A Dermatologist Told Me the Dos and Don'ts of At-Home Chemical Peels

A Dermatologist Told Me the Dos and Don’ts Of At-Home Chemical Peels

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If you've ever seen that episode of Sex and the City where Samantha gets a chemical peel just hours before Carrie's big book release party, you've likely associated the treatment with sensitized, splotchy, scary-looking skin ever since. (Just me?) Even the name of this popular treatment sounds a little frightening. (Chemical peel? Scary and scarier!) But the truth is it's one of the best things you can do to reveal your brightest, most youthful-looking skin. And believe it or not, there are at-home chemical peels that bring the power of medical-grade solutions to your vanity. 

To get the scoop on all things at-home chemical peels, I knew celebrity dermatologist Dennis Gross, MD, was the perfect person to speak with. I've been a fan of his products for years, ever since skin expert Shani Darden turned me on to his famous Alpha Beta Peels (which have now officially been on the market for 20 years). I used these acid-soaked daily chemical peel pads religiously as part of my targeted plan to help refine my skin after a bout of hormonal acne left my face covered in hyperpigmented marks. I've since had the pleasure of meeting the veteran dermatologist for an in-person consult (yes, I've joined the ranks of his A-list clientele that includes Zoë Kravitz to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and was blown away by his skin expertise. I knew if anyone was fit to demystify at-home chemical peels, it was him.

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about at-home chemical peels and a comprehensive edit of the best ones to try now.

1. What is a chemical peel, and what are the benefits?

"A chemical peel is an active, two-step chemical formula applied to the skin to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells," says Gross. "A key point to remember is a peel is not a peel without being two steps—the first step will deliver acids and remove dead skin, and the second step will neutralize and deliver anti-aging benefits."

As far as the benefits of chemical peels, Gross says they're plentiful. "If you’re using a peel with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), AHAs dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, and BHAs remove dead skin cells and unclog pores," he explains. "This will also remove bacteria that could have led to clogged pores. You will see radiance instantaneously, and your skin will look brighter. Pores will look smaller, and fine lines and wrinkles will be diminished."

2. How do at-home chemical peels differ from in-office chemical peels?

Chemical peels are often associated with doctor visits, and while it's true that there are certain substances and chemical strengths that really should be left to the professionals, there are also plenty of approachable formulations that are safe and effective to try yourself. "As technology improves, we are able to create products with potent yet gentle formulas that are extremely efficacious and appropriate for home use. At-home products are created with foolproof formulas with lower concentrations of active ingredients, so consumers can’t harm themselves when applying their own treatments," Gross explains. "At my practice, we offer professional Alpha Beta peels that can be done once a month, while the at-home version in our skincare range is created for daily use."

But just because at-home peels contain less potent actives doesn't mean they won't have serious skin benefits. "It's important to note that you can achieve the same results as in-office peels if you use an at-home formula daily," Gross adds. "Additionally, all peels in doctor's offices are two steps. Our at-home product is also two steps, but many other peels on the market for at-home use are not."

3. What are the risks associated with performing at-home chemical peels?

As you may have guessed, there are a few potential adverse effects of putting strong acids all over your face. "If you’re sourcing your own ingredients or purchasing professional peels to administer yourself—which I, unfortunately, see too often—you’re running the risk of harming the skin," Gross explains. He also calls out the benefit of using a two-step peel, which minimizes any risk due to the intentional and dedicated neutralizing step. Even if you're using formulas that were made for at-home use, you want to be absolutely certain that they're neutralized to avoid irritation and even chemical burns. "In our two-step peel, the first step removes dead skin and brings to the surface new, young skin cells ready to absorb ingredients, and the second step is a neutralizer with loads of anti-aging ingredients (15-plus) that the new skin will now absorb most efficiently," he says.

And now, the rules.

Don't: Ignore ingredient labels.

Do: Make sure you're working with the right acids.

"I always recommend peels with alpha and beta hydroxy acids. They help keep pores clear, preventing acne and enlarged pores, and also help firm and smooth skin," Gross explains. "Look for peels with multiple acids at lower concentrations as opposed to one acid at a high concentration. This will allow your skin to receive multiple benefits at once and avoid harming the skin."

"For example, lactic acid is very hydrating and helps stimulate ceramide, which is great for the moisture barrier, while salicylic acid is perfect to dissolve oil and unclog pores," he goes on. "Non-abrasive chemical exfoliation helps brighten all skin types without irritation." Gross recommends using the Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peels from his namesake brand each day to keep up with all daily exfoliation needs.

