What to Expect Before (and After) Your First Chemical Peel

It’s day three, and my face is starting to fall off. 

Alarming, yes. But before you start picturing that final scene in the cult-classic '90s film Death Becomes Her with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, let’s back up a bit: I am at once old enough to have fine lines and hyperpigmentation, young enough to have the occasional acne flare-up, and wise enough to know that these are things I can fix with professional help (and maybe a little dark magic). This combination of skin concerns and know-how led me to seek out a resource that was a bit more of a commitment than my quarterly Heyday facial but less intense than a dermatologist appointment. 

With the best skincare providers in New York City on my radar, I was pleasantly surprised to find a spa that not only met my criteria for cleanliness and exceptional results but also was conveniently a 20-minute walk from my apartment in Brooklyn. Two weeks later, I entered the warm and welcoming interior of Tres Belle Spa, located in Boerum Hill, and was literally embraced by the ethereal proprietress, Allison Tray. 

Roughly 48 hours later, my face began falling off. Okay, actually peeling slightly over the course of seven days until I had the glow of a radiant newborn infant if we’re being honest. But this, of course, was exactly the point. After sharing my skin woes with Tray and her senior esthetician, Aparna Chaudhari, we came to the conclusion that I was in need of a VIP peel—or rather, the VI Peel.

About the Peel

The VI Peel was created in 2005 by a dermatologist in an effort to help his daughter combat her severe acne and regain her confidence. It has been proven effective in reducing acne scarring and hyperpigmentation and also does wonders for active acne, working to build up the strength of the skin by collagen and elastin stimulation.

Although the idea of a chemical peel was intimidating at first, Chaudhari convinced me to give this one a go. She explained, "Most peels on the market have a focus: They're either great for acne, scars, or anti-aging. I love that VI Peel has a specific formula for every issue—no matter the situation you're looking to address, all of the peels work beautifully and yield results." We selected the formula that targeted my skincare concerns exactly, and after a quick, nearly painless 30-minute application, I headed to the Who What Wear office in Manhattan and waited for the magic to begin.

Below, you'll find documentation of the before, during, and after stages of my first-ever experience with a chemical peel, plus tips on determining the best peel for you and how to care for your skin throughout the process. While I strategically timed this peel for Halloween weekend, I promise it’s not as scary as it sounds!


What to Expect Before (and After) Your First Chemical Peel


Tres Belle Spa

Even though I have had a number of facials, I'll admit I was nervous to take the next step into advanced skincare territory. Fortunately, I knew that I was in good hands when Tray took the time to explain what to expect from the process. "You should not experience any pain," she assured me. "But you may experience dryness and tightness and some mild itching," which seemed reasonable enough. 

She explained that my skin would first start to peel around the mouth since it's an area on the face that moves a lot. I should expect the peeling to peak after three days, spreading over the entire face, and then begin to slow back down and finish by day seven. 

As a final note, Tray cautioned, "It is imperative not to pull the skin off—you can cause scarring if you pull the skin," which is exactly what I was trying to remedy. She suggested keeping little eyebrow scissors on hand to snip falling skin—a great tip.


Day 1: Feels like a slight sunburn, reapplying hydrocortisone cream every few hours

Day 2: Beginning to peel around nasolabial folds and chin

Day 3: Peeling on cheeks, beginning to peel on forehead, itchiest day

Day 4: Peeling all over, itchiest around the eyes

Day 5: Peeling on sides of face and neck

Day 6: Peeling on neck

Day 7: Mostly done peeling, finished up with a hydrating facial

A note about the final day: When researching whether or not a chemical peel is right for you, be sure to ask the spa if the treatment includes a hydrating facial once the procedure has concluded. Although I didn't know to ask (or expect) this when I went to Tres Belle Spa, I seriously cannot imagine going through a weeklong peel without the reward of a super hydrating and relaxing facial. Think of it as the refreshing bottle of water you crave at the end of a hard workout—it’s like that, but for your face. Trust.


