Here’s *Exactly* What to Expect if You’re Getting a Chemical Peel
Two words you never thought you would want to use in relation to your skin: ‘Chemical’ and ‘peel’. Applying chemicals to anything sounds like a school science project and the word peel just sounds painful.
But you might want to hear me out because things like brighter, smoother skin and faded wrinkles can’t be a bad thing, right? In fact, a chemical peel might be just what your skin needs.
I was certainly nervous before I had my very first peel though, and a quick glance at TikTok and Instagram tells me that plenty of others also worry about how long they’ll peel for, whether it will hurt and whether there’ll be any side effects.
That’s why I’ve asked aesthetic consultant Sarah Tucker, nurse practitioner, Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese, and skincare expert and celebrity aesthetician Jenette Serrins to lay out *exactly* what to expect from your first chemical peel so you can decide whether this slightly full on step is for you.
I also share my own experiences with chemical peels (spoiler alert: I’m generally a fan but aftercare really is key to a great result).
What is a chemical peel?
“It involves applying a chemical solution to the skin which exfoliates and eventually causes the outermost layer of the skin to peel off,” explains Albanese.
And peels can have tons of benefits. “By removing the top layer of dull, rough skin, chemical peels can improve the texture and tone of your skin,” she adds. “This can reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, acne scars and pigmentation irregularities.”
Studies have also found that peels may be effective at tackling acne.
Albanese says that a chemical peel can also treat breakouts, repair sun damage, boost collagen production, minimise pores and enhance skincare product penetration.
Afterwards, your skin might be noticeably flaky. Don’t be alarmed, this means the peel is working. But how much shedding you experience depends on the type and strength of the peel.
After 1-2 weeks, “you should notice pores are smaller, skin is less bumpy and your skin will have an overall healthy glow,” says Serrins.
How do I prepare for a peel?
Before any chemical peel treatment, you’ll have a consultation “to determine if you are suitable candidate for a chemical peel,” says Albanese. “They will assess your skin condition, discuss your goals and determine the appropriate type and strength of peel for your skin.”
“A few days prior, stop using all active AHA/BHA products and limit sun exposure,” says Serrins. It’s best to give your skin a break from stronger anti-ageing ingredients like retinol in the weeks leading up to your treatment too.
Given that you can expect flaking skin after your peel, it’s best not to book one too close to any special events.
Check with your doctor or aesthetician how far in advance of any events they recommend you have your treatment, taking into account your skin type and the strength of peel you’re having.
What to expect during your chemical peel
Here is Albanese’s step by step guide:
- “Before the peel, your skin may be cleansed to remove any oils, makeup, or impurities. Some peels may require pre-treatment with certain skincare products or medications.”
- “The chemical solution is carefully applied to your skin, usually with a brush or cotton swab. It is left on for a specific amount of time, which can vary depending on the type and strength of the peel.” This can be anywhere from around three minutes for a mild or medium peel to 30 minutes for a deep peel.
- “During the application, you may experience a tingling or burning sensation on your skin, which is normal. However, the intensity will depend on the strength of the peel used.”
- “After the chemical solution is applied, you may be asked to wait for a specific duration. This allows the solution to work on your skin and start the exfoliation process.”
You get an idea of how quick the process is in TikToker Estera_Kismet’s video below.
Bio-RePeel treatment at @modadonnabeautyclinic #chemicalpeel #biorepeel #facialtreatment #facialpeel #londonbeautysalon #modadonnabeautyclinic #skincarecheck #skincaretreatment #acnepeel #acnescartreatment #results
Do chemical peels hurt?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Does it hurt?
“Chemical peels can cause varying degrees of discomfort,” Albanese explains. “For mild peels, you may experience mild redness and a slight stinging sensation. Stronger peels may cause more significant redness, swelling, and discomfort.”
I’ve personally found any peels I’ve had sting quite a bit, but it’s definitely a tolerable level of pain (especially because most peels are only on your skin for a few minutes).
If you’re worried though, speak to the person doing your treatment to ask what they recommend to manage any pain.
