Chemical Peels for Acne – Benefits and Risks | AcneSkinGuide

Chemical peels have become a go-to professional treatment for combating acne by exfoliating away the outer layers of damaged skin. The most common peel types include glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and trichloroacetic acid, which help unclog pores, regulate oil production, and improve overall skin texture. Key benefits include drying up active acne lesions, fading post-acne marks and scarring, and triggering new cell turnover for a smoother complexion.

However, risks like redness, irritation, hyperpigmentation, and potential scarring mean peels require careful preparation, experienced providers, and reasonable expectations – especially for those with darker skin tones or cystic acne. Peels are often combined with other treatments in a full acne protocol, and in-office peels can cost $100-300 per session compared to riskier at-home kits. While not a miracle cure, chemical peels offer a potent exfoliating restart for acne-prone skin when done properly.

Chemical Peels for Acne

The Rise of Chemical Peels for Acne Treatment

For those struggling with persistent acne, chemical peels have emerged as a popular professional treatment option. By using alpha-hydroxy acids to remove the damaged outer layers of skin, peels can reveal smoother, more radiant complexions with improved texture and tone. While effective, chemical peels also come with some risks and downsides that need to be carefully considered.

Common Chemical Peel Types

The most common types of chemical peels for treating acne include glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and combination peels like Jessner’s peel. These acids work as keratolytic agents to break down bonds between dead skin cells and promote exfoliation.

Glycolic and Lactic Acid Peels

Glycolic acid peels are a go-to for many dermatologists treating acne. Derived from sugarcane, these alpha-hydroxy acid peels penetrate the skin’s surface to remove blackheads, whiteheads, and excess oil. Lactic acid peels offer similar exfoliating benefits with less irritation for sensitive skin types.

Salicylic and Trichloroacetic Acid Peels

Those with inflamed, cystic acne may find better results from beta-hydroxy salicylic acid peels. The lipophilic properties allow salicylic acid to cut through oil and unclog pores more deeply than glycolic acid. TCA peels provide the deepest exfoliation but come with greater risks of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones.

Peels for Acne: The Benefits

One key benefit of chemical peels is their ability to improve overall skin texture and tone by removing the outermost layers of dull, damaged skin cells. This controlled wounding triggers the regeneration of new cells and increased collagen production.

For those with active acne, peels can dry out lesions and prevent new ones from forming by eliminating the debris, oil, and bacteria that clog pores. Many find that even a single peel can significantly reduce inflammatory acne papules, pustules, and cystic breakouts.

Peels can also treat the effects of previous acne breakouts by minimizing post-acne hyperpigmentation, discoloration, and shallow atrophic scars. However, they are less effective on deep pitted scars which require techniques like microneedling, laser resurfacing, or subcision.

Risks and Potential Downsides

The primary risks of acne chemical peels include redness, stinging, excessive dryness, and increased sun sensitivity in the week or two after a peel. More serious side effects can include hyperpigmentation, excessive swelling, scarring, cold sore reactivation, and even infections if aftercare isn’t properly followed.

Those with inflammatory acne or darker skin tones are at greater risk of developing hyperpigmentation after a peel, so more conservative peels and strict post-peel care may be required. Deeper peels are generally not recommended for darker skin tones.

Preparing for a Successful Peel

Chemical peels require some prep work to avoid complications. Retinoids, acne medications like Accutane, and certain supplements must be discontinued 2-4 weeks prior. Failure to do so can cause excessive skin peeling, irritation and slow healing after the peel. A gentle, non-irritating skincare regimen of just gentle cleansers and moisturizers is also recommended leading up to the treatment.

The Peel Process and Aftercare

During the actual peel, expect stinging, redness, and possibly some numbness or hot sensation that lasts 5-15 minutes depending on the peel intensity. Peels are then neutralized and a calming cream is applied. The subsequent peeling and flaking phase can last 3-7 days on average for lighter peels and 1-2 weeks for deeper peels. Meticulous moisturizing and avoiding sun exposure is crucial during this time.

Most dermatologists recommend at least 4-6 weeks between peel sessions for proper skin recovery. Results typically last 2-6 months, so maintenance peels 2-3 times per year are common.

Combining Peels with Other Treatments

Peels can definitely improve acne on their own but are often strategically combined with oral medications, hormonal treatments, or prescription topicals as part of an overall acne management protocol.

Professional vs At-Home Peels

While offering dramatic results, in-office chemical peels come with a higher price tag, starting around $100-300 per session. At-home kits are less expensive but have higher risks if not used properly. Seeking an experienced dermatologist or medical esthetician is crucial.

Customer Reviews and Discussions

Reddit forums like r/SkincareAddiction and r/acne offer many discussions around various professionals’ chemical peel recommendations, successes, and horror stories that are worth reviewing before committing to this type of procedure.

The Final Takeaway

In summary, chemical peels show promising results for combating active acne, improving post-acne marks, and creating an overall fresher complexion. However, the potential for irritation, hyperpigmentation, and other side effects means peels require careful preparation, qualified professionals, and reasonable expectations. Those with darker skin tones, inflamed cystic acne, or rosacea may need to take extra precautions or pursue other treatments. Ultimately, chemical peels can be an effective part of an acne treatment plan when done properly, but are not an overnight miracle cure.

FAQs and Answers

Are chemical peels suitable for treating acne during pregnancy or while breastfeeding?

No, most dermatologists advise against getting chemical peels while pregnant or breastfeeding. Here’s some more context:

The acids used in chemical peels, like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid, do get absorbed into the bloodstream to a certain degree during the peel process. This exposure poses potential risks to the developing fetus during pregnancy.

