An acid peel is one of the most effective treatments for creating youthful, healthy skin—when it’s performed properly.
Even for the most experienced estheticians, the thought of applying acids to the skin can come with a lot of trepidation—and understandably so. There are a lot of variables that can affect the outcome, such as technique, strength of acid, skin type and underlying conditions, and how the skin is prepped. Many of these fears, however, stem from myths and misuse surrounding
Peels, when properly administered, provide one of the most powerful, noninvasive skin improvements available. They remove cellular buildup, stimulate skin regeneration, reduce wrinkles and fine lines, decrease large pores and oiliness, and soften texture. Peel treatments are effective antidotes to acne, hyperpigmentation, aging, and even rosacea.
There is an art form to peeling the skin, and with the proper knowledge and training, esthetic professionals can not only help their clients achieve the results they’ve been striving for, but also quell any reservations they have around receiving peel treatments.
PEELING BACK THE LAYERS OF PEEL TREATMENTS
Though the idea of using enzymatic agents to rejuvenate the skin has been around since ancient Egyptian times, chemical peels didn’t come into practice in dermatology until the late 1800s. At that time, salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, and trichloroacetic acid (TCA) were primary choices for rejuvenating and brightening the skin.
Over the decades, dermatologists around the world began experimenting with different formulations and applications. As they published their results, it didn’t take long before chemical peels became a top choice among skin care professionals for achieving optimal skin health over the long term.
So what exactly happens during a peel? When you apply highly specialized acids and enzymes to the skin, you begin to create a controlled injury that rapidly increases the process of mitosis to reveal healthy, glowing skin. Treatments vary in intensity, and both desired results and client needs will determine which is best to use. Intensities include:
Progressive peels: The mildest of treatments, these peels only remove the stratum corneum and sometimes visible peeling doesn’t happen. These are best performed in a series of 3–6 treatments, 1–2 weeks apart.
Mid-depth peels: Affecting the intra-epidermal layer, exfoliation from these peels will generally occur within 2–3 days and requires minimal downtime. These may be performed monthly for as long as needed.
Deep peels: Reaching the deepest intra-epidermal layers and portions of the dermal layer, a deep peel will cause the skin to undergo considerable peeling. Downtime will be about 7–10 days. These are best administered at least six weeks apart, and it is not recommended to do more than three per year.
Based on the intensity, the client’s goals, and the client’s skin type, there are certain acids better suited for the job than others. And today, we have more acids at our disposal than ever before.
A VAST SEA OF ACID FORMULAS
Every acid has a specific purpose and effect on skin cells and tissue regeneration. Here are some classic tried-and-true acids:
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are naturally occurring, nontoxic, organic acids. The most commonly used include the best glycolic acid peels and lactic acid. These acids loosen the desmosome junctions (a glue-like substance) that hold the cells together.
Azelaic acid (up to 15 percent) is created by oxygenating oleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid found in milk fats and grains such as barley and wheat. This is used as a lightening, lifting, and antibacterial agent.
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid extracted from the willow and birch tree. It is a relatively safe, low-risk acid, as it is self-neutralizing and produces a drying and lifting effect. It also dissolves layers of the epidermis and, depending on the percentage used, can create heavy lifting of the cells.
Jessner is a combination of lower-strength acids (salicylic, resorcinol, and lactic, all at 17 percent) that synergizes to
produce an efficient exfoliating agent with less risk.
TCA will penetrate only if it is used in an aqueous base. It is nontoxic, self-neutralizing, and keratolytic, and is very effective in low strengths. It can be used alone or in tandem with other acids to disrupt the cells to create deep exfoliation.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that converts to retinoic acid. It is a DNA regulator that assists in collagen synthesis, aids in the formation of blood vessels, and encourages healthy cell formation.
Retinols are important to support the cellular injury caused by other acids.
These acids all fall in the superficial range and are some of the most commonly used peeling agents.
