Chemical Peels At Home Explained (13 Studies): EVERYTHING You Need to Know
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Chemical peels…. a.k.a. how Tyler Durdan burned the protagonist’s hand in the movie Fight Club! 😮
Just kidding! That was actually lye (an alkaline). And chemical peels aren’t that scary anyway. At least if you let the professionals handle them…. Or if you’re like me and wanna save some money — if you do them professionally yourself. 😉
As you probably ascertained from the title of this blog post, that’s exactly what we will be focusing on today: doing chemical peels at home!
But before we do that, it’s probably a good idea to give you some basic background information on them first, so you go into it well informed and know exactly what to expect.
We will be going over what a chemical peel is, what it does, why you’d want to do one, the different kinds, side effects, where to buy them, and to help you keep motivated — include a couple before and afters!
Table of Contents
- 1 What is a Chemical Peel?
- 2 What Does a Chemical Peel Do?
- 3 Types of Chemical Peels and Recommendations.
- 4 Chemical Peel Side Effects.
- 5 What You Will Need.
- 6 How to do a Chemical Peel at Home!
- 7 Chemical Peel Aftercare.
- 8 Chemical Peel Before and Afters.
- 9 Where to Buy Chemical Peels.
- 10 Want to Subscribe for Updates?
What is a Chemical Peel?
In short, it’s a higher strength skin exfoliant with a pH that’s generally around 2.0.
When most people think about chemical exfoliation, they’re probably familiar with the lower strength stuff like Paula’s Choice 2% BHA, or the COSRX BHA (my personal favorite).
These types of exfoliants differ from chemical peels for two reasons:
- They have a higher pH.
- There’s less overall acid inside the product.
If you don’t know what pH is, feel free to check out my blog post all about it. To briefly summarize an excerpt from that guide, chemical exfoliants have what’s called a free acid value (FAV), which tells you the true strength of the product.
When the pH of a solution is at 2.0 or below, it means the entire percentage of that acid in the product is “free” to exfoliate. However, when the pH of that product is raised slightly, less of that salicylic acid will actually work. For example, say we have a 5% salicylic acid product with a pH of 2.0 — that 5% would be completely “free” to work its exfoliating magic. But when the pH of that salicylic acid is raised slightly, less of that 5% is actually active.
Why is this important? Because chemical peels should have a pH of around 2.0. Otherwise, you won’t be getting their full effects.
If all that was confusing, just know that a chemical peel is simply a stronger version of over the counter chemical exfoliating products, and as such require caution when using at home.
What Does a Chemical Peel Do?
It makes people sexy!
Joking aside, chemical peels have a lot of benefits! These include, but are not limited to, deep chemical exfoliation (duh), treating hyperpigmentation and other skin discolorations, facial rejuvenation, unclogging pores, getting rid of acne, reducing the depth of wrinkles or acne scarring, brightening skin tone, enhancing the absorption of other skincare products etc. (1, 2)
In other words, they pretty much do everything you’d want them to!
Types of Chemical Peels and Recommendations.
In terms of strength, there are three varieties. (3)
1. Superficial Peels
Also known as “lunch time peels” because they involve little to no downtime. These penetrate minimally, exfoliate gently, and are best suited for mild skin problems like minor discoloration or rough texture. Mandelic, lactic, and low strength salicylic acid peels would normally fall under this category.
2. Medium Peels
These penetrate more deeply (middle layer of skin), target damaged skin cells, and are best suited for moderate skin problems like superficial scarring, fine lines and wrinkles, and more troublesome discoloration like melasma or age spots.
Medium peels have even been used in the treatment of precancerous skin growths. High percentage glycolic acid, Jessner, and TCA peels would fall into this category.
3. Deep peel
As the name implies, these penetrate the middle layer of skin very deeply. They target damaged skin cells, moderate to severe scarring, deep wrinkles, and skin discoloration. Examples of these include high percentage TCA and phenol chemical peels.
Most skin peels done at home will fall into the superficial category. Extreme caution should be taken with medium strength peels, and you should NEVER do a deep peel at home. Save that for the top of the line professionals. By far and large, people don’t need them anyway.