What to expect after your chemical peel
Over the next few days, your skin may start to shed. “The extent of peeling will depend on the type and strength of the peel,” says Albanese.
You may also experience side effects like redness, dryness, irritation or breakouts for the week after your peel. If you’re concerned at all, speak to the professional who carried out your treatment as they may be able to provide skincare or medications to help.
Always follow your aesthetician’s aftercare advice. They’ll most likely give you special post-peel skincare, which will help give you the best results.
You’ll want to avoid washing your face immediately after your peel or applying any other products for the first 12 to 24 hours though unless directed by your doctor or aesthetician.
You’ll also have to be careful to apply SPF. Serrins says, “A week following your peel, make sure to apply an SPF 50, reapply every 80-90 minutes if you’re exposed to sun and light and wear a hat if you are going to spend any time in direct light.”
Finally, ditch the makeup for the first week after your peel to avoid irritating skin.
How long will I peel for?
“Peeling can last for several days to a week or longer and it’s important to avoid picking at or forcibly removing the peeling skin.”
You may get lucky though. “Some peels don’t cause an actual shedding or moulting of the skin, some lead to peeling for a few days and others a week or more,” explains Tucker.
As someone who’s only ever had light peels and ordinarily has dry, sensitive skin, I’ve only ever noticed light flaking for a couple of days post-peel. This really will be dependent on your own skin type and type of peel you have though.
Will my skin look worse after a chemical peel?
Be aware that there is definitely potential for skin to look worse after a peel, mainly from the risk of hyperpigmentation (discolouration of the skin).
“If you are not taking good care of your skin pre and post-peel with the proper at-home care, including the right sunblock and protection, your skin can absolutely hyper pigment, and sometimes the damage shows up later,” warns Serrins.
Tucker says this can happen if “the skin has not properly been prepped and pretreated, the wrong acids applied or left on too long on certain Fitzpatrick skin types, if someone picks their skin after the treatment or uses active topicals too soon after, or if someone exposes their skin to heat or sun following the treatment.”
Even if you don’t experience hyperpigmentation, you might still need to schedule in a bit of downtime for a few days after your treatment, depending on how strong your chemical peel is. This is because if you have blotchy, flaky or swollen skin, you may feel a bit self-conscious. It should all clear up within two weeks though.
Personally, the first time I ever had a peel I wasn’t careful enough with my sunscreen use and ended up with some hyperpigmentation that I didn’t have before the treatment. It went away in time but I am now *really* strict with my SPF use, especially around active skincare ingredients.
Am I a good candidate for a chemical peel?
If you have skin concerns like wrinkles, acne scars, hyperpigmentation, breakouts and large pores, a chemical peel may help to address them.
It is particularly beneficial for those with a rough skin texture or who experience scarring and an uneven skin tone.
If you have rosacea, deep set wrinkles and skin sagging you may want to try laser treatment instead. And if you are pregnant or are on certain types of acne medication, a chemical peel is usually not advised.
Speak to your doctor or aesthetician about whether they think you’re a good candidate for a peel, the results you can expect to see, and whether you’ll need to make any changes to your skincare routine before your peel.
How often should I have a chemical peel?
Be aware that the results of a chemical peel won’t last forever and you may need multiple treatments.
“When experiencing long-term troubled skin, you need to stay on a committed peel programme,” Serrins explains. “I usually recommend my clients who have had severe acne, hyperpigmentation and scarring come in to see us every 2 weeks for a few months to achieve desired results.”
A chemical peel may not be something that’s ever been on your radar but perhaps now that you’ve read about the skin benefits it might start to appeal (if you’ll pardon the pun…top marks if you can spot it).
If you want to take your skincare a few steps further and go down the more professional route, a chemical peel can really improve the texture and behaviour of your skin. You’ll need to prepare for some skin shedding and some possible discomfort, but if you can handle it, your skin might thank you for it.
Meet the experts
Sarah Tucker is the owner and aesthetic consultant at Your Aesthetic Edit.
Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese is a nurse practitioner who founded Nu Glow Aesthetics in 2019. With her conservative approach to injectables, Deidre has a passion for making people look and feel like the best version of themselves.