Wait, What’s a Phenol Peel and Is It Safe?

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If there's one thing I'm passionate about as a beauty writer, it's giving people all the info they need before trying out a treatment like Morpheus8, EmFace, or Botox. Gathering all the facts is especially important if you've got your mind set on a super powerful treatment that requires specialized pre-and post-treatment care, like a phenol peel. A phenol peel is a category of intense chemical peels that should only be administered by a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon. While all peels are strong-ish and can leave your skin peeling or flaking for a number of days post-treatment, phenol peels have a much more intense downtime period and have a higher risk for complications, fyi.

That said, when administered to the right candidate by an experienced provider, the results from a phenol peel can be pretty damn impressive. I'm talking smoother skin texture, fewer dark spots, and firmer skin with less noticeable fine lines and wrinkles. So if you’re considering trying a phenol peel for yourself (or are just nosy, which, relatable), keep reading for everything you need to know about the treatment, according to dermatologist Kseniya Kobets, MD, and licensed estheticians Ian Michael Crumm and Samantha Susca. Ahead, we're covering how phenol peels work, who is a good candidate for a phenol peel, how to prepare for a phenol peel, the risks, and so much more.

What is a phenol skin peel?

A phenol skin peel, also known as a phenol chemical peel, is a cosmetic procedure used to enhance your skin's appearance by removing damaged outer layers of skin, explains Crumm. This process involves applying a solution containing phenolic acid, a very-potent chemical exfoliant, that resurfaces the top layer of your skin by dissolving the bonds that hold together dead skin cells. "Similar to other types of peels, phenol peels work by dissolving the protein in your skin, which helps shed dead skin cells," she says, and "triggering the regeneration of new epidermis and collagen underneath."

The biggest difference between phenol peels and other chemical peels, like AHA peels and TCA peels, is that phenol peels penetrate deeper into your skin, going below the top layer and breaching the second layer. This allows the peel to successfully treat stubborn skin issues, like deep wrinkles, scars, melasma, and even the tightening of crepey skin, says Dr. Kobets.

But phenol peels are heavy-duty (some may even say controversial) and require pre-treatment, specific post-care, and sometimes even IV anesthesia or sedatives during the treatment to reduce the pain levels, says Susca. During a phenol peel, your physician will apply the liquid solution in sections on your face, waiting to move to the next segment until it absorbs. In total, the treatment takes one to two hours.

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What are the results of a phenol peel?

After a phenol peel, you can expect smoother skin texture, smaller looking pores, and softer fine lines and wrinkles, as well as fewer dark spots (from things like extreme burns, excessive sun exposure, acne scars, and even pre-cancerous lesions) and an overall brighter, more even-looking skin tone. "The results are so remarkable that they can last up to ten years," says Susca. FWIW, if you're a big fan of skincare, you might have heard of phenol from the famed Biologique Recherche P50 toner, which uses phenol in the O.G. 1970 formula.

"However, it's important to note that result from a phenol peel can vary depending on factors like skin type, age, and the severity of the skin issues being addressed," Crumm adds. Which brings us to...

What are the negative effects of a phenol peel?

The negative effects of a phenol peel can include scarring, changes in skin pigmentation, infection, prolonged redness, and increased sensitivity to the sun for up to six months, according to Crumm. Keep in mind: Phenol peels are *much* more aggressive than an at-home face peel or even other in-office chemical peel, and with that, they carry a higher risk of complications. Some derms don't even perform phenol peels because of the higher chance of adverse effects compared to other cosmetic treatments.

"The phenolic acid in the peel solution is absorbed through your skin and detoxified in your liver and kidneys," says Dr. Kobets. "If your body cannot metabolize higher levels of phenol in your blood, it could potentially cause dangerous cardiac toxicity and arrhythmias," she says. Thus, high-concentration phenol peels, especially when applied to large surfaces (such as the face and neck, rather than just around the eyes), historically required cardiac monitoring and IV hydration to help clear the phenol from your system.

"However, more recent lower-concentration-modified phenol peels are a bit less intense and combined with other acids that do not necessitate such monitoring," Dr. Kobets notes. "Still, caution should be exercised with any peel containing phenol, especially when applying to large surface areas of the body," Dr. Kobets adds.

Who is a candidate for phenol peels?

