Discover the benefits of chemical peels and how they help with acne scars.
In this day and age where most of us lead busy, fast paced-lives, maintaining healthy skin is challenging enough in itself. This requires not just the right skincare knowledge and routine, but also persistence and dedication.
Having acne-prone skin on top of this, is a whole new level of challenge. This means that you’d not only have to constantly deal with frequent acne flare-ups, you’d also have to deal with the consequent acne scarring that comes with this skin condition.
Luckily, we’re here to help ease your skincare worries. In this article, you’re going to learn about what chemical peels are, why they work, and how they can help you get rid of those stubborn acne scars. Continue reading to find out more about chemical peels for acne scars.
What Is a Chemical Peel?
A chemical peel (a.k.a. chemexfoliation) is a cosmetic procedure that involves the topical application of chemical solutions on the skin. These solutions contain ingredients that dissolve dead skin cells and exfoliate the skin. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are usually used in chemical peel solutions.
The chemicals in these solutions create controlled micro injuries on the skin. As a consequence of the wounding and peeling of the old skin layer, the skin regeneration process is activated. This is how chemical peels induce skin renewal and help in revealing younger and more even-toned skin.
While both chemical peels and physical exfoliators can effectively remove dead skin cells, the latter is not advisable for those with oily and acne-prone skin. The abrasive and textured surfaces/tools used in physical exfoliation are deemed too irritating for these skin types.
Types of chemical peels
Depending on the chemical concentration and the number of coats applied during the chemical peel, the depth of skin wounding and skin healing time may vary. Below is a list of the most common types of chemical peels and their corresponding effects on the skin.
Home treatment peels are a type of chemical peel treatment that uses chemical solutions containing low potency acids. Since home treatment peels contain low chemical concentration, the risk of adverse complications are also relatively low. As they’re non-invasive, they usually require little to no downtime for recovery.
Home treatment peels are mostly used for skin maintenance. Since they have low chemical potency, these peels need to be used repeatedly for the desired effects to show. These chemical peels can be applied using a cotton ball or a cotton pad. The solution can be soaked for up to 10 minutes, depending on the manufacturer’s specific instructions.
Home treatment chemical peels can help in addressing very light surface scars, dark spots, and superficial acne scars. They can be used once every 1-2 weeks, depending on the product indication and your skin’s tolerance.
Lunchtime peels (a.k.a. superficial peels) are called as such since ideally, they can be done during ‘lunchtime’. This is because the procedure only takes less than 20 minutes and requires zero downtime for recovery. The procedure is done by topically applying a chemical solution using a small brush or cotton ball. The solution is usually steeped for about 1-10 minutes, depending on the chemical used.
These peels often make use of diluted chemical solutions containing (20-40%) glycolic acid and 10-20% trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Because their superficial action is confined to the epidermis (outermost layer of the skin), lunchtime peels are gentle enough for nearly all skin types. Anaesthesia is not required for this procedure as the discomfort it causes is generally tolerable, if not non-existent.
Lunchtime peels are recommended for the treatment of mild sun damage, slight pigmentation, mild acne scarring, dry skin, post inflammatory pigmentation, and fine lines. As they’re generally non-invasive, they can be done once every four to six weeks.
Medium chemical peel
Medium chemical peels are chemical peels which penetrate both the epidermis and papillary dermis (topmost layer of the skin beneath the epidermis). To achieve this, medium chemical peels make use of chemicals in stronger concentrations like 70% glycolic acid or 30-50% TCA.
Like lunchtime peels, medium chemical peels are done by topically applying a chemical solution on the face. However, medium chemical peels may require longer soaking time (about 40 minutes) as well as multiple layers of application.
Depending on the patient, pain relievers and oral sedatives may be given. Signs of skin redness and peeling may be seen a few days after treatment and healing time may take about one week post-treatment.
Medium peels are effective for the treatment of fine lines, mild photodamage, superficial melasma, and superficial acne scars. Medium peels can be done every four to six months, depending on your skin tolerance.
Deep chemical peel
Deep chemical peels are the strongest among all chemical peels. They penetrate as deep as the mid-reticular dermis (layer beneath the papillary dermis). Most deep chemical peels make use of chemical solutions containing high concentrations of 50%(or more) TCA or 50–55% phenol.