In terms of ingredients, there are a lot of different options to choose from. Because we are all about simplicity on this blog, here’s a list of common chemical peels with quick summaries of what they do. I will list them in order from weakest to strongest.
This is the lightest peel of the bunch, and unlike the others I will list, is considered a “natural” option because it’s derived from fruit. It’s especially great for those with sensitive skin or who can’t tolerate acids.
Unlike AHAs and BHAs, it doesn’t actually increase cellular turnover, but removes dead skin, refines pores, and isn’t photosensitizing (i.e. increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun).
- GreatFull Skin Pumpkin Enzyme Peel
- Protege Beauty Pumpkin Enzyme Peel
- Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask
- Perfect Image Pineapple Pumpkin Enzyme Skin Peel
Improves texture, fine lines, wrinkles, is beneficial for acne, and helps hyperpigmentation without the irritation or erythema that glycolic acid can induce. (4) In combination with salicylic acid, it’s been shown to be more immediately effective than glycolic acid against acne, hyperpigmentation, and atrophic scarring. (5)
Another good starting peel because it’s considered lightweight and gentle. It smooths skin, provides a glow, helps with minor wrinkles, and is better than glycolic acid in treating hyperpigmentation and general skin discolorations, in addition to being more hydrating. (6)
By far one of best peels for treating acne. (7) It’s oil-soluble meaning it will effectively get into the crooks and crannies of pores to dissolve any congestion and debris.
Unlike glycolic acid and other AHAs, it does not increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, which could in turn lead to UV-induced erythema (redness). It’s great for photodamage, hyperpigmentation, melasma, lentigines (sun spots), freckles, and effectively treats hyper-keratinized skin conditions like warts or excess dead skin buildup. (8, 9, 10, 11)
Salicylic Acid is also great for fungal skin conditions like malassezia (pityrosporum) folliculitis, better known as “fungal acne.”
This one is a bit more intensive, and depending on it’s concentration can fall into the “medium peel” category. It increases collagen production, refines texture, brightens and refreshes skin tone, reduces wrinkles, and is a particularly excellent chemical peel for acne scars. (12) And when I say acne scars, I mean the actual indentations left behind in the skin from old breakouts.
Like all the other peels mentioned thus far, gycolic acid also treats hyperpigmentation and acne — though less effectively than salicylic acid.
A medium strength peel that’s made up of three primary ingredients (salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcino). It’s a great peel for hyperpigmentation and acne-prone or oily skin, but should be avoided if you have dry or sensitive skin because it could be fairly drying. (13)
This peel will cause frosting and downtime, which could last anywhere from a couple days to a week.
TCA Peel (Trichloroacetic Acid)
A medium strength peel, and the strongest of the bunch listed here. TCA peels are no joke, so take this one seriously! Scratch that, take all of them seriously!
This peel is good for sun damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, stretch marks, and atrophic acne scars. (14) Like a Jessner peel, this will have downtime (typically 7-10 days).
Chemical Peel Side Effects.
This will depend largely on the strength, intensity, and type of peel you use.
For lightweight peels like 15% salicylic or 25% mandelic acid, there will be little to no side effects. If anything, a little bit of redness post-peel will occur, but should subside in an hour or two. Skin peeling may occur within 2-3 days, however this is pretty uncommon with light superficial peels.
Note: Just because you don’t peel, DOES NOT mean it isn’t working! Don’t underestimate the strength of a chemical peel, even if you feel it didn’t do much.
As for the higher strength stuff like a 15% Jessner or TCA peels, there will most definitely be skin peeling and redness. This can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days, so make sure you’re doing these peels when you can afford to hide from humanity. 🙂
Unless you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t care about looking like a crazy lizard in public. If you fit that description, more power to yuh! *Cyber high-five*
Rare, but possible side effects include:
- Change in skin color. (More likely to happen with people of color.)
- Heart, kidney, or liver damage. (Really only a concern with phenol peels, which you SHOULD NEVER do at home. These are even stronger than TCA peels.)
- Scarring (Again, very rare. But possible.)
What You Will Need.
We’re almost at the exciting part of this post! But first, we need to go over the things you will need.
