Chemical Peel Side Effects You Need to Be Aware of

Chemical peels are very popular today for restoring a youthful look and smooth complexion to the skin, eradicating some of the sign of aging. Chemical peels can be done to the neck, chest, arms, hands and legs, but the most common are facial chemical peels.

Chemical peels are exactly what you think they are; the chemical solution literally blisters or burns the skin and peels away damaged layers. The healing process causes the skin to regenerate and expose smoother, healthier, brighter looking skin.

Chemical peels penetrate your skin to varying depths. The deeper the penetration, the more chemical peel side effects you may experience.

What are the types of chemical peels?

In general, there are three levels of chemical peels. First, we will learn about the levels and then about chemical peel side effects for each category.

    • Mild level – This level involves alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. It includes the lactic, salicylic, tartaric, citric, malic and glycolic acid chemical peels (fruit acids). “Jessup’s” peels use a combination of lactic and salicylic acids and resorcinol. They can be a bit more aggressive but are still in the mild category.  All of these are considered superficial, removing only the top layers of skin but, mild as they may be, you are still having acids applied to your skin. This category of peels is particularly beneficial for fine wrinkling, dry skin, uneven pigmentation and for acne control. Lactic acid and glycolic acid are generally the best chemical peels for acne scars. This type of peel can also be used to remove dead skin and oil before a medium or deep peel to achieve better results. This level is the least likely to cause chemical peel side effects.


    • Medium level – The popular trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels go deeper than mild peels depending on the concentration of the chemical solution. They can be very effective for reducing fine wrinkles, blemishes and skin pigmentation problems. Medium peels are also popular because chemical concentrations can be concocted to suit many different skin types. People with darker skin may get the best results from a medium peel. More chemical peel side effects are possible with this level of peels.


    • Deep level – The Baker-Gordon phenol acid peel, the most powerful, produces deep peeling (to take off several layers of skin). This category of peel is generally suitable only for the face because it can create scarring on other part of the body. The phenol chemical peel is used to treat deep wrinkles, blotchiness from the sun, hormones or aging, and for precancerous growths. It can have dramatic and long-lasting results. However, phenol acid chemical peels are not recommended for darker skinned patients (including olive skin) or those with heart problems. The largest number of chemical peel side effects can be seen in this category.


What are the chemical peel side effects?

Chemical peels are generally safe and effective. They are minimally invasive and can be an excellent alternative to surgical intervention. Chemical peel side effects are directly related to the strength of the acid used in the peel.

The most common chemical peel side effects are some level of stinging, burning or redness when the acid comes in contact with the skin. With the mild peels, these side effects go away quickly, within one to three days. However, chemical burns can be quite serious and can affect the skin’s pigment. It is also difficult to know how often, or if, peels should be repeated.

    • Mild level: Common mild chemical peel side effects include flaking, dryness and skin irritation. While the skin may turn lobster red, patients can usually resume their normal activities in 24 hours. Repeat session may be necessary to get the results you want.


    • Medium level: Chemical peel side effects from these procedures depend on the concentration of the trichloroacetic acid. It can take anywhere from about 5 to 10 days for the skin to peel and 2 to 4 weeks for it to recover. These peels may cause considerable redness and swelling and can be painful. There may also be scarring or changes in skin pigmentation. Some patients may have outbreaks of small pimples. Trichloroacetic acid is very potent and can cause serious scarring if used in too high concentrations. Today it is usually combined with other agents, reducing it to about 35% of the formula. As with the mild level peels, repeat treatments may be needed.


    • Deep level: This category has the greatest potential for chemical peel side effects. Full face deep level peels can take one to two hours with several months of healing and recovery. You should plan for someone to drive you home after a deep peel. Phenol peels may cause intense swelling, redness and significant pain.  Sometimes the eyes swell shut. There will probably be oozing and scabbing before healing begins. A sunburned look can remain for months. Phenol acid can also permanently bleach your skin.  Darker skinned people may be able to see a definite line between treated and untreated skin so this type of people should only be used for fair-skinned patients.  It is also possible for your body to absorb some phenol and affect your entire body. Phenol and other deep level chemical agents can cause heart arrhythmias and liver toxicity.


Rarely, you may encounter other chemical peel side effects such as folliculitis (infected hair follicles), bacterial infections, hypertrophic (excessive) scarring, or acne flare-ups. These are unusual and would more likely occur with deep peels.

After any peel, it is very important to protect your skin from the sun. Use a UVA/UVB sun block daily.

Who should avoid chemical peels?

If you suffer from herpes, cold sores, shingles or autoimmune skin disorders, you may have a greater risk of complications. Herpes and cold sore breakouts can be triggered by the chemical peel. Advise your doctor if you have heart or liver disease, if you tend to develop large scars, or if you have undergone radiation treatment. You may not be a good candidate for chemical peels if you have any of these conditions.

Don’t try this at home!

You should be very careful if you try a chemical peel at home. A wide variety of acids is available in home chemical peel kits. Although they are usually in diluted amounts, not all are recommended for home use. For the most part, over-the-counter kits are safe, but don’t be tempted to leave the chemicals on for long periods thinking you can speed up the process or you may be at a greater risk of chemical burns.

As always, consult with an experienced and trained doctor when considering a chemical peel.

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