Chemical peels are a form of exfoliation, and have a number of benefits, primarily to improve the appearance of dull, aging skin and lessening fine lines and wrinkles. Chemical peels work because they are highly acidic, dissolving and eradicating dead cells on the skin's surface, and revealing younger cells below. Peels used to be more aggressive and rarely done at resort spas, but the emergence of lighter peels has made them more available.
There is a wide range of chemical peels and they peel to different depths: very superficial, superficial, moderate, and deep. The depth of the peel is determined by three factors: how acidic it is (also known as the ph), the percentage or strength of the peel (20 vs. 70 percent glycolic) and how long it stays on the skin.
Lighter peels exfoliate on the outermost layer of skin, called the epidermis. Moderate and deep peels go down into the skin's living tissue, called the dermis, and involve more risk, more discomfort, and more healing time.
The chemical peels offered in a day spa are classified as "very superficial" and "superficial" peels, because estheticians can only work on the skin's epidermis. But just because they are "superficial" doesn't mean you won't have results.
Your skin should just look smoother, softer, and brighter. Light chemical peels can provide dramatic results on middle-aged to older clients who haven't been exfoliating. They can also be good for unclogging pores and increasing cell turnover on acneic skin. These light chemical peels are usually done in a series of four to six, a week or two apart.
Superficial chemical peels may tingle or feel a little hot, but they don't require the downtime and healing required of moderate and deep peels. Examples of very superficial or gentle peels include a 20% glycolic or a 25% lactic acid peel. A superficial peel can range from a 30 to 50% glycolic peel. The most aggressive "superficial" peel is a Jessner's, which is not offered in most spas.
Moderate to deep peels can reach into the dermis, or living part of the skin. Because they have a doctor on staff, medical spas generally offer more aggressive peels, including "moderate" peels like TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and 60-70% glycolic peels. A popular TCA peel is the Blue Peel developed by Dr. Zen Obaji.
Deep peels are limited to phenol peels, the strongest of the chemical solutions, and should only be performed in a plastic surgeon's office. While it has the potential to have the most dramatic results, there are more risks, and you need to be prepared for a week to ten days of downtime as new skin forms.
No matter what the depth of the chemical peel, it is important to protect your skin from the sun afterward. It's better not to get one on a vacation when you want to spend time outdoors. Be sure to wear sunscreen after your peel.