This will be used to neutralize the peel. You should never be using baking soda on your skin otherwise, if you don’t know why read my guide about pH.
However, the high alkalinity that makes baking soda so terrible for skin, is exactly what makes it a perfect agent for neutralizing chemical peels.
This will save product and allow for a smooth, controlled application. This is the one I use.
This will protect the sensitive areas of skin that the chemical peel shouldn’t touch. These include the sides of the nose, lips, and eye sockets.
Stopwatch or timer.
I like to use my phone. You will need a timer to keep track of when to neutralize the peel.
To protect your hands when handling the chemical peel!
Shot glass or small container, and a dropper dispenser.
These are all optional, but recommended for saving product and making the entire application process a lot easier.
How to do a Chemical Peel at Home!
Before we start. I need to give a big FAT DISCLAIMER:
I am not responsible for any adverse effects you may experience. As always, it is best to consult with your primary physician first before deciding to do a chemical peel at home. I am simply relaying this information to everyone for educational purposes.
With that said, if you decide to take the plunge follow these steps precisely to mitigate any potential hazards.
Make your neutralizing solution! Mix 1 part baking soda, with 4 parts water. I like to pour it into a large bowl, which I then let a washcloth soak in.
Using a q-tip, apply the vaseline to the sensitive areas of your skin. These include the sides of the nose, the lips, and inside the orbit (i.e. eye sockets). Here’s a photo to illustrate that for you, using my chemical peel test subject.
I know. I’m quite the artist! 😀
Apply the vaseline to the shaded areas and where the arrows are pointing. (UPDATE: Daaaaamn it. It appears I forgot to shade in the lips, and our test subject has since been thrown into the recycling bin. Just make sure to put vaseline on the entire lip area.)
Put on your gloves, and using a dropper dispenser, transfer over a small amount of the chemical peel into a shot glass.
Get your timer ready!
Here we go! :O
Start your timer, then dip the fan brush into the chemical peel solution.
You will want to apply it evenly across the face with a nice coat. Start with your forehead, then move down to your cheeks, chin, and lastly nose. Make sure you only do one pass when starting out! Here’s a visual of what that would look like.
Again, make sure you cover all areas of your face (forehead, cheeks, chin, and nose) while making sure to avoid the sensitive areas (sides of nose, around and in the eye sockets, and lips.)
Keep track of the timer! When you are first starting out you should only leave the chemical peel on for 30 seconds!
It may not seem like enough, and to be honest, it probably isn’t — but it’s better to be safe than sorry! Ideally you would increase the time you leave it on your face by thirty seconds increments every session until you’ve reached the maximum 5 minute limit.
For example, say you were starting off with at 15% mandelic acid peel. The first week you would leave it on for only 30 seconds. The next week, 1 minute. The week after that, 1 minute and 30 seconds — so on and so forth, until you have worked your way up to 5 minutes.
If you have reached the 5 minute mark, and feel like your chemical peel still isn’t doing enough. That would be the time to move up in percentage. In other words, rather than using a 15% mandelic acid peel, you would move up to 25% and repeat the whole process.
Just make sure with whatever peel you are starting with, that you incorporate it SLOWLY and PATCH TEST first. Your patience will be rewarded, and safety is of utmost importance. More is not necessarily better here! Have the willpower to start with less, and make sure to test a small area of the skin first.
With all that said, as soon as you apply the peel unto the skin keep track of your timer until the time you’ve allotted has passed (30 seconds minimum; 5 minutes maximum).
Go over to your sink and neutralize the peel using your baking soda mix. I like to use the wash cloth I left soaking in bowl to throughly pat my skin, making sure to dip it back into the solution occasionally. Proceed to rinse your face with water to ensure the chemical peel and baking soda has been washed off completely.
Note: This part will burn more than applying the chemical peel itself. Don’t worry, this is simply the baking soda neutralizing the acid on your face. It should only slightly tingle for a few seconds (10-20 seconds max).
Now go back and transfer any remaining chemical peel solution in the shot glass, back into the original bottle using the dropper dispenser. Clean your tools, and that’s it!
