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A chemical peel is a procedure in which a chemical solution is applied to the skin to remove the top layers. The skin that grows back is smoother. With a light or medium peel, you may need to undergo the procedure more than once to get the desired results.
Chemical peels are used to treat wrinkles, discolored skin and scars — usually on the face. They can be done alone or combined with other cosmetic procedures. And they can be done at different depths, from light to deep. Deeper chemical peels offer more-dramatic results but also take longer to recover from.
Why it's done
A chemical peel is a skin-resurfacing procedure. Depending on the issues you’re addressing with the procedure, you’ll choose a chemical peel in one of three depths:
- Light chemical peel. A light (superficial) chemical peel removes the outer layer of skin (epidermis). It’s used to treat fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone and dryness. You might have a light peel every two to five weeks.
- Medium chemical peel. A medium chemical peel removes skin cells from the epidermis and from portions of the upper part of your middle layer of skin (dermis). It’s used to treat wrinkles, acne scars and uneven skin tone. You might need to repeat the procedure to achieve or maintain the desired result.
- Deep chemical peel. A deep chemical peel removes skin cells even deeper. Your doctor might recommend one for deeper wrinkles, scars or precancerous growths. You won’t need repeat procedures to get the full effect.
A chemical peel can cause various side effects, including:
- Redness, scabbing and swelling. Normal healing from a chemical peel involves redness of the treated skin. After a medium or deep chemical peel, redness might last for a few months.
- Scarring. Rarely, a chemical peel can cause scarring — typically on the lower part of the face. Antibiotics and steroid medications can be used to soften the appearance of these scars.
- Changes in skin color. A chemical peel can cause treated skin to become darker than normal (hyperpigmentation) or lighter than normal (hypopigmentation). Hyperpigmentation is more common after superficial peels, while hypopigmentation is more common after a deep peel. These problems are more common in people with brown or black skin and can sometimes be permanent.
- Infection. A chemical peel can lead to a bacterial, fungal or viral infection, such as a flare-up of the herpes virus — the virus that causes cold sores.
- Heart, kidney or liver damage. A deep chemical peel uses carbolic acid (phenol), which can damage heart muscle and cause the heart to beat irregularly. Phenol can also harm the kidneys and liver. To limit exposure to phenol, a deep chemical peel is done a portion at a time, in 10- to 20-minute intervals.
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