Beyond the tried-and-true classics, there are now a bevy of new acids, couture formulations, and unique blends that deliver
amazing, pro-youth results. These include flower acids, malic and tartaric acids, and vitamin A boosted with peptides.
Flower acids: Obtained from hibiscus chalices and lotus root, these acids give back to the skin cells and are much friendlier to the skin than most other choices. The properties range from high antioxidant support to increasing hydration in the skin while creating lifting and exfoliation.
Malic acid, tartaric acid, and red wine vinegar: Wine vinegar extract is rich in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant and free-radical scavenger. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, stimulates cell proliferation and collagen synthesis, and inhibits proteases. Malic and tartaric regenerate, firm and tone, and deliver vital nutrients to the skin.
Hydrogen peroxide, AHAs, and salicylic: This blend is highly beneficial for photodamaged skin. It stimulates blood flow and oxygenation, brightens skin tone, and reduces pigmentation. Hydrogen peroxide delivers brightening benefits and antibacterial support, and it synergizes with other acids to assist with absorption. Glycolic, L-lactic, and salicylic rejuvenate, hydrate, and strengthen collagen.
Achieving optimal results begins with the proper preparation. It can mean the difference between a great peel and lackluster results, and will reduce the risks associated with peeling. These steps ready the skin’s surface by reducing lipids, decreasing inflammation, suppressing melanin, and helping ensure greater absorption of the peeling solution.
While the preparation, just like the peel treatment, will vary by client, there are a few general steps to follow. Begin with a deep cleanse, followed by an optional granular scrub as a phase-two cleanse. Use a lipid reducer like ursolic acid and other ingredients like kojic acid to suppress melanocyte activity. This will create a clean surface and begin surface exfoliation.
Enzymes and AHAs can be good pre-treatments and may enhance the results. During the treatment, enzymes may also be used to accelerate the skin’s “digestion” process. These are great for providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support, as well as infusing hydration and vital nutrients.
Following any corrective procedure that uses acids or intense enzymes, soothing anti-inflammatories and wound-repair topicals such as arnica, epidermal growth factors, and amino acids will help speed the recovery time and rebuild healthy cells.
Finally, always finish a peel treatment by applying a sunscreen. A good mineral-based sunscreen will not only provide protection, it will also deliver a healthy dose of nutrients.
Skin peels can deliver considerable improvements, but the success of a peel depends on four things: your knowledge, your ability to read the skin, client compliance, and selecting fresh, quality ingredients. As such, there are a few best practices when doing chemical peels at home or going to a professional.
- Undergo appropriate training!
- Complete a skin assessment and skin history on the client
- Perform a patch test at least 48 hours before treatment
- Send clients home with postcare instructions
- Take before-and-after photos to track progress
- Manage expectations prior to starting a program
- Perform a peel on the first visit
- Perform a peel on a client who is using Retin-A or taking Accutane
- Perform a peel if a client received Botox or another injectable procedure that day
Take time to learn the art of peels. Understanding how to use a variety of peeling agents, from the tried-and-true to the next-generation acids, will open the door to produce greater customized results for your clients.
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- Welch, Samantha. “The Best At Home Chemical Peels of : The Ultimate Guide – Healthy Beautiful.” Healthy Beautiful, healthybeautiful.com, 6 Aug. 2022, https://healthybeautiful.com/review/best-chemical-peels-at-home-the-ultimate-guide/.
- .Lu J, Cong T, Wen X, Li X, Du D, He G, Jiang X. Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Exp Dermatol. 2019 Jul;28(7):786-794. doi: 10.1111/exd.13934. Epub 2019 May 15. PMID: 30972839.
- Shao Y, He T, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ, Quan T. Molecular basis of retinol anti-ageing properties in naturally aged human skin in vivo. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2017 Feb;39(1):56-65. doi: 10.1111/ics.12348. Epub 2016 Jul 4. PMID: 27261203; PMCID: PMC5136519.