Because this type of peel penetrates so deep into the skin, its stimulating effect on collagen production is maximized. While deep chemical peels are undeniably effective for treating deep-rooted acne scars and wrinkles, people who wish to undergo this procedure must carefully weigh its supposed benefits over its morbidity factors (i.e. the chances of developing disease as a result of the chemicals used) and other potential procedure-related complications.
Deep peels may have serious risk factors including phenol absorption-induced toxicities, including organ damage (i.e. cardiotoxicity (heart), hepatotoxicity, (liver) and nephrotoxicity (kidney). Because of the nature and the risk factors associated with the procedure, deep peels require specialized training and extraordinary care.
Deep peels are performed in surgical rooms/sites. Medical practitioners performing this treatment are required to provide pre-operative sedation and intravenous hydration, particularly when using phenol peels. This is done so as to minimize serious risk factors including phenol absorption-induced toxicities (i.e. cardiotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, and nephrotoxicity).
Deep peels may be used for treating severe photoaging, coarse wrinkles, deep scars, and precancerous skin lesions. They can be done once every two to three years, upon doctor’s approval.
Can Chemical Peels Help With Acne Scars?
The short answer is yes.
Because chemical peels can brighten skin pigment, it can also effectively address hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone. Chemical peel solutions containing ingredients with natural anti-inflammatory and skin brightening properties are excellent in combating both post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and post-inflammatory erythema (PIE).
Research also showed that both 35% TCA peels and 92% lactic acid peels are useful for addressing atrophic boxcar scars caused by acne. Atrophic boxcar scars are shallow and superficial.
Studies also suggest that chemical peels for acne scars work best in people with fair skin. Moreover, people with fairer skin have very little to no risk of developing chemical peel-induced hyperpigmentation.
While chemical peels can effectively address acne scarring, its effect is limited only to superficial acne scars that aren’t severe, raised, nor depressed. If you want to address these kinds of acne scarring, try microneedling instead.
Other Benefits of Chemical Peels
Aside from being good at addressing acne scars, here are some more skin benefits that you can get from chemical peels:
Suitable for all skin tones
Using laser therapy and/or chemical peels in treating acne scarring/hyperpigmentation in dark-skinned patients have long been considered as challenging. This is because certain types of laser therapies and chemical peels have increased risks of causing PIH, hypopigmentation, and permanent scarring in people with darker skin tones.
But with the right peel solution, acne scars in people with darker skin tones can be safely and effectively treated. In fact, research has shown that salicylic mandelic acid peels and glycolic acid peels are both safe and effective for the treatment of acne, acne scarring, and PIH in people with darker skin tones.
Reduce acne scarring & hyperpigmentation
Studies show that chemical peels can effectively help in reducing acne scars and improving hyperpigmentation. Through their skin brightening and skin exfoliating properties, chemical peels can help even out the skin tone and minimize the appearance of dark spots.
Fine lines and wrinkles reduction
Several studies have proven the effectiveness of chemical peels in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Thanks to their ability to stimulate skin regeneration, the production of essential skin proteins (i.e. collagen and elastin) is increased. As we know, the increased presence of these skin proteins in the skin surface restores skin elasticity and promotes the skin’s youthful appearance.
Improved effectiveness of other skincare products
Chemical peels exfoliate and dissolve several layers of skin and debris build-up. Through this decongesting action, chemical peels allow other skincare products to penetrate deeper into the skin and ensure optimal absorption.
Word of Caution
Research shows that people with darker skin tones and/or melasma are not ideal candidates for medium-deep depth chemical peels. Individuals with this skin condition have high risks of getting permanent hyperpigmentation, owing to their skin’s increased melanocyte activity.
Dark-skinned individuals and those who have melasma do not respond well to chemical peel-induced skin injuries. Because of this, their chances of getting discoloration and permanent scarring from chemical peels are pretty high. As such they should be cautious and stick to light chemical peels instead.
It’s also a known fact that chemical peels can temporarily damage your skin’s moisture barrier. Because of this, unusual dryness, flakiness, and even blisters may be expected post-treatment. To prevent further skin dehydration, consistent moisturization is especially essential after treatment.
While many studies have shown the safety and effectiveness of chemical peels in treating non-inflammatory acne, not all chemical peels for acne are safe for all types of acne. Deep chemical peels aren’t recommended for people with severe active acne as peels like these tend to cause temporary but extreme skin dryness.
Contrary to popular belief, ridding your skin of all its oils isn’t good for acne-prone skin. This will only cause your skin to become extremely dehydrated, triggering it to overcompensate the moisture loss by producing more oil. With the production of more oil, the chances of getting clogged pores and breakouts will also increase.
