Skincare is huge right now. You only have to scroll through your social media feed or flick through a magazine to see adverts for products and treatments for glowing skin. And one such treatment is the chemical peel. This treatment is becoming so popular that, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), 1,384,327 chemical peels were carried out by practitioners in the US in 2018. That’s a lot of chemical peels!
What makes these treatments even better is that you can also experience their benefits from your own home. Let’s look at the similarities and differences between professional chemical peels and a chemical peel at home.
Okay, so what does a chemical do, exactly? A chemical skin peel - AKA a skin peel - is a great, minimally invasive treatment which can help with a plethora of skin concerns - think uneven skin texture, hyperpigmentation, congested pores, fine lines and wrinkles, etc. The treatment involves an acid solution being applied to the face which removes layers of skin, unmasking the brand new skin underneath and stimulating the formation of new skin cells. What can you expect afterwards? To be fresh-faced, radiant and glowing!
If this is the first you’ve heard about chemical peels (or if you’re just curious to learn more), we’ve got another article to help you out here.
What is a professional chemical peel like?
When it comes to professional chemical peels, you have three options: superficial, medium and deep. As you can see from the diagram below, each one goes a little bit deeper when removing layers of skin and so the end result is more effective as the intensity increases (but the downtime also increases!).
Let’s look at the chemical peel process:
Before the skin-perfecting treatment begins, your practitioner will prep your skin by cleansing it of its natural oils and any dirt or debris that might get in the way of the peel. Sensitive areas such as the eyes, the corners of the mouth and nose contours will also sometimes be protected with something like petroleum jelly. During the peel, the practitioner will either use a brush to ‘paint’ the chemical solution onto the face, or cotton pads to apply it. The acid is left on the skin for roughly 2-10 minutes (it varies from acid to acid and the strength used). Then, depending on the acid used, the practitioner might neutralise it (to stop the acid from penetrating too deep) before wiping it away. At the end, a gel or moisturiser will be applied to help replenish moisture after the chemical peel treatment.
What about a chemical peel at home?
The principle of doing a chemical peel at home is the same as professional peels. The aim of the game is to apply liquid exfoliants to the skin to improve how it looks and feels.
Typically, DIY chemical peels contain the same acids as the ones commonly used by professionals in light peels - most of the time these are AHAs and BHAs. Specifically, glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid are some of the famed chemical exfoliants which are suitable for use at home (though, if you do some more digging, you’ll also find the likes of mandelic acid). At-home peels will either contain just one acid, or a mixture of several.
At-home chemical peels can come in the form of things like peeling solutions and masks which are applied to a cotton pad, brush or your fingers and gently spread over the face. Pre-soaked chemical peel pads are even available for the ultimate time-saver.
Depending on the product, these peels will either need washing off after a certain amount of time, or will be left on the skin - sometimes overnight. So, be sure to check the product’s instructions! These products aren’t as strong as the stuff used by the pros, so they’re better for skin maintenance and sprucing up dull skin, rather than fixing big skin issues.
It’s possible to buy at-home chemical peels which come in professional-grade strengths and concentrations which can deliver dramatic results. But, don’t get too carried away. This might sound pretty great, but unless you are a professional, chemical peels as potent as these should not be used at home because us non-professionals aren’t trained if something goes wrong.
What makes an acid an effective peeling agent?
The glycolic acid peel and salicylic acid peel are super popular, but what do they actually do? To fully understand the differences between professional and at-home peels, let’s look at what makes an acid effective. Things are going to get a bit sciencey now, but I’ll keep it as simple as possible. After all, you’re here for great skin, not a science lesson!
The efficacy of an acid comes down to 3 things: how big its molecules are, its concentration and its pH.
When it comes to size, smaller is better. The smaller the molecular size, the easier it is for the acid to penetrate the skin. Glycolic acid (which has very small molecules), for example, will travel deeper into the skin than mandelic acid (which has very big molecules).
Concentration is measured in percentage and refers to the ratio of acid molecules to other ingredients in a product. Taking our beloved glycolic acid again, percentages in over-the-counter products will usually max out at roughly 10%. When in the hands of a pro, though, the concentration of glycolic acid can reach as high as 70%.
pH plays an even bigger role in how potent an acid is than concentration does. Yes, the same pH that you might remember from your chemistry lesson days. pH is important when we’re dealing with chemical peels because it determines the strength of an acid. The lower the pH, the more acidic the acid is - and, so, the stronger it is. Peels which have been made for home use will typically have a minimum pH of 3.0-3.5. Anything lower should only be used by the pros!
So, the main difference between an at-home and in-clinic peel is the concentration and pH of the acids used. Aestheticians will use acids with high concentrations and low pH levels for impactful results, whereas peels suitable for at-home use will have lower concentrations and higher pHs - they’re formulated to be safely used by non-professionals, a.k.a. me and you. And that’s the science bit over, phew!
The benefits of going to a clinic for a chemical peel
As you can see, there’s a lot that needs to be considered when doing a skin peel. So, whilst it’s okay to use your at-home chemical peel kits, you should always leave the strong stuff to the professionals!
Medically qualified practitioners are trained to choose the right acid - and the right strength of acid - for your skin type and skin concerns. They also know exactly how long the acid should be left on for and what to do if something doesn’t go to plan. Basically, strong chemicals are much safer when handled by trusted aestheticians.
But, aside from the scary stuff, one of the biggest in-clinic chemical peel benefits is their effectiveness. Because the acids used are stronger, the results are more impressive.