The best candidate for a phenol peel is someone with deep wrinkles or scars who is prepared to tolerate the extensive downtime (including swelling, peeling, oozing, and discomfort). It's also an option for those who prefer to avoid laser procedures, perhaps due to concerns about heat, explains Dr. Kobets. "Ideal candidates for phenol peels are individuals with fair skin and noticeable skin concerns such as deep wrinkles, severe sun damage, or acne scars," says Crumm. "People with darker skin tones may not be suitable candidates due to the increased risk of pigmentation issues." FYI: Most doctors typically refrain from administering phenol peels to individuals ranked as Fitzpatrick 3 or higher (aka medium to deep skin tones) due to heightened risks.

"Because this peel penetrates deep into the skin, it should not be administered by an esthetician or other skin care professional who is not a board-certified doctor," warns Crumm. Which is why it's important to chat with a doctor beforehand determine eligibility, especially considering the possible heightened risks associated with phenol peels. This extends to individuals with cardiac, liver, or kidney disease. But if you are deemed a candidate, it's crucial to follow the provided instructions to prevent further skin damage during the healing process, which can extend beyond 12 weeks, explains Susca.

How do I prepare for a phenol peel?

To prepare for a phenol peel, you should avoid any irritating active ingredients (AHAs, BHAs, retinoids, for example), as well as sun exposure four to five days prior to your appointment. Some practitioners might also recommend pre-treatment, such as using a prescription retinoid, acids, or lightening agents (like tranexemic acid or kojic acid) about eight weeks before the peel to prepare the skin for shedding and initiate the process, says Susca. Then, make sure to stop using those in favor of hydrating and gentle ingredients five days before your procedure.

How painful is a phenol peel?

Phenol peels are typically quite painful compared to other peels, even with topical numbing (which is why some doctors choose to offer anesthesia or nitrous gas—aka laughing gas—to help decrease the discomfort). "Depending on how deep the phenol peel goes—which depends on concentration and number of passes—it can be quite uncomfortable as it reaches the dermis," says Dr. Kobets.

You can try to alleviate some of the stinging by taking Tylenol or Advil 30 minutes before your appointment or massaging your skin with cooling devices like an ice roller afterward. After the procedure, you may experience some discomfort, swelling, and a burning sensation for about two to four weeks.

How long does a phenol peel take to heal?

A phenol peel can take anywhere from two weeks to a few months to completely heal. Lighter peels can take one to two weeks to for your skin to peel off and flake, with minimal redness, while deeper peels can also take just as long to peel but can have fading pinkness for one to three months depending on the depth of the peel, says Dr. Kobets.

In general, you can expect it to take several weeks for your skin to heal completely post phenol peel. "During this time, your skin will go through various stages, including swelling, crusting, and peeling," says Crumm. It's essential to follow your healthcare provider's post-procedure care instructions to ensure proper healing.

How much does a phenol peel cost?

The cost of a phenol peel can vary widely depending on factors such as the geographic location, the reputation of the practitioner, the size of the treated area, and additional fees for anesthesia or post-treatment care. "The cost could range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars," says Crumm. According to Susca, on average in New York City, a phenol peel will run you about $3,000.

Phenol peel aftercare:

During the recovery process, you may experience considerable discomfort in the treatment area. “Skin may feel tight, inflamed, red, peel, flake, crust, and swell," says Susca. "This can last up to three months, although most patients can return to work and regular activities after about two weeks."

Thankfully, there are many serums and creams designed specifically for post-peel care that are filled with growth factors, hyaluronic acid, and antioxidants to help speed up recovery and soothe skin. Crumm swears by the Tensage Intensive Serum 40 by Biopelle, while Beth Gillette, Cosmo's beauty editor, loves Alastin's Skin Nectar. But as always, ask your medical provider if this is suitable for your individual skincare routine.

Final thoughts:

A phenol peel is basically as strong as it gets, so it's definitely not for everyone (see: burning, itching, peeling, oozing skin for potentially up to two to three months). But if you're looking to target stubborn skincare concerns with one single treatment, it may be a good option for you. Just be prepared to take extra good care of your skin before treatment, and prepare yourself (and those in your life around you) for weeks to months of complaining, as the downtime can be uncomfortable, and you have to follow the doctor's post-procedure care instructions to a T.

However, the end result is smoother, tighter, and more youthful-looking skin—and who doesn't want that? Just make sure, as with every procedure, to chat with a board-certified dermatologist or a plastic surgeon before booking an appointment–there may be another less intense procedure that can yield similar results.

Meet the experts:

Why trust Cosmopolitan?

Iman Balagam is a beauty contributor at Cosmopolitan with nearly three years of experience writing beauty stories that range from curling irons to mini flat irons. She’s an authority in all skin categories, but is an expert when it comes to phenol peels, thanks to years of personally researching and testing different facial services.

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