What to Expect Before (and After) Your First Chemical Peel


Tres Belle Spa

Voilà! The melasma on my forehead is definitely lighter, and my skin is noticeably brighter all over. It probably also helped that I followed instructions exactly, washing with the VI cleanser, resisting the urge to pull at peeling skin, and wearing SPF 50 every day, no matter what. While my skin still isn't at 100% (is that even possible?), I am pleased with the results and plan on following up with some targeted micro-needling and another round of the VI Peel before the end of the year.  

In the meantime, here are a few tips for maintaining this new, healthy glow at home:

Tip 1: Now is a good time to invest in upgrading your everyday products. If you're not quite ready to take the plunge into Biologique Recherche territory, Drunk Elephant is a great brand to sample. Look for a cleanser that addresses your everyday skincare needs and skin type, and start with that. 

Tip 2: If possible, try to use a cleanser and toner from the same brand. This will help to maintain the balance of your skin's pH. 

Tip 3: Regardless of your skin type, hydration is critical after every cleanse. Washing and toning strip away natural moisture and sebum, leaving the skin dry and prone to irritants. Plus, quenching your thirst just feels good. 

Tip 4: If oily skin is a daily struggle, look for a cleanser-and-toner combo that controls oil. If you have dry or combination skin, this type of formula is probably too intense for everyday use. 

Tip 5: Vitamin C is a key ingredient in achieving healthy, glowing skin. This fast-absorbing oil-free formula is great for all skin types. 

Tip 6: Just because you have oily skin doesn't mean you can skip the moisturizer. Look for a gel-based or mattifying formula that can do double duty as a skin primer. 

Tip 7: Toner helps to shrink pores and lightly exfoliate, so it's actually a pretty critical step for both morning and evening cleansing routines. Formulated for oily and combination skin types, this toner includes aloe vera to reduce redness caused by breakouts, and AHA to help exfoliate dead skin cells.

If you're happy with your face wash and moisturizer but haven't quite gotten around to adding a toner to your regimen, start with a baby step by incorporating Thayers Witch Hazel into your routine. There's a reason you've probably seen this bottle of toner everywhere: It's affordable, and it actually works.

Tip 8: If you have dry or combination skin, a gel-based moisturizer should already be part of your beauty arsenal. We love this lightweight formula from Versed for everyday use. 

Tip 9: As Tray tells every client, "You only need to wear sunscreen on the days you brush your teeth." 

Dos and Don'ts

Do drink tons of water. You will be dehydrated.

Do apply peel protectant cream throughout the day, and carry it with you when you go out.

Do schedule this for a week when you don't have any major social or work commitments. The peeling can be a distraction for everyone.

Do take this time to catch up on movies or TV shows. Peel freely in the privacy of your own home.

Don't wash your hair for 48 hours to avoid shampoo on your face.

Don't exercise for at least 72 hours. Sweat on the face will dilute the peel.

Don't wear any makeup.

Don't peel the skin. Cut it with scissors if it's really annoying.

Is a Peel Right for You?

If you’re debating taking the next step on your skincare journey, it's important to know what you're looking for. Spa treatments are certainly more expensive than drugstore or DIY solutions but offer much more effective—and faster—results. Tray says, "A peel is the skin hero chasing the damaged cells away." She continues, "Acne scarring, for instance, will not be helped much by a physical exfoliation because the scarring is not only on the surface of the skin but beneath the surface as well. Chemical peels allow the active ingredients to penetrate into the dead cells, far beyond the reach of an everyday scrub."

Additionally, if you're concerned about hyperpigmentation or fine lines that you cannot remedy on your own, a peel is a great choice since, as Tray explains, "the treatment goes beneath the surface and breaks up the 'glue' binding dead cells to the skin while encouraging new cell growth, which starts rebuilding healthy skin." Basically, if you aren't dealing with active acne, scarring, or signs of aging, your skin isn't ready for a chemical peel.

Either way, it's never too early to start incorporating healthy skincare habits into your routine—happy hydrating! 

Go all-in on your commitment to more luminous, dewy skin with this four-piece set that includes a brightening serum, overnight peel, moisturizer, and hydration serum.