How does a chemical peel work?

During a chemical peel a “chemical agent” is applied to your skin to exfoliate sun-damaged, thickened surface skin (peeling) and boost collagen production for firmer skin. Find out more here.

Most peels contain one of the following exfoliating ingredients:

  • alpha hydroxy acids (an AHA, such as glycolic acid)
  • beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid, also known as BHA)


There are light, superficial peels, medium peels and deep peels. Superficial peels offer far less dramatic improvement than medium or deep peels (e.g., TCA-trichloroacetic acid or phenol-based) but the risk of side effects, some of which are severe, is higher with deep peels.

Overall, the results depend on the “depth” of the peel. In any event, you can expect fine lines, wrinkles and skin discolorations to become less visible. Skin texture will be visibly improved, collagen production boosted and blackheads will be reduced.

What DOESN’T a peel do?

  • Remove visible red blood vessels from your face.
  • Reduce the size of enlarged pores.
  • Reduce the visibility of scars.
  • Create the effect of a facelift.

What DOES a peel do?

  • Smoothen your skin, making wrinkles less visible.
  • Fade pigment spots and an uneven skin tone.
  • Make your skin look younger and refreshed.
  • Boost collagen production, for firmer skin (with repeat treatments every 6 to 8 weeks).

Risks of peels

Superficial peels are associated with few risks for your skin, but the results are also less noticeable. Medium and deeper peels may have side effects such as redness of the skin, swelling, flaking, scarring, inflammation, temporary or permanent skin discoloration and increased sensitivity. These are all reasons why dermatologists prefer light or laser treatment, as there are fewer complications.

Instead of one deep peel, you can also treat your skin with multiple less deep peels. The result is the same, but the risks are reduced and the recovery process is significantly shorter. Your skin specialist can offer expert advice on which peel is right for your skin.

Peels with alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)

  • Contain glycolic acid.
  • Are considered superficial or medium peels (depending on the concentration, which can vary from 30% to 70%).
  • Are perfect for improving skin texture.
  • Boost collagen production.
  • Help pigment spots and scars due to acne fade.
  • The treatment must be repeated regularly for best results.
  • Not a medical procedure, which means it does not fall under medical regulations and legislation.
  • A dermatologist usually performs a peel with a higher concentration (more than 30%).
  • Repeated treatments with peels with lower concentrations (between 20% and 30%) by beauticians and skin therapists are necessary to maintain results.

Take note: after an AHA peel you must use a product with a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily (preferably with the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) to protect your skin optimally against the sun. After a peel, your skin is extremely sun-sensitive for several weeks.

Peels with salicylic acid (BHA)

  • Less popular than AHA peels, but they can be just as effective.
  • Same action as an AHA peel, but cause less irritation.
  • Salicylic acid is closely related to acetyl salicylic acid (aspirin) and has the same anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Irritations and inflammations are reduced to a minimum thanks to the anti-inflammatory effects of BHA.
  • Lipid-soluble. An effective treatment for a skin that is prone to spots and blackheads.
  • Also suitable for sensitive skin and skin that is prone to rosacea.

Attention: Sometimes people with rosacea do not tolerate salicylic acid well. So try a Paula’s Choice BHA exfoliant first before undergoing a BHA peel.

What about peels to use at home?

We cannot stress enough how potentially dangerous the concentrated peels that you can order online and use at home really are. Your skin may be seriously damaged. If you use these peels carelessly or too frequently, this can cause burns, extremely dry skin, discoloration (from loss of pigment) or flaking. Even the richest moisturisers cannot repair the damage afterwards. So be forewarned, ask for advice about professional peels and get treated by a skin specialist.

Our exfoliants contain a low concentration of AHA and BHA, making them safe to use at home. Better yet, your skin will be eternally grateful. It is a nice supplement, extending the results of a professional peel. Test which exfoliant is best for your skin (in terms of texture, concentration, AHA or BHA) or get advice from one of our skin experts.

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