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Chemical peels vs laser peels vs microdermabrasion: which one is right for you?

Editorial note: this post was updated on June 16, 2020.

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When it comes to sun damage, discolouration or fine lines, regular face peels can accelerate a daily skin care routine. On some patients, they can produce significant results. When we started offering these treatments over 20 years ago, there were only a few options available. These days, there are dozens. So, which one is right for you?

No single procedure will be ideal for everyone. It takes thoughtful examination of your condition before a solution can be recommended. Choosing the wrong peel for your skin type can result in little to no change, or worse, side effects such as hyperpigmentation.

So we’d say that ultimately, a professional should decide what’s right for you. However, below, we’ll give some basic information on how they differ.

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How do lasers, deep exfoliators and chemical peels work?

Skin peels are used to regenerate and smooth the texture of facial skin. This can be done with chemical peels, laser peels, or even spa-grade, mechanical exfoliation (such as with microdermabrasion or HydraFacial™).

These procedures speed up the shedding of dead cells on the surface of the skin. Afterwards, the dead skin flakes off, resulting in the ‘peel’ effect. The skin left behind is newer, and thus usually smoother than the older skin that was there before.

Facial peels can penetrate the skin at various degrees of depth. It all depends on the method used, and the strength setting with each method. For example:

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Chemical peels

Chemical peels use different concentrations of acid solutions to remove layers of skin. By doing this, they treat wrinkles, discolouration, and sun damage. They also unclog pores to treat acne and oily skin.

There are multiple types of chemical peels. The strongest would be a high percentage use of trichloroacetic acid (TCA). These days, it would be rare to use just TCA for this purpose (unless it’s for spot treatments). TCA is more popularly mixed with other acids, and is diluted to reduce side effects.

One of the most widely used chemical peels involving TCA is called a Jessner Peel. However sometimes, a Jessner leaves out the TCA completely, to avoid harsh its effects on the skin. Jessner Peels also include salicylic acid, lactic acid, resorcinol and sometimes other acids, like glycolic acid.

The word ‘acid’ may sound scary, but it’s not – especially when a chemical peel is performed by a trained professional, preferably in a physician-controlled environment. However, you may see these same ingredients, at lower doses, in everyday products sold in the drugstore.

For example, glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, kojic acid and malic acid can all be found in common cosmetics. You’ll often see labels on acne products mentioning salicylic acid. A chemical peel in a spa uses these concoctions with more potency, to speed up the skin’s shedding process.

A newer option in this category is a carbon peel. This is essentially a mild chemical peel, but it adds the benefits of activated carbon, to deeply clean pores.

Learn more about chemical peels, here.

See also:

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Laser peels and photofacials

Lasers use beams of light to target a particular problem. Wrinkles, dark spots, broken blood vessels, large pores, tattoos, and excess hair can all be treated with different types of lasers.

When we talk about laser peels, however, we are talking about using a low setting on one of these powerful machines. Sometimes, it is an ablative laser, which, when used carefully, can do a mild job of exfoliating the top layer of skin. This then stimulates the production of new cells.

Other times, this procedure is called a photofacial. However, the term ‘photofacial’ often refers to using a multiwavelength machine, such as an IPL, or BBL technology. We choose not to use these broader spectrums of light. We find they are harder to control when it comes to potential side effects. Meanwhile, non-ablative lasers can do a much more precise job, with excellent results.

Lasers can also go much deeper into the skin for more dramatic effects. For example, we can perform what’s called a ‘laser resurfacing’ job on some patients. This procedure typically uses a Fractional CO2 or the Fraxel® DUAL laser. Check out those links for more info.

Learn more about mild laser peels, here.

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Microdermabrasion

Microdermabrasion uses sand crystals or a diamond tip to slough away dead skin cells, via a wand that is rubbed on the face. It can be mild or slightly strong, depending on how the machine is set. Usually a “medical microdermabrasion” uses a higher setting. This type of procedure should be done by a physician or trained aesthetician, while working under a physician.

Learn more about how microdermabrasion works, here.

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HydraFacial™ hydradermabrasion

HydraFacial™ is one of the most modern ways to get the benefits of both a microdermabrasion and mild chemical peel in one facial sitting. This procedure uses water, and sometimes a diamond-tip, to exfoliate the skin like a dry microdermabrasion would (except it’s wet). It follows with steps to include serums containing acids, vitamins and peptides that sit on your skin for a period of time, during the session.

