In-Office vs. At-Home Chemical Peels: What’s The Difference?

Dullness. Dark spots. Acne scars. Fine lines and wrinkles. What do all of these skin concerns have in common? They can be treated with chemical peels.
Expert Opinion
Written by Meg Storm
01.13.2021
In-Office vs. At-Home Chemical Peels: What’s The Difference?Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

If the COVID-19 pandemic has meant you are spending more time tending to your own complexion (without the help of a professional) than ever before, you’re not alone. In this four-part series, The AEDITION is teaming up with Lizette Ludwig, RN, to compare some of the most popular minimally invasive in-office aesthetic treatments (microneedling, chemical peels, LED light therapy, and microcurrent) to their at-home counterparts.

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Dullness. Dark spots. Acne scars. Fine lines and wrinkles. What do all of these skin concerns have in common? They can be treated with medical-grade chemical peels. Depending on your aesthetic goals and needs, chemical peels are available in an array of potencies and have the ability to resurface the skin for more even tone and texture. For those looking to achieve glow-inducing results at-home, less concentrated chemical exfoliators can slough away dead skin cells for a more radiant complexion. Here, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about in-office chemical peels and at-home chemical exfoliators.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

Professional chemical peels employ chemical solutions of varying strengths to target and remove the outer layers of the skin. “The benefits of a medical-grade chemical peel are endless,” says Lizette Ludwig, RN, an aesthetic nurse and injector in southern California. As she explains, they are a good option for anyone looking to address skin imperfections. “Chemical peels allow you to remove dead skin cells and address fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone in a safe and effective way,” she shares.

Professional chemical peels can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Superficial chemical peels
  2. Medium chemical peels
  3. Deep chemical peels

These classifications are based on the potency of the peels and the ingredients used in the chemical solution. “Ingredients found in medical-grade peels usually include alpha hydroxy acids (lactic acid and glycolic acid), beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid), trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and phenol,” Ludwig says. Below is an overview of each:

Superficial Chemical Peels

The lightest and gentlest of the group, superficial chemical peels remove the epidermis (i.e. top layer of the skin) and are generally tolerated by most skin tones. “These peels are usually made from alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acids, but they can also include enzymes or other natural exfoliating ingredients,” Ludwig notes. Because they focus on the epidermis, superficial peels provide a slight improvement to the skin and usually require a series of treatments for best results. Some mild dryness and flaking are a part of the healing process and can last for three to five days.

Medium Chemical Peels

Falling in the middle of the scale, medium-depth chemical peels produce a more dramatic result in a single treatment than light peels. “Skin will be significantly smoother with an even tone and blemishes removed,” Ludwig says. This type of peel usually contains trichloroacetic acid (TCA) to penetrate the skin and remove layers below the epidermis. Peeling, redness, and swelling are all to be expected post-peel and can last three to 10 days.

Deep Chemical Peels

Needless to say, deep chemical peels are the strongest and most invasive. They usually involve a potent formulation of TCA or phenol that can penetrate the deep layer of the dermis. As Ludwig shares, the depth allows them to produce “drastically smoother” and “youthful-looking” skin. “Deep peels can achieve amazing results for sun damage, scarring, and wrinkles,” she says. Due to their strength, however, deep peels can be painful and healing requires patience. Several weeks of downtime is needed, and full recovery could take weeks or months.

Professional Chemical Peel Treatments

Medical-grade chemical peels involve the application of a chemical solution to the face and (possibly) neck. The chemical solution is either applied lightly or rubbed more vigorously onto the skin using a gauze pad. During the application, you may experience a slight tingling (superficial to medium peels) or burning (deep peels). “I like to give my clients a mini fan which helps the tingling or burning sensation,” Ludwig shares. With certain types of chemical peels, the solution may need to be ‘neutralized’ after the appropriate time has elapsed, though most chemicals neutralize on their own.

Regardless of what strength peel you choose, patients are usually sent home with post-care instructions. “Make sure to discuss with your provider how to care for your skin after the peel,” Ludwig says. Even for the lightest peel, you’ll likely need to make changes to your skincare routine for a few days pre- and post-treatment. If you’re planning on a medium or deep peel, antiviral medication may be prescribed beforehand.

Chemical Peel Safety

Professional chemical peels are meant to be performed in a doctor's office or a medical spa by a licensed skincare professional. As we’ve reported, the DIY dermatology trend that’s fueled by social media and social distancing had led some to try medical-grade treatments (like TCA peels) at home with dangerous and damaging results. “Beware of chemical solutions sold online, as they are usually sold illegally and can cause permanent damage to your skin,” Ludwig warns. “Chemical peels should be applied by a licensed professional.”

Professional Chemical Peels vs. At-Home Chemical Exfoliators

The main difference between a superficial in-office peel and chemical exfoliators or treatments you can find at, say Sephora, is that at-home solutions do not provide the same chemical concentration as their professional counterparts. While similar active ingredients may be found in both versions, the potency is quite different. As Ludwig explains, at-home percentages of glycolic acid, for example, max out around 10 percent, while medical-grade glycolic acids (applied by a professional) can reach as high as 70 percent.

At-Home Chemical Exfoliators

If you’re dealing with mild cases of uneven skin tone and texture or wish to maintain your complexion in between in-office appointments, at-home chemical exfoliators and enzyme treatments can impart a subtle and sustained glow with regular use.

When it comes to choosing a treatment, Ludwig suggests reading the label closely. “I recommend looking for brightening ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, vitamin C, and active enzymes such as pumpkin, papaya, and pineapple,” she explains. “Every ingredient serves a purpose, so do your homework when it comes to the ingredient list.”

Chemical Exfoliator Safety & Results

While your skin likely won’t peel or flake the way it will after a professional treatment, irritation is possible with at-home exfoliating products. “Read all instructions carefully when it comes to at-home peels,” Ludwig cautions. “Most will ask you to wash it off after 10 to 15 minutes of application and gradually build up to leaving it on overnight.”

Another way to ensure your skin ends up radiant, not ruddy? “I recommend skipping out on ingredients like retinol and other active serums on days you choose to exfoliate at home,” Ludwig shares. She suggests exfoliating one to two times per week and alternating days with any actives already in your routine. “Less is more, in my opinion,” she says. “Over-exfoliating can disrupt our skin’s microbiome.”

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MEG STORMis the editorial director at AEDIT.

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