You’ve started to notice some fine lines and wrinkles on your face (ugh!) or maybe your skin looks a little lackluster (blah!).
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And in your quest to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve your skin’s brightness, and diminish discoloration and brown spots, you may have thought about trying a chemical peel at home.
Previously, you could only get a chemical peel as an in-office treatment at your doctor’s office. Now, there are plenty of at-home chemical peels available, making it tempting to want to give this skin care approach a spin.
But before you get started, dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, walks us through how a chemical peel works and how to choose the best version for you.
What is a chemical peel?
A chemical peel is a chemical solution that’s used to improve the appearance of your skin. When applied to the top layer of your skin, the solution causes that skin to eventually peel off, unveiling a new layer of more youthful skin underneath.
“A chemical peel is basically a way to exfoliate your skin,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “You can use a chemical peel to target concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines or texture. You’re helping your skin cells turnover.”
So, how does a chemical peel feel when it’s on your face?
“It will tingle and it may burn a bit and feel hot,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “It’s mildly uncomfortable, but you definitely will know it’s doing something to your skin.”
And with most chemical peels, there is some downtime. Depending on the strength of the chemical peel, you may experience redness, peeling, flaking and sensitivity — similar to a sunburn — for up to two weeks after.
Chemical peels at a doctor’s office vs. at home
You may opt to visit a dermatologist for a chemical peel. By doing so, you’ll tend to get a higher concentration of ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid or salicylic acid.
Another bonus? You’re also getting the treatment applied by an expert who can make sure to target your skin’s concerns, like wrinkles or discoloration, with the right kind of chemical peel.
But if you want to explore the world of chemical peels in the comfort of your own home, Dr. Khetarpal says there are many versions available.
Whether the chemical peel is delivered via peel pads, a liquid application or a product that you wash off, at-home treatments tend to be gentler on your skin.
And due to the lower concentration of ingredients, you may need to apply a few treatments before you see any results like smoother skin or faded dark spots.
How to do an at-home chemical peel
Doing a chemical peel at home does require some homework beforehand. You want to avoid tanning or being in the sun for about two weeks before using a chemical peel. Remember: Sunscreen is your best friend.
You also want to consider what type of skin care ingredients you’re using in the lead up to a chemical peel.
“If you’ve been using a vitamin A cream like a retinol, tretinoin or adapalene, it thins the top layer of your skin,” cautions Dr. Khetarpal. “The chemical peel will go a little bit deeper, so you’re going to get more of an effect.”
Another important task before doing a chemical peel at home?
“Do a test area first,” stresses Dr. Khetarpal. “Apply a small amount to your jawline or behind your ear. Give it a day and see how your skin reacts. And you want to do this especially if you have sensitive skin, dry skin or eczema, just to make sure you don’t end up with inflammation or a reaction to something in the product.”
Dr. Khetarpal offers some other tips:
- Start with a clean face. On the day of your chemical peel, make sure you start with a freshly washed face that’s free of excess oils and makeup.
- Protect your skin. Dr. Khetarpal likes applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the sensitive skin around your eyes. You may also want to use a headband to keep the hair out of your eyes and face. And if you have sensitive skin, you may want to use gloves to protect the skin on your hands.
- Consider your applicator. Some chemical peels just come in liquid form so you may need a cotton ball or cotton pad. “I would also keep a washcloth nearby in case you started to get a lot of burning or discomfort,” she advises.
- Follow the directions. If the instructions of your chemical peel say to keep the peel on just for 30 seconds for your first application, do it. Don’t be tempted to leave it on longer. “Most at-home chemical peels increase the time you’ll leave it on per application,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “You don’t want to risk irritating your skin.”
Some peels are self-neutralizing and can be left on your skin. But others need to be washed off or neutralized with a separate solution. It’s important to read all the directions and make sure you have all the necessary components before you start a chemical peel.
Choosing the right chemical peel
“There are a lot of different options out there,” Dr. Khetarpal notes. “A chemical peel can be tailored to your needs depending on your skin type and concern.”
First, let’s learn about the different types of chemical peels:
- A light chemical peel. The majority of at-home skin peels are considered this and referred to as a “lunchtime” peel, meaning they may help with mild skin issues like texture or minor hyperpigmentation. This type of peel usually has little to no downtime.
- A medium chemical peel. This type of peel, which penetrates the middle layer of your skin, is typically done in a doctor’s office. It may be recommended to treat scarring, fine lines and wrinkles, and discoloration like age spots. You may experience redness, swelling and peeling — and may even develop blisters. Your skin will crust over and peel off over two weeks.
- A deep chemical peel. If you have deep wrinkles, severe scarring or hyperpigmentation, a dermatologist may suggest this in-office treatment that targets the middle layer of your skin. Expect a lot of downtime with this treatment. Your face will be bandaged, and healing takes about two weeks.
When it comes to ingredients, chemical peels typically include:
- Alpha hydroxy acids. This includes glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. “These alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “Alpha hydroxy acids are going to be a little bit lighter and can be done on all skin types. Many of them are even safe during pregnancy and nursing.”
- Beta hydroxy acids. This includes salicylic acid. “These ones typically help with acne,” she says. “Beta hydroxy acids are going to be a little more aggressive.”
Chemical peel aftercare and possible side effects
If you take birth control pills, are pregnant or have a family history of discoloration, you may have an increased risk of developing abnormal pigmentation.
“If you’re someone that has a history of cold sores, a chemical appeal can trigger an outbreak,” states Dr. Khetarpal.
How your skin responds to a chemical peel will depend on the strength and type of chemical peel you use. You may experience a sunburn-like reaction, which can include redness, flaking and peeling for up to a week.
During this time, you want to use a gentle cleanser to wash your face, followed by a moisturizer and sunscreen.
“You’ve just disrupted your skin’s barrier and you’re trying to restore it and help it heal,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “Keep your skin moist by using a very gentle moisturizer. You want to baby your skin.”
There are a lot of upsides to exploring the world of at-home chemical peels. Just make sure to do your homework, consult a dermatologist and follow a product’s instructions to ensure the best outcome for your skin.