Learn more about HydraFacial™ here.

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What are the risks of skin peels?

Generally, the most mild skin peels of any kind pose very little risk. They can be done on almost anyone. However, great care should be taken with certain skin types, which can be more prone to hyperpigmentation and sensitivity reactions.

For the medium to higher-grade peels, risks include skin discolouration, scabs and scarring if the treatment is done too strongly, or the skin is not properly cared for before and after the procedure.

Lasers may also cause blistering and bruising. Certain lasers are not safe for those with a deeper complexion or tanned skin. In those cases, we may recommend chemical peels because, in our experience, they can be safer, while giving more reliable results. New and ‘fancy’ is not always better!

To avoid side effects as much as possible, it’s really important to prepare the skin before and after cosmetic procedures. We can be sticklers for this at our clinic. People come in expecting to be put under a machine right away. But they find out we want them to start with good quality skin care products, first. This is to help the technological solutions work better, and more safely.

Regarding aftercare, it is crucial to know that all lasers, chemical peels and mechanical exfoliators can make the skin more sensitive to UV rays. This can cause more damage to the skin, by way of free radical activity. So, high-quality sun protection is a must. You should be using sunscreen before and after procedures, and everyday, too. We would also recommend staying out of the sun as much as possible.

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Are skin peels painful? What is recovery like?

The pain levels of skin peels can vary a lot, depending on how strongly and deeply they work in the skin. Recovery time can also vary, and can even depend on your own body’s healing response.

These procedures can be as painless as feeling only ‘dabs and strokes’ (such as with HydraFacial™). Or they can feel like sand is being rubbed on your face (such as with microdermabrasion).

A HydraFacial™ and microdermabrasion are the types of procedures that you can resume daily activities with, right away. You might be slightly red afterwards, but this will subside quickly. They are great for monthly ‘upkeep’ on your skin. HydraFacial™ is considered a modern way to get a spa facial (in case you already know what that’s like).

Laser peels (photofacials) can feel like hot pin pricks being pulsed across your skin, one at a time. However, they are not so painful as to require anaesthetic or anything like that.

After a laser peel or photofacial, skin will be red and may have some dark spots. People typically recover from these procedures very quickly, however. They are usually back to work in a day, red for 2 to 3 days, and may have browning for a week.

A full-on laser skin resurfacing session can be much more painful, and result in longer recovery time, too. When these pulses reach the bottom of your skin, they do a more effective job. But that also means more of an initial reaction. They may give your skin a ‘waxy’ appearance for a while. Patients are sometimes sedated for these procedures. They are ‘big commitment for big payoff’ types of treatments.

Chemical peels may feel warm, and may sting while they’re being applied. Depending on the strength used, you may have slight redness for a few days, followed by flaky patches that eventually fall off.

Deep chemical peels can produce dark crusts and scabs that may take up to 10 days to peel off, before revealing new skin underneath.

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So, which peel should I choose for my skin condition? What’s the best type of face peel?

All face peel options – at least the ones at our clinic – are beneficial in some way, for some purpose. It really depends on the following types of factors:

  • The skin condition being targeted.
  • The skin type being worked on.
  • The effects the patient is looking for.
  • The downtime that can be planned for in advance.
  • The before and after care that a patient can commit to.

And more.

Regarding the last point above, we will reiterate that before and after care is essential to the success of any face peel treatment. How you react and how well you heal can depend on it. This goes especially for sun protection.

It’s basically not an option to undergo these procedures without daily, diligent sunscreen use, as a start. And that starts with you.

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Pick a facial routine, stick to it, and keep consulting with skin advisors!

When you discover the solution that’s right for you, it will be important to maintain a routine that you can stick to. The effects of skin peels can be best when they are done regularly.

That said, it may be that you need multiple types of procedures, done at certain intervals, to get the change you really want. For example, a microdermabrasion can be alternated monthly with a HydraFacial™ or a laser peel (photofacial). Every one to two years, you may get more of a ‘kick’ by opting for a CO2 or a Fraxel® DUAL procedure. And every day – morning and evening – your home skin care routine can support it all.

But, be sure to keep checking in with your skin consultant. That’s because your skin reactions can change based on many environmental or internal factors. You also continue aging, and as you do, a pivot may be needed to get better results for maturing skin.

So, be diligent with your skin peels, but remain flexible!

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