At-Home Chemical Peels Aren’t As Scary As They Sound—Here’s How to Do One

A full rundown on at-home versus professional peels, how to do a chemical peel, and what to be aware of.

<p>staticnak1983/Getty Images</p>

staticnak1983/Getty Images

Though the term can sound a little daunting, chemical peels are a legit skincare game changer that most people can benefit from incorporating into their routine. While strong chemical peels that penetrate deeply are best performed under the care of a professional and within a clean, clinical setting, you can indulge in a very mild variation of this skincare treatment in your own home.

We’re diving into more details what an at-home chemical peel is like, how to DIY this beauty treatment safely, and considerations to keep in mind along the way.

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What Is a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels are exactly what they sound like: A skincare treatment that utilizes chemicals—typically alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or enzymes—in order to peel away layers of the skin.

The process reveals a fresh, bright, and youthful complexion almost immediately, which makes it very appealing. “They can also stimulate the growth of new cells to improve the appearance of fine lines and dark spots,” notes Merry Thornton, MD, a board-certified physician assistant and the owner of Element Medical.

At-Home Versus Professional Peels

At-home chemical peels are classified as superficial, which means only the outermost layer is removed. In other words, they’re usually much gentler compared to professional peels. To get technical, at-home peels remove the epidermis layers of skin, while deep professional peels can penetrate as deep as the upper part of the dermis.

“This can result in faster and more drastic results, but with more downtime,” Thornton notes. “Superficial peels are also done in dermatologist offices for those looking for an in-office treatment with low downtime.”

At-home peels usually contain an enzyme or AHAs, such as lactic, glycolic, salicylic, mandelic, or malic acid, or a combination. Thornton tells us that the results are less dramatic compared to a professional chemical peel. However, a bonus is that they involve no downtime and, with consistent usage, can improve the look of texture, fine lines, pigmentation, skin tone, and even acne.

At-home chemical peels range from mild to strong, but none will be as deep as a deep chemical peel performed by a professional.

Chemical Peel Strengths:

  • Mild: “Mild peels typically use alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are derived from fruit and milk,” says Kaylee Esplin, a master esthetician for SkinSpirit. “These peels are suitable for most skin types.”

  • Medium: Medium-strength peels use beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, which are effective for treating acne-prone skin. Or they may contain higher percentages of AHAs and/or BHAs.

  • Strong: “Stronger peels, such as those that use trichloroacetic acid (TCA), should only be done by a professional,” notes Esplin.

How Often Should You Do Chemical Peels?

The ideal frequency of at-home chemical peels ultimately depends on the strength of the peel, your skin type, and your skin’s tolerance. Very mild acid treatments can be performed once every couple days, while medium strength peels are ideal for two weeks.

Esplin says, “This allows enough time for your skin to heal and recover from the treatment. If you have sensitive skin, you may need to wait longer between peels or use a lower strength product.”

How To Perform At-Home Chemical Peels

Rule number one is to follow label instructions to a T. Some peels may require more or less frequent use, or may have a recommendation for how long the product sits on your skin before being rinsed.

One of the most common mistakes people make with at-home chemical peels is over-exfoliating, or leaving the solution on the skin for too long. This can cause skin irritation, redness, and even scarring.

“Additionally, it's a good idea to start with a lower strength peel and gradually work your way up to higher strengths as your skin becomes more accustomed to the treatment,” advises Esplin. “It is also essential to protect the skin from the sun after a chemical peel, as the skin may be more sensitive and prone to damage.”

With that information in mind, here’s a simple step-by-step process for giving yourself an at-home chemical peel with an approved, over-the-counter product:

  • Step 1—Wash: Cleanse your face with a gentle face wash and warm water, then gently pat dry with a clean, soft towel.

  • Step 2—Apply the Peel: Apply the peel to freshly cleansed skin and allow it to set for the recommended duration of time. Using a clean cosmetic brush can help ensure an even application.

  • Step 3—Rinse: Rinse your face with lukewarm water, making sure to remove the peel completely. You may need to re-wash with a cleanser if it’s a sticky or stubborn peel.

  • Step 4: Skincare: Follow up with non-active skincare products, such as a moisturizing toner or serum and face cream.

“The use of at-home chemical peels can be complemented with other skin care treatments or products, but it is important to be cautious and follow recommended guidelines to avoid over-exfoliation or skin irritation,” notes Esplin. “Before combining chemical peels with other treatments or products, it is advisable to consult with a dermatologist or esthetician to determine the best course of action for your skin type and concerns.”

Are At-Home Chemical Peels Approved For All Skin Types?

Mild to medium at-home chemical peels are generally suitable for most skin types. However, if you have very sensitive skin or allergies, then it may be best to avoid them altogether.

Thornton also recommends proceeding with caution if you have very dry skin or a skin condition, such as rosacea. You can still enjoy peels, but it’s best to choose gentle and hydrating acids—such as lactic and glycolic—in low percentages.

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