What is chemical exfoliation?
Chemical exfoliation is also sometimes referred to as chemical peeling. It is done with the intention of wounding certain layers of the skin, thus causing inflammation.
The idea behind this is that the wound created will send a message to the brain to produce new collagen and speed up the cell turnover rate. This process removes several layers of skin, which also removes dead skin cells and debris, and can help clean out pores. It also helps reduce signs of aging like sun damage (dark spots), and fine lines and wrinkles.
Chemical exfoliation temporarily improves the appearance of the skin, but is not a long-term solution, and it is not without risk.
Here is where people tend to get confused and sometimes frightened away by chemical exfoliation. When I was a kid with acne; I was told (by someone who shall remain nameless) that a chemical peel would get rid of my scars. They said I would have to go to a dermatologist, they would pour acid on my face, and which would dissolve my skin, leaving a bloody mess. After a painful and messy healing process, I would have new, scar free skin. Nice, right? Unfortunately, I think a lot of people believe this is what a chemical peel is. I feel the need to clarify.
Will my skin actually peel off?
The thing to understand about chemical peels is that there are many different types and different levels of depth. Different peeling agents (usually an acid or other irritant, but now lasers are also used) will produce different levels of inflammation.
The amount of downtime you will have depends on how much redness, frosting, flaking, and scabbing (this is what people refer to as “peeling”) occurs. This depends on what kind of peel you have. Some peels have virtually no downtime at all; others have long and uncomfortable recovery times. Your length of downtime also depends on your body’s immune system; the speed of your body’s wound healing process, as well as how well you follow your pre- and post-peel home care instructions.
What kinds of peels are there?
Aestheticians in salons, skin care clinics, or spas can only perform superficial peels. These peels do not remove any living tissue, and there is usually no downtime. They are sometimes referred to as “lunchtime peels” and are typically done in a series of several treatments. Results are subtle, but if a proper home care regimen is followed and maintenance is done routinely, they can be as good as what you would get with a deeper peel.
Medium depth peels can be performed in a medical spa by an aesthetician, certified laser technician, or cosmetic nurse, under the direct supervision of a physician. These peels will remove all of the dead skin cells, and will affect some of the living tissue of the dermis as well. There will be some downtime with these peels, usually a few days to a week. Typically, the peels sometimes require more than one treatment, and produce more noticeable results than superficial peels.
Deep peels can only be performed by a physician (a dermatologist, cosmetic doctor, or plastic surgeon), and usually require general anesthesia and have a long recovery time. They are typically performed only once, and will produce the most dramatic results. These peels will remove most deep wrinkles and deep scars.
Don’t trust your face to just anyone.
Different skin problems will require different peeling agents, and different depths. If you are considering chemical exfoliation of any kind, you need to do your research and make sure the professional you choose has adequate training and experience with the different peeling agents and proper techniques. Ask to see real before and after pictures and ask to contact past clients to get their feedback. Listen to word of mouth.
Also, make sure that your practitioner conducts a thorough skin consultation with you beforehand, and asks questions about pre-existing conditions, medication history, etc. Not everyone is a candidate for chemical exfoliation, and without enough information, contraindications might be missed.
Is chemical exfoliation safe?
The safety of a chemical peel depends mostly on the competence of the skin care professional when it comes to mixing the peeling agents, application of the solution, controlling the depth of the peel, and properly removing it. Most superficial peels are considered to be fairly safe if they are performed by the right professional, but even under the most ideal conditions, injury (burns) and scarring can occur.
Not only do peels need to be performed with the correct technique, they must also be spaced out appropriately if done in a series. The aesthetician will closely monitor the skin’s response to each treatment, and adjust the treatment protocol and schedule accordingly. Moderation is imperative. Overdoing it will cause permanent damage to the skin, such as hyperpigmentation (discoloration, dark spots), hypopigmentation (loss of color, light spots), broken capillaries, and scarring.
Not all skin care professionals are pro peeling. There are very prominent experts in the industry who do not recommend repeated peeling. They believe that the skin’s barrier layer needs to be left intact and that the skin’s natural enzymes should be able to do their job on their own. Most professionals are not opposed to gentle enzyme peels, very superficial alpha hydroxy acid peels (a few times a year), or very gentle mechanical exfoliation, they just don’t recommend doing series after series of peels.