Editorial note: this article was updated on July 2, 2020.
Liquid-based, chemical peels give a fresher, younger appearance to the face, hands, neck and other parts of the body. They are applied like a facial, but they are much stronger. They help clear up signs of aging, such as fine lines, sun damage or brown spots. They also help with acne scars.
- Chemical peel ingredients
- Common chemical peel formulas
- Which chemical peel is right for you?
While the use of acidic substances to deeply exfoliate the skin is not a new concept, these days we have newer techniques and formulations to offer safe, yet effective, chemical peels.
Chemical peels vary by strength, and by the types of ingredients used. Some can be as moderate as over-the-counter solutions, available at cosmetic stores. Medium and deep chemical peels are usually done in professional settings, such as a medspa or physician’s office. However, the latter (deep peels) are usually performed by lasers nowadays. This is to avoid complications historically associated with these types of high-concentration, skin peeling methods.
You’ll notice that the options for chemical peels, as with all skin peels, can abound. So, which chemical peel is right for you?
First, know that the term “acid” in skin care chemistry doesn’t always refer to something ‘scary,’ drying or irritating. Hyaluronic acid, for instance, is a good hydrator and water-binder in the skin. So, some acids can help with moisture. Others are very mild (like the orange juice you drink!). Some are stronger, but we’ll explain more on that below.
With that in mind, let’s get into the types of acids and ingredients used in chemical peels:
Chemical peel ingredients
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)
Mild chemical peels often include one or more alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). These ingredients are used to diminish fine lines, create a more even skin tone, and smooth and firm the skin. Used alone, they are not meant for deep wrinkles, which would be better treated with a laser. They are a very mild form of acid for the skin.
Common alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) include:
- Glycolic acid (from sugar cane)
- Lactic acid (from milk)
- Malic acid (from apples)
- Citric acid (from citrus fruits)
- Tartaric acid (from grapes)
- Mandelic acid (from almonds)
- Hydroxycaproic acid (from royal jelly)
- Hydroxycaprylic acid (from animals)
- Kojic acid (from fungi)
You may have heard of many of these types of acids before, since they are found in foods that you eat. The varieties used for skincare can come from various food, animal or synthetic sources. However, they are usually extracted and turned into liquid solutions for chemical peels and light exfoliants. They can be delivered in high or low potency.
One important thing to know about alpha hydroxy acids is that they all possess different molecule sizes. Thus, they penetrate the skin at different levels. They also carry different pH levels, which makes each of them more or less irritating to your skin. When used in combination, they can balance each other out, plus target multiple layers in your dermis.
The most common type of AHA used in chemical peels would be glycolic acid, followed by lactic acid.
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
When you hear the term beta hydroxy acid, or “BHA,” this is basically always going to be salicylic acid. And yes, it’s the same ingredient you used to fight acne when you were a teenager. Salicylic acid is wonderful at declogging pores more deeply than AHAs can. That’s because it is oil-soluble.
Salicylic acid peels are still considered “mild,” though their potency can increase, making them suitable for ‘tough cases’ like wart growths.
The AHA and BHA acids mentioned above are good, mild exfoliants, and can be found in over-the-counter skin care products. However, in a professional setting, other types of acids are also used. These penetrate much more deeply into the skin. They should be used with caution and care.
Common medical-grade acids used in chemical peels include:
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)
- Carbolic acid (i.e. Phenol)
TCA is the most commonly used in professional chemical peels, followed by carbolic acid. Resorcinol is an option to replace them, though it is still quite strong.
Chemical peel ‘mixins’
In addition to what are chemically defined as ‘exfoliating acids,’ chemical peels can sometimes be formulated with other types of skin calmers, bacteria killers or antioxidants. These provide a ‘boost’ to the procedure. Or, they can help to reduce reactions.
Common mixins you may find in chemical peels (and in other skin care products) include:
- Retinol (vitamin A derivative)
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C derivative)
- Ferulic acid
- Panthenol (pro-vitamin B5)
- Hyaluronic acid
- Activated carbon (charcoal)
- Azaelic acid
- Oleic acid
Plus other plant extracts, such as licorice root extract or ginger root extract.