You’ve done it! You have now successfully completed your first chemical peel! HURRAY! 😀
Chemical Peel Aftercare.
You want to make sure you aren’t using any other chemical exfoliates, low pH serums, or retinoids at least 24 hours before and after a chemical peel. This includes prescription tretinoin, AHAs, BHAs, and vitamin C serums with ascorbic acid — essentially anything that would be considered an “active ingredient.”
After you have completed a peel you should follow up with a very bland skincare routine. I like to incorporate a hyaluronic acid product because it hydrates the daylights out of skin, and research has shown it significantly speeds up wound healing — two things which you should definitely be focusing on after a peeling session.
My favorite is the Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Toner (full review here). It’s a very basic toner, that has three different types of hyaluronic acid.
You also can’t go wrong with using moisturizers that strengthen and repair the moisture barrier. In my opinion, the best moisturizers for this purpose are the CeraVe ones. I have written extensive reviews about their four most popular products, including a buyer’s guide that covers them all.
To briefly summarize, they all have ceramides, cholesterol, and hyaluronic acid which function as skin identical ingredients that repair barrier damage and strengthen the moisture barrier.
My personal favorite is CeraVe PM because it comes with the addition of 4% niacinamide, an antioxidant that brightens skin tone, increases collagen production, and has anti-aging benefits. However, CeraVe Cream is a close second and better suited for those with drier skin.
Another good and inexpensive product to use after chemical peels is Vaseline. Contrary to popular belief, petrolatum is non-comedogenic — its molecules are simply too big to clog pores. Petroleum jelly is the most effective ingredient on planet earth at preventing transepidermal water loss (TEWL), which keeps the skin hydrated and moisturized. If you want to speed up the recovery time of a chemical peel, make sure you’re using vaseline!
Chemical Peel Before and Afters.
And as promised, here are some before and afters to help keep you motivated. Remember that continued use of chemical peels delivers better results. They have what’s called a “cumulative effect,” meaning the more you do them the better the outcome.
There have definitely been others with more impressive results, but this is a pretty good assessment of what you can expect.
(After 4 treatments with Salicylic Acid.)
Source: Rendon, Marta I. et al. “Evidence and Considerations in the Application of Chemical Peels in Skin Disorders and Aesthetic Resurfacing.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 3.7 (2010): 32–43. Print.
(After 8 treatments with Glycolic Acid.)
Source: Sharad, Jaishree. “Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy – a Current Review.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology 6 (2013): 281–288. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
And here’s a video showcasing a split face study between microdermabrasion and a 30% glycolic acid peel. Spoiler alert: the glycolic acid kicks more assss.
Do note however, that this only takes into consideration a single session. Realistically, you shouldn’t be expecting miracles after only doing one peel.
And if you need anymore motivation, you can check out a ton of testimonials over at the MUAC blog.
Where to Buy Chemical Peels.
There are a lot of options on Amazon. In case you missed all the recommendations I listed above, here they are again in a table. If you missed the summaries of what each ingredient does, make sure to check out the “Types of Chemical Peels” section back at the top of this post.
And that does it for doing chemical peels at home! Hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and found it informative. Be safe, and have fun with it!
Share this with your friends or loved ones, so you can have a spa day together!
Any thoughts on The Ordinary’s 30% AHA 2% BHA peel? I bought it about a month ago because I really liked that it has both AHA and BHA, buuutttt I got a little too peel happy doing it twice a week for the maximum amount of time. My skin freaked out so I cut it out and am baby-ing my skin now. I’m not sure if the freak out was because I introduced it too fast (I never used chemical exfoliants prior, so I’m leaning towards that explanation) or if it was because my skin simply didn’t like it. I think I might slowly reintroduce the peel in a month or so when my skin has healed and calmed down.
But but … re: the first time 30 second rule. It’ll take that long to get it from my forehead to the rest of my face. So is that 30 seconds after being completely done with the application?
I love that you spent the time to share all the info and I do agree that peels are fab an safe to at home of care is taken. But as a trained cosmotologist I must say a correction is in order: Never, ever use a fan brush to apply a TCA peel. The product is too liquidy and the fan brush can’t hold it. Could cause drips in eyes resulting in permanent damage! Better to use gauze squeezed out until just damp. And wear gloves…or you could a nasty burn on your hands!