Prepping for Chemical Peels
Admittedly, chemical peel treatments done by trained medical practitioners are much safer and more effective than DIY’s. However, some people still prefer home chemical peels since they’re far cheaper and more convenient.
Use of topical skin products containing retinol, acids, and other skin-clearing products should be stopped about 3-5 days pre-treatment. These products increase the skin’s photosensitivity, heightening the risk for sun damage. Excess sun exposure also increases the risk of developing permanent irregular pigmentation in the treatment areas.
To achieve a successful DIY home chemical peel, make sure to educate yourself well on the do’s and don’ts of chemical peels. For best results, choose a chemical peel solution containing ingredients that suit your skin type and skin condition well. For reference, consult the guide below.
- For normal skin types: Glycolic acid
- For oily and acne-prone skin types: Salicylic acid
- For dry or sensitive skin types: Lactic acid
- For mature skin: Glycolic acid
- For dark skin tones: Salicylic mandelic acid and glycolic acid
- For fading dark spots: Citric acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid
Before applying the chemical peel solution on your face, do a skin patch test first. Patch testing can help prevent any potentially severe allergic and/or adverse skin reactions.
How to do a skin patch test: Using a cotton swab, dab a drop of the solution onto a small patch of skin just below your ear. If you don’t see or experience any adverse reaction in that area for at least 48 hours after application, you may safely use the peel on your whole face.
Avoid applying the peeling solution on areas of your face where active acne and inflammation is present. Doing so may cause skin irritation and/or aggravate skin inflammation.
Physically exfoliating your face the day before the treatment is both unnecessary and improper. Since chemical peels are a form of chemical exfoliation, doing physical exfoliation before the treatment may not only cause unwanted irritation and uneven peeling but may also lead to overexfoliation.
To reduce the risk of excessive bleeding and bruising, certain medications with blood thinning properties like aspirin, ibuprofen, vitamin E, and fish oil are required to be stopped at least 10 days pre-treatment.
Strictly following your doctor’s aftercare advice is important for maximizing your results, preventing any undesired complications, and stimulating the skin healing process. For your additional reference, here are some general guidelines for post-chemical peel aftercare:
Gentle skin care routine
If skin shedding is not yet complete, stay away from skincare products with peeling agents, actives, and acids. These products tend to be too drying and irritating for delicate peeling skin and may even trigger unwanted inflammation.
Experts also recommend avoiding physical exfoliants (i.e. hard scrubs that cause skin friction) while skin shedding is not complete. While it may be tempting to exfoliate the rough layer of dead skin sitting on the treated area, you run the risk of permanent scarring should you pre-empt the natural peeling process.
Post-treatment, your skin may feel tight, sore, and even slightly irritated. To not cause further inflammation, opt for mild, hypoallergenic, and unscented skin care products to avoid any potential irritants.
Wearing makeup while the skin isn’t fully healed yet may also cause skin irritation. Experts advise waiting for about 1-2 weeks after the skin has shown full recovery (i.e. from the time when skin shedding stops) before applying makeup on the treated area.
Soothe & moisturise
Using moisturizers post-chemical peel treatment is recommended to smooth out flaky skin. As discussed, chemical peels temporarily damage the skin’s natural moisture barrier. Because of this, meticulous and consistent moisturization is essential to avoid skin dehydration and irritation.
Because chemical peel treatments exfoliate the skin and induce skin shedding, the skin inevitably becomes thinner and more prone to sun damage. To counter the potential adverse effects of sun exposure (i.e. hyperpigmentation and sunburn), the wearing of sunscreen is non-negotiable.
- Post treatment: Experts recommend wearing SPF 50 broad-spectrum sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. SPF should be applied daily until the skin has recovered completely.
- After full recovery: Wearing sunscreen daily (SPF 30 or more) is still advised. Doing so can help you maintain and maximize the benefits of your treatment.
People with oily and acne-prone skin should opt for mineral sunscreens as they’re naturally-broad spectrum and are less irritating than chemical sunscreens.
While chemical peels for acne scars have their fair share of potential complications, having a good understanding on how to properly deal with them can make all the difference.
Armed with the right knowledge and understanding of how they work, chemical peels can become your skin’s best friend. With them, you can achieve that scar-free, flawless glass skin you’ve always dreamt of.
So, will you be getting a chemical peel? Already had one? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. We love hearing from you!