Common chemical peel formulas
Above, we’ve covered the most common types of ingredients you can find in chemical peel products. Some chemical peel services use a pre-mixed, ‘tried and true’ formulation of various acids and ingredients. They each have a purpose, which a doctor can recommend for your specific skin condition.
We’ll explain some of the popular ones below:
TCA can be used as a standalone ingredient for a chemical peel procedure. Or, it can be mixed with other acids.
When mixed with other acids, the TCA component is typically diluted, so as not to be too harsh on the skin (this is a common problem with TCA). These formulations can be referred to as ‘blended,’ ‘enhanced,’ or ‘modified’ TCA peels. Though, these adjectives are a little bit misleading because, as we’ll see below, many branded and custom-named peels include TCA.
TCA can be used as a spot treatment for very deep acne wounds or brown spots. It is among the strongest types of chemicals used in a skin peel. For that reason, it is used sparingly.
These days, if a patient is seeking dramatic effects, a doctor may recommend laser skin rejuvenation instead of high-strength TCAs.
The popular Jessner peel is made by many brands and companies. It is named after its creator (Dr. Max Jessner).
Older versions of the Jessner solution commonly used around 35-50% trichloroacetic acid (TCA), combined with a dilution liquid, like water or ethanol (at 95%). These days, the TCA can be left out completely for a more mild peel. For cases that need it, it can be added in at the clinic, as an optional strengthener (or even for spot treatments).
However, the thing that makes the Jessner peel a ‘Jessner,’ is that it also contains the following ingredients in equal ratios (you can see they are in low dosages, too):
- Salicylic acid at 14%
- Lactic acid at 14%
- Resorcinol at 14%
Because of its intensity, resorcinol is sometimes not included at all, or replaced with other acids, which are not as strong, for patient safety and sensitive skin. Replacements can include Retinol, or alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, and others.
The above ratios typically result in a solution with a pH of about 1.9%.
While there are Jessner-labelled chemical peel kits you can buy online, we would strongly advise against doing this. Firstly, there is no guarantee of quality, and not all are actually as strong as those used by professionals.
Branded peels and custom peels
Some chemical formulators make chemical peels that are exclusive to their brand. They give their products special names, which can be trademarked. For example, we offer the Vivier® peel at our clinic. Other branded options out there include the Sensi Peel® and the VI Peel (which comes in different varieties).
These branded peels can be designed for different skin types, such as sensitive, acneic or pigmented skin (the Sensi Peel® is made for this case). They can be great for specific needs, whether in high or low strength formulas. Technically, they can also be made in-office by a doctor, in which case they would be referred to as “custom peels.”
We’ll explain the Vivier® peel below, to give you an idea of how it differs from a Jessner:
A Vivier® peel is a very mild option for a chemical peel. It’s not as mild as a laser peel, but it’s not as strong as the Jessner peel, either. It is a flagship product of the Vivier® brand.
It contains the following ingredients, at their noted concentrations:
- Lactic acid at 10% – this for adding moisture to the skin through an AHA.
- Salicylic acid at 2% – this is generally the same concentration found in over-the-counter acne medications, for a milder treatment to get rid of ‘guck’ in clogged pores.
- Resorcinol at 14% – this is the stronger chemical mentioned above. It’s not only an antibacterial agent, it also breaks down hardened skin cells for better exfoliation.
The Vivier® peel also contains patented peptides for rejuvenation effects, and panthenol for moisture and healing properties.
Because of its mildness, the Vivier® peel is a preferred option for those looking to boost their skin without extensive downtime. For example, if you have a big event coming up, and don’t want to risk residual redness or flakiness from a Jessner peel, a Vivier® peel is a good alternative. Though, we’d still recommend planning for at least a week of healing time.
