIN Eryfotona and Elta MD Pure are both great physical blockers that I recommend after peels,” says Klein.
Your Skin Will Peel Under Your Makeup in the Days Following Treatment
First and foremost, you should use gentle, hypoallergenic products directly after a chemical peel treatment, according to Klein. Your downtime will depend on the strength of the acid, but my skin’s tight feeling usually subsides after a day. If you decide to wear makeup in the days or even weeks following your treatment, you may notice layers of your skin physically begin to flake and peel off. You might beg people not to look too closely at your face, but this is completely expected!
“This is usually a normal response, and patients should moisturize aggressively with Alastin Nectar, Aquaphor, Vaniply, or Vaseline at least two to three times daily,” says Klein.
Chemical Peels Aren’t an Overnight Cure for Skin Issues
So after a little more than a year of monthly peel treatments, I’d say that I’ve seen more improvement in the appearance of my acne marks than I’ve ever seen before. Of course, chemical peels don’t make me immune to the occasional hormonal cyst the size of Mt. Fuji, but I’ve never felt closer to my goal of clear, scar-free skin.
As with any other treatment option, chemical peels require time, but if you follow your dermatologist’s after-care instructions and pay attention to your skin, you will see results. You might achieve the desired results in just a few months, or you might finally taste victory after a few years. Everyone’s skin and treatment plan is different, and patience is definitely key.
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