Additionally, little is known about how much of the peel acids could pass through breastmilk to a nursing infant after a chemical peel treatment.

Because of these uncertainties around fetal and infant exposure, it’s generally recommended that women avoid all forms of chemical peels throughout their entire pregnancy and while breastfeeding, just to be on the safe side.

Some very light glycolic acid peels may be okay in certain low-risk cases if approved by your dermatologist and OB/GYN. But medium and deep peels are overwhelmingly contraindicated until after you are done breastfeeding.

The risks simply outweigh any potential benefits for acne treatment during this time. It’s best to use other pregnancy-safe acne therapies and postpone chemical peels until after you have stopped nursing completely.

How long does it take to see results from a chemical peel for acne?

Most people will start to see some results from a chemical peel for acne within 1-2 weeks after the treatment, but it can take a full 4-6 weeks to see the maximum benefits.

Here’s a general timeline for results:

1 Week After Peel:

  • Peeling and redness should be subsiding
  • Skin may look and feel smoother as dead skin cells have sloughed off

2 Weeks After Peel:

  • Many will notice their acne looks calmer and lesions are drying up
  • Skin appears brighter and more even in tone

4 Weeks After Peel:

  • Majority will see a significant reduction in active acne breakouts
  • Post-acne marks, discoloration, and shallow scars are fading

6 Weeks After Peel:

  • Full results for clearing acne and improving skin texture are realized
  • Those with severe acne may need another peel for maximum clearance

The deeper the chemical peel, the longer it can take to see final results as the deeper layers of skin renew. But you should notice tangible improvements within that 1-2 week mark after peeling is complete.

It’s also important to maintain a good acne skincare routine, as peels create a “clean slate” that can be quickly re-congested without proper care. Consistent treatments provide the best long-lasting acne clearing.

Can chemical peels be performed on active cystic acne lesions?

It is generally not recommended to perform chemical peels directly on active, inflamed cystic acne lesions. Here’s some more detail:

Cystic acne lesions are large, painful bumps that extend deep into the skin. The cysts are filled with pus and are already significantly inflamed.

Applying a chemical peel solution over these active cystic blemishes can lead to further trauma, irritation, and potential scarring or infection. The acids in the peel can actually worsen the inflammation.

Most dermatologists and estheticians will advise their patients to allow cystic pimples to come to a head and start healing before performing a chemical peel treatment. Any active cysts should be avoided during the peel application.

In some cases, the provider may inject cystic acne lesions with a diluted steroid solution a few weeks prior to the peel to help the inflammation go down faster.

Once the cysts have drained and show no active inflammation or pustular head, then it is generally safe to apply a chemical peel over the area to help reduce acne scarring.

Trying to chemically peel over broken, oozing cystic acne puts you at high risk of PIH, pigmentation issues, and facial scars. It’s best to get existing cysts under control first before a peel.

What are the best chemical peel options for treating acne on the back or body?

When it comes to treating body acne or back acne (often called “bacne”) with chemical peels, certain peel formulas tend to work better than others:

Salicylic Acid Peels
Salicylic acid is one of the most effective for body acne. As a beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid can penetrate through oil and debris in clogged pores. It’s ideal for treating inflamed back/chest acne that is particularly stubborn.

Glycolic Acid Peels
Glycolic acid peels can also be used on the back and body. The smaller glycolic acid molecules help reinforce exfoliation. However, glycolic acid may need to be used at higher concentrations (30-50%) for optimal acne treatment on thicker body skin.

Jessner’s Peel
This combination peel with salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol is another good option for treating widespread truncal acne on the back, chest, and shoulders.

TCA Peels
For very severe, cystic back acne, medium-depth trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels may be recommended. These provide deeper exfoliation but require more downtime.

No matter the peel type, body peels need to be done professionally as large surface areas are being treated. At-home kits are not advised. Sun exposure must be avoided for several weeks after a body peel as well.

Peels on the back may also need to be broken into sections done in multiple sessions to prevent excessive stress and irritation on the skin. Consistent treatment is key for managing body acne.

How can you minimize chemical peel downtime for acne treatment?

There are several tips that can help minimize the downtime and peeling process after getting a chemical peel for acne treatment:

  1. Choose a lighter, superficial peel
    Deeper chemical peels like TCA cause more extensive peeling that lasts up to 2 weeks. Lighter glycolic or lactic acid peels have a shorter 3-5 day peeling phase that is easier to manage.
  2. Use a hydrating, fragrance-free moisturizer
    Keeping peeling skin hydrated is crucial. Use a gentle, non-irritating moisturizer without fragrances or active ingredients. This helps skin peel off in sheets rather than excessive flaking.
  3. Take anti-inflammatory medication
    Anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or arnica can help reduce redness and swelling in the first few days after a peel when downtime is most pronounced.
  4. Use a hydrating facial mask
    Applying a hydrating sheet mask or healing mask with ceramides a few days into the peeling can calm skin and allow peeling to complete faster.
  5. Don’t pick or pull peeling skin
    As tempting as it is, picking at peeling skin can lead to excess irritation, scarring, and delayed healing. Let it shed naturally.
  6. Use a tinted mineral sunscreen
    Once peeling starts, mineral SPF tinted moisturizers or CC creams can camouflage shedding skin if you can’t take time off.
  7. Stay out of sun/heat
    Heat, sweat, and sun exposure can worsen peeling. Stay cool and avoid direct sunlight.

Following these tips can make chemical peel downtime shorter, smoother, and easier to conceal for those who can’t take a full week off work or activities.