By contrast, a Sensi Peel® contains the following mix of ingredients:
- Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA) at 6%
- Lactic Acid at 12%
- Azelaic Acid
- Kojic Acid
The last three ingredients listed above are commonly used to create an even skin tone. The Sensi Peel® is often used by aestheticians to brighten the skin and treat rosacea.
The above formulations are described above to give you an idea of how these types of branded peels can differ for specific needs. There are many, many more out there.
One of the latest introductions into the world of chemical peels is the carbon peel. This type of ingredient is being used as a base, or an add-in, with other acids and ingredients.
The advantage of the carbon is that it is very effective at binding to dirt and dead skin cells. It then removes them as the peel is wiped away. It is also not as irritating as some other ingredients, making it suitable for sensitive skin.
If you’ve ever used a retinol in your skin care routine, you’ll know that it takes time for the skin to build tolerance to this ingredient. At first, it can be very irritating. But over time, it can do wonders to skin texture, colour and overall ‘glow.’ Over-the-counter, or even prescription Vitamin A derivatives are usually dispensed at low percentages (say, .25% or up to 2%, depending on your local laws).
By contrast, a professional-grade, retinoid peel applies this ingredient at 4% or higher. You can imagine how that can ‘kick things up a notch.’ When used in the right circumstances, under the direction of a physician, it can have impressive results on the skin. That is, if you’re willing to undergo the healing time, which is expected of nearly all chemical peels (especially medium to deep ones).
The list doesn’t stop here…
While we’ve listed the most common types of chemical peels above, you’ll notice this list is by no means exhaustive. Since formulators can create their own mix of ingredients and call it whatever they want, the options abound out there.
What type of chemical peel is right for you?
Now comes the golden question: which chemical peel do you need? The answer to this can be as varied as the types of peels that are available at clinics these days.
We would need to see you in person, and examine your skin, to be able to tell you what ingredients would be best for you. However, in this article, we can offer some general pointers on what to look for. For example:
- ‘Coloured’ or ‘ethnic’ skin can become hyperpigmented very easily from chemical peels. An aesthetic provider should not use acids with small molecule sizes on your skin, such as glycolic acid. Very strong acids, such as TCA, should also not be used. These will penetrate too deeply, too fast, and cause irritation. However, peels with azelaic acid, kojic acid, mandelic acid, lactic acid salicylic acid and others can be beneficial for this skin type (in the right doses).
- Acneic skin will almost always require a BHA solution, to absorb oil. Carbon is another great option in these cases. For ‘deep’ acne and acne scars, consider a medium or deep peel, such as one containing TCA (but only if you have caucasian skin).
- Sensitive skin will need to be conscious of the strength of chemicals used. You may want to seek a peel with skin conditioners in them, if you dry up easily.
- Hyperpigmented skin, such as faces with melasma, will likely benefit from skin brightening ingredients. However, these should be applied with care, so as not to make the condition worse. Another option would be a mechanical exfoliant, such as microdermabrasion.
- Aging skin can use a Jessner on a routined schedule, to keep the top layers of skin as fresh as possible. However, chemical peels may need to be combined with other procedures to truly fight wrinkles and lines. Or, a doctor may recommend stronger services, such as laser skin rejuvenation, along with at-home skin care products.
To conclude: chemical peels should be tailored to your condition and skin type
While we’ve listed a ‘buffet’ of chemical peel options above, they are not all ‘for the picking.’ They should be used selectively, based on your needs. Your skin condition and skin type should be determined before undergoing this procedure. It is best to consult with a professional about chemical peels, before trying them – whether at home or in a clinical setting.
Keep in mind that the application of chemicals to your face can cause damage, if not done correctly, and with precision. Chemical peels can cause discolouration (especially on dark skin). Improper care can result in infection, or activate viral herpes (i.e. cold sores).
For that reason, chemical peels like this should be performed in a clinic, by professional aestheticians or doctors. The clinic as a whole should also be overseen by a medical doctor.
And sometimes, this option may altogether not be right for you. You may want to try skin creams with the ingredients you need, which can mimic chemical peel formulations, but in lower dosages. Or, you may want to try laser peels and other mechanical exfoliants.
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