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If you've ever dealt with acne or the occasional breakout, then it's likely that you've also experienced the fun world of acne scars. Acne scars can range in appearance from dark spots to raised bumps or depressed grooves. Everyone has scars in some shape or form that tell stories of their past, and that's 100% normal, but whether you prefer to embrace or remove your acne scars, know that most will fade over time. Chemical peels, though, can be used to speed up this process. Read on to learn about how chemical peels work and what to look for when choosing one.

What are chemical peels?

A chemical peel is a procedure that involves applying a chemical solution to the skin to exfoliate and slough off the uppermost layers. Peels are used to improve skin texture, the look of wrinkles, and lessen acne scarring. The strength of chemical peels can vary significantly from a light solution applied at home to a deep peel performed by a physician. At-home chemical peels will work well for minor, surface acne scars with repeated use, but higher strength, in-office peels are better for addressing more severe acne scarring.

Acids for at-home peels
Beta-hydroxy acid

Beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid are ideal for those experiencing active breakouts. Chemical peels containing salicylic acid are unique in that they penetrate sebum to break apart the dead skin cells that are blocking pores. Salicylic acid is also ideal for addressing excess oil. At-home chemical peels will typically contain 2% salicylic acid and are combined with a higher concentration of alpha hydroxy acids or require more frequent application. A doctor's office or skincare specialist's visit is required for chemical peels with a higher concentration of salicylic acid (20%-30%). 

Alpha-hydroxy acid

Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid are the most common alpha hydroxy acids used in chemical peels. They work by breaking apart the top layer of dead skin cells to promote cell turnover, brighten, and exfoliate the skin. Glycolic acid is the smallest of the three and is the best at penetrating the skin, making it the most potent. Mandelic acid, derived from almonds, is the largest and most gentle of the three acids. If you have sensitive skin or are worried about diving straight into chemical peels, then mandelic acid is a great place to start.

In-office Chemical Peels

Stronger chemical peels are performed by physicians or skincare specialists and provide a deeper exfoliation to address fine lines, wrinkles, and more severe acne scarring. Options for these peels come as light peels, medium peels, and deep peels. 

Light Peel

Light peels typically use more concentrated versions of the alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids used with at-home peels. These peels are the gentlest of the three peels but effectively remove the top layers of skin, increase cell turnover, and are done regularly. These peels may cause slight redness for a few days afterward with mild peeling if any.

Medium Peel

Medium peels typically use 20-35% of TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and are commonly used to address more depressed acne scars as it penetrates deeper into the skin. This chemical peel takes around ten days to recover from and will result in intense flaking. Due to the peel intensity, it's necessary to choose an experienced physician or esthetician for this service.

Deep Peel

Phenol is the most potent ingredient used for chemical peels and penetrates deep down to the lower dermal layers of your skin. Its intensity requires an anesthetic to prevent discomfort and can take up to a month to heal. This intense peel is expensive, requires a lot of follow-up care, and has the potential to cause unwanted side-effects like scarring, hyperpigmentation, and skin whitening; therefore, it's not often the first chemical peel of choice.

What to avoid

Independent of the chemical peel you choose, there will be some thinning and irritation to the skin. You must avoid direct sun and apply ample sunscreen while your skin heals from the treatment. Also, avoid other exfoliating skincare products like retinol, other AHAs, BHAs, or peels until your skin fully heals.


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