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  • Writer's pictureJill Stetson

Chemical Peels: What Are They and How Do They Help

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

womans hand brushes a chemical mixture on a woman's face as her eyes are closed

Learn More About How A Chemical Peel Can Help Your Skin

The use of exfoliation methods to enhance beauty and improve the appearance of skin dates back to the ancient Egyptians. In the mid-1800s, the use of aggressive exfoliation methods was successful but also had the risk of side effects and complications.

Today, there is a surge of mild to moderate chemical peeling techniques that are geared towards progressive versus aggressive. To explain today’s facial chemical peel options we need to start with learning about skin exfoliation and then advance to chemical peels.

What is Skin Exfoliation?

woman stretches some of her old and dead skin off of her face

Our skin has a natural exfoliating process called cellular turnover. Cell turnover is the process by which skin makes new skin cells, traveling from the lowest layer of the epidermis to the top layer and then shedding them off. This occurs on the top layer of your skin as your body releases the dead cells and replaces them with cells from deeper in the epidermis.

In healthy skin, cell turnover is approximately every 28 days until a person reaches 30, after which this natural exfoliation process decreases at an estimated rate of about 10 days per decade. This decrease in the skin’s natural exfoliation can contribute to fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and a dull, dry appearance.

Stimulating the rate of the cell renewal process can reduce superficial conditions while simultaneously building healthy structures and skin cells. You can exfoliate your skin at home, and you should up to three times a week for normal skin, and that ensures that there is no dead skin build-up.

Types of Exfoliation

There are two ways to remove dead skin cells:


Scrubs, microdermabrasion, sonic brushes - slough dead skin cells off the skin’s top layer.


  • Enzymes - (Bromelain, Papain) - gently removes dead skin cells

  • Alpha hydroxy acids ( lactic, glycolic, malic, citrus) - removed dead skin cells and plumbs, hydrates, and brightens

  • Beta hydroxy acids ( salicylic acid) - removes dead skin cells, and depending on the concentration can impact the cellular renewal process in the epidermis.

When used as an exfoliant the acid ingredients concentration is lower than when used in true chemical peels.

What is the Difference Between Exfoliation and a Deep Chemical Peel?

In the esthetic or skin care world, chemical peels, exfoliation, or resurfacing are terms used interchangeably. All chemical peels are a form of exfoliation or resurfacing of the skin. The difference is how deep they go into the skin. Basically, there are three levels of exfoliating

  • Removing dead skin build-up

  • Stimulating the cell renewal process

  • Creating a wound response (just exfoliating will not do this but chemical peels do)

What is a Chemical Peel?

Esthetician mixes a chemical peel for a client

Chemical peels will do more for your skin and are classified into the following categories all based on how deep the peel ingredients or formulations work:

Very Superficial

Work in the very top layers of the skin in the epidermis.


Work in the epidermis, which consists of 5 thin layers.

Medium Depth

Work in the top layer of the dermis.

Deep Peels

Work in both layers of the dermis.

Chemical peels stimulate and accelerate cellular turnover and additionally create a controlled wound response. When skin responds to acute inflammation, it stimulates the growth of new cells, resulting in new healthier skin and an enhanced appearance.

Types of Peels

Chemical peel solutions are made up of acids either singular or in a blend. The acids are formulated by the skin care product manufacturer and the formulation with the application determines the depth of the peel. The main acids used in chemical peels are:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids - glycolic, lactic, malic, citrus

  • Beta Hydroxy Acids - salicylic

  • Pyruvic

  • Mandeli

  • Trichloroacetic Acid - TCA

  • Resorcinol

  • Modified Jessners - resorcinol, lactic and salicylic acids

  • Retinol

  • Phenol ( only under the care of a physician)

Skin care professionals are trained on the concentration of the acids and the PH and pKa, which all determine how deep the peel will go. They also know how to layer the peels to achieve a controlled response. They know which formulations are best for the client’s particular conditions or concerns. They also consider the color of the client's skin as this is essential is safely applying chemical peels.

three brown prescription bottles with blue lids sit on a counter labeled: lactic acid, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid

There are chemical peels that are used as an enhanced exfoliation in the treatment room and are neutralized so there is no flaking or downtime. These peels usually consist of lactic, salicylic, or glycolic acid, or a blend of these three.

These remove dead skin build-up and enhance the cellular removal process. They do not create a wound response. Skin benefits include smoother skin, decreased fine lines, and firmer skin. Salicylic acid removes oil and decreases inflammation.

Then there are peels that are layered on the skin and are not neutralized, but rather self-neutralized. There will go deeper and create a wound response. These peels use a variety of chemical combinations, as listed above, many times with a retinol booster.

Post peel flakiness of the skin can occur, but whether you experience this or not, the chemicals are in your skin doing their job. Pre and post-care are extremely important with these types of peels.

Are Chemical Peels Good for my Skin?

A facial chemical peel selected for your skin condition and concerns is a very effective treatment to:

  • Improve complexion texture

  • Reduce fine lines and wrinkles

  • Reduce age spots and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (caused by break-outs)

  • Strengthens skin keeping it active and youthful

  • Improves most grades of acne & acne scarring

  • Stimulate collagen & elastin to slow the aging process

Facial chemical peels are acid-based solutions that are intended to create a partial-thickness injury or a wound response, in order to remove the outermost layers of the skin. This results in a wound healing process to increase the regeneration of epidermal tissue.

The intention of a chemical peel is to improve the appearance of the skin by stimulating new, healthier, and younger tissue. They have been scientifically validated and are one of the most effective skin care treatments available.

What Can I Expect with the Chemical Peel Process?

You may or may not peel or have flaky skin from a chemical treatment, however, the chemicals are in your skin and doing what they are meant to. Here are factors on how your skin will react to peeling treatments:

Esrhetican mixes a chemical peel before applying the treatment on a SkinTrust client