Don't: Take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Do: Consider your skin type and skin tone.

There are at-home chemical peels that claim to be suitable to all skin types, but Gross says it's important to know your skin and do your best to tailor peels to your specific needs. "People with sensitive or dry skin should look for peels with lactic acid, which is fantastic in fortifying your own moisture barrier and won't be as harsh as something like a glycolic, which penetrates more deeply," he says. "You should also be using a peel that is two steps, and in that second step you can look for ingredients proven to soothe sensitive skin, like colloidal oatmeal."

For those with acne-prone skin, Gross suggests peels with beta hydroxy acids. "Salicylic acid helps unclog and reduce the size of pores, he says. "Malic acid is also helpful in eliminating dark spots left by acne. The Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel is the best choice here."

"In general, you are able to use all acids on all skin tones," says Gross. "However, darker skin tones are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. If someone with a darker skin tone is hoping to use a chemical peel to diminish dark spots, they’ll want to be more cautious with the acids they’re using; mandelic acid will be a safer bet than glycolic, as over-exfoliating can lead to that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation."

Don't: Use trichloroacetic acid (TCA) at home. Just don't.

Do: Work with safer acid concentrations.

If you've ever heard horror stories of people being left with burns, intense peeling, and scarring from performing peels at home, there's a good chance they were using TCA, an intense acid that vigorously exfoliates the skin and causes actual peeling to occur. "You should never use TCA or phenol peels at home. They are simply too strong for at-home use and are only to be done professionally," Gross implores.

"Otherwise, it is not so much about the ingredients as it is the percentage of active ingredients in a peel. I do not believe in super-high concentrations of one acid in a single-step peel, he says. "For example, glycolic acid at a low percentage is safe for at-home. But once you increase the percentage, you need to have the peel administered by a licensed professional because it needs to be properly neutralized or you can risk damaging the skin." The moral of the story? Don't assume that more is better. Gross says it's simply a myth that stronger acids will give you better results. "Products that emphasize high levels of acids may cause chemical burns. Never assume that more is better. There is a limit to what is useful, beneficial, or safe," he says.

If you're looking for a stronger peel that's still safe enough to use at home, try Gross's Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel, which is a more advanced treatment you can do up to twice a week that contains added exfoliation from enzymes in addition to its expert acid blend. This one is my personal favorites and, in fact, has been part of my Sunday skincare routine for months now. 

Don't: Administer at-home chemical peels if you're pregnant.

Do: Always talk to your doctor if you're unsure if you're in the clear.

"If you are pregnant, you should always consult your physician about the products that you are using. Additionally, if you’re taking Accutane, your skin will likely be more sensitive, so you should consult your doctor about the strength of your at-home peel," Gross advises. But don't worry. Gross has another suggestion if it turns out your doctor advises against using at-home chemical peels for any reason. "Another great at-home treatment would be an LED device. LED light therapy also delivers incredible results in diminishing fine lines and wrinkles and treating acne preventatively," he says. I've been testing out the Spectralite Faceware Pro, and I'm looking forward to seeing if this LED mask makes any discernible differences in my skin.

Don't: Layer more harsh acids on top of freshly peeled skin.

Do: Incorporate products to support your skin's overall health after an at-home chemical peel.

"While you should always be wearing SPF, it is especially important to do so if you’re using acids," says Gross. Surprised? We didn't think so. "After exfoliation, you reveal bright, youthful skin cells that are more susceptible to sun damage." So as I always say, sunscreen, all the time, no matter what! (And especially after an acid peel.)

This hydrating serum is absolutely heavenly. Aside from its hero ingredient, hyaluronic acid, it also contains soothing wakame seaweed and blue tansy for a full-spectrum hydration situation. Oh, and did I mention it's totally clean, vegan, and cruelty-free? 

Vitamin C is another great active to support brightness and free-radical defense on freshly peeled skin. This affordable pick from TruSkin also has vitamin E and HA in it to offer some extra moisture and protection. 

"Peels preps your skin for great absorption of all products that follow after. After your peel, you should apply serums and moisturizers with active ingredients," Gross explains. "The products you apply after a peel will be more efficiently absorbed into skin, giving you the best results." We're huge fans of IS Clinical in general, but its Youth Serum with antioxidants, caffeine, peptides, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C is one of our favorites from the range. It's a luxe oil that nicely seals in all the lovely skincare layered under it.

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