This is an excellent, thorough post!
Hi f.c. so grateful to find your blog. Do you have any recommendation on how to treat or get rid of milia (thise stubborn bumps) on cheeks area? I just noticed they started appearing lately, not sure bevause of my moisturizer being too heavy that’s causing that. I started dermaroll few months ago, but i doubted that’s the cause of it. I never exfoliate my face though. I probably should. Will chemical peel help? Thank you so much for your time.
Heyy!! I stumbled upon your site from Reddit, and i am SOO HAPPY I DID!!
I feel very hopeful that THIS YEAR will be the year i can say bye bye to my skin woes.
Your “about me” is very inspirational, and i am very grateful that you have started this site! <3
I just have a quick question about what i read above, about Mandelic Acid it said:
In combination with salicylic acid, it’s been shown to be more immediately effective than glycolic acid against acne, hyperpigmentation, and atrophic scarring
I have the MUAC Mandelic Acid Peel 25%, and i recently got the Stridex in the red box. Would you happen to know *how* i would combine the mandelic and salicylic? Would i use the pads, and then right after use the mandelic acid?
Thank you again, for the information you have gathered on this site. It gives me even more hope <3 <3
Hey F.C.! Thanks for the great guide. I just got in the mail the ADSM Salicylic acid peel based on your recommendation. On the box, it says that S.A. neutralizes naturally so there is no need for a neutralizing solution or to even rinse the peel off. Should I follow the instructions, or just play it safe and neutralize and rinse? Thank you!!
Hi! I just found your blog after creeping through reddit! You are so thorough and informative! I am newish to skincare and definitely new to peels. I have some boxcar acne scars. They aren’t horrible, well to me they are, but I was wondering if there’s anything specific you would recommend? I’m definitely a beginner, so I have no idea if I should begin with a salicylic acid or a mandelic, or a combination of the two (if so, how do I do that?) I’m sorry for so many questions! But you seem to know your stuff! Thanks again for the amazing blog! I subscribed, so I can’t wait to get updates!!
I just did a home 20% Salicylic Acid peel following your fantastic information! I am 58 and have always had very large pores along with black and white heads along with oily skin.. My question is how frequent can I do this in the beginning?
Is the Perfect Image Salicylic Acid Peel ok for malessezia when it has tea tree oil in it??
Thank you for this guide but I’d like to point out that it’s much safer to do this with gauze. The fan brush can lead to excess dripping acid and a lack of uniform application. This can lead to disastrous results if you’re using a strong TCA peel. Dr Davin Lim has a great video on the subject on youtube.
Hi! Not sure if you have a definitive answer but– which type of acid peel would you recommend for PIE. Acne isn’t a major concern for me any more but I have mostly moderate (some mild) PIE spot on my cheeks. Which acid would make them fade faster and most effectively?
I didn’t know that salicylic acid is best for hyperpigmentation. I have a spot that I have been trying to get rid of for 10+ years and finally starting to see slight improvement with tretinoin.05% and alpha skincare that has 2% hydoquinone and 10% glycolic acid. But sounds like salicylic acid peel might be worth trying. ? Thanks for proving all your research and info.
Sooo helpful. Thank you. I just ordered the 15% TCA peel and your reminder to be patient and start slow was just what I needed to hear.
Does anything different need to be done/considered if using TCA 15% on chest?
Love the info, you are so knowledgeable. I’m lucky in that my town has an esthetics student spa at the community college. They are going to be done until October when a new group starts. I’ve been getting peels there & my skin looks 10 years younger. I want to continue doing it at home, so your info is great. I’m very curious what you did for your psoriasis. I got it at 57 years old & was on biologics but now on Medicare can’t get them. Mine is really flaring up so any help would be great. Keep posting the great info!
Do you have a remedy for UV-induced erythema?
OMG thank you so much! The dermatologist and/or esthetician cost average is now over SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS. When I had these done that way back in 1997 it was $100. Love you for this. Can’t wait to try it.
Can I apply this directly under my eyes?