What It’s Really Like To Get A Chemical Peel

Having written about chemical peels a fair few times in the past years, writer Georgia Gould felt it was only right to try out the skin-changing treatment for herself. And so she found herself at HintMD partner Dr. Steven Swengel’s Refined Dermatology practice in Los Gatos, CA on a sunny Wednesday morning…

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’ve always grappled with problem skin. Plagued with acne in my teenage and early adult years I’ve tried all manner of tetracyclines, contraceptive pills, topical treatments and even Roaccunate (which did work for a while, btw). Then, when I found myself surrounded by skincare treatments as I carved myself a career as a magazine beauty editor, I also began a lifetime of searching for ‘that’ miracle spa facial and an equally as miraculous acne cream. Not being particularly aware of medical-grade skincare (which I now regret deeply), I tried a bit of light microdermabrasion, some lymphatic drainage and whatever else I could get my hands, or rather face on. To little avail.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, my acne did eventually go away – thanks mainly to a two-year wheat-free diet – but not without leaving some annoying scarring in its wake.

If it’s not one thing…

Fast-forward to today and at 42 years of age poor texture, enlarged pores and pigmentation are my main skin bugbears. A nightly retinol has definitely helped deal with these concerns (thanks, PCA Skin R-OH Retinol Solutions), but I figured there’d be no harm in trying out a slightly more hard-core approach. Right?

Enter the mighty chemical peel, or more specifically The Perfect Derma Peel.

If, like me, you’ve never had a chemical peel, you’re probably thinking about ‘that’ episode of Sex And The City right now… and planning your immediate escape to the hills. But c’mon, we all know ‘reality’ wasn’t something SATC, with all its Manolos and drama thrived on. In fact, chemical peels can make the skin look younger, brighter, smoother and fresher – without a needle in sight. And because of this, they’re having an understandable moment right now. According to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), more people than ever are treating their skin to regular peels. From millennials to baby boomers, it seems everyone’s flocking to clinics to get ahead of what Mother Nature has in store for their skin. So, not to let my FOMO get the best of me, I decided I wanted in…

DAY 1: THE PEEL

Pre-peel, I had the pleasure of chatting to the legendary Dr. Steven Swengel CEO, medical director and board-certified dermatologist at Refined Dermatology in sunny Los Gatos, CA. He first explained how varying peels can be.

“Physician-level peels come in many different guises to suit all manner of skin concerns, so there is certainly not a one-and-done peel for everyone,” Dr. Swengel explained.

He then went on to explain how layered peels (which start off with an acid such as glycolic or lactic, then are built up in layers) don’t actually make your skin peel, but are a great choice for anybody wanting a gentler approach on a more frequent (monthly) basis.

“You then step up to peels specifically formulated for oily and acne skin which are mostly salicylic acid peels. I prefer these to glycolic peels because salicylic acid peels off the top layer of skin which immediately stimulates the skin to repair. Glycolics, however, dissolve the glue between epidermal cells which can create inflammation and swelling. Personally, I just prefer not to make people’s skin redder than necessary,” he said.

“Your next step would traditionally be a TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peel which is super-effective, but truly a table-gripping experience! A TCA peel goes deep, and the deeper you go the more your nerve endings feel it. To put it into perspective, a TCA peel feels like somebody’s placed a scorching hot iron on your skin.” Er no, thanks.

“Somewhere in the middle of these, you have the leave-on proprietary peels like The Perfect Derma Peel or VI Peel. The Perfect Derma Peel is a blend of salicylic, retinoic and kojic acids, plus phenol, some TCA, vitamin C and glutathione, a strong de-pigmenting agent. There is an initial subtle burning sensation, then the phenol, which is a topical anesthetic, numbs the skin and you feel nothing else.”

“The nice thing about The Perfect Derma Peel is that it’s predictable, comfortable, suitable for most skin types and easy to get through. It’s become one of our go-to peels for anyone wanted to get rid of pigment or simply get their skin looking better.”

The more specific benefits of The Perfect Derma Peel are thus:
1. Improves clarity, tone and texture
2. Reduces or eliminates hyperpigmentation, sun damage and melasma
3. Controls acne
4. Softens fine lines and wrinkles
5. Minimizes the appearance of pores

Sounds good to me, Dr. Swengel. Let’s do this.

So, off we go to the treatment room where I fill in some initial forms, grit my teeth and get ready for action.

Left: just before my treatment. Right: prepping my skin.

In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating it to a) be over in about ten minutes and b) feel relatively burn-free.

Dr. Swengel sat me down (with a fan to cool my skin, nice), thoroughly cleansed my skin with a de-greasing agent, then applied the peel all over my face.

“You have a small face, so I’ll just finish off the bottle by applying a little to your neck,” said Dr. Swengel, just before completing my treatment.

Hold on, a small face? I’m a 5’11 woman with, what I would call a fairly substantially-sized face. Small? Result, I love you Dr. S!

Well, that was easy. I then looked at myself on my phone and saw a shiny, orange version of myself. So, I’m done? And I have to go home looking like this? Yup.

“You now have to leave the peel on your skin for eight hours, then before you go to bed, apply the retinol towelette (in your take-home pack) to lock in the skin and help cause the separation,” Dr. Swengel explained.

Oh. My.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly vain person but I wasn’t looking forward to going out in public looking like this…

Left: straight after my treatment. Erm, ORANGE! Right: a few hours later. Erm, still ORANGE!

So, other than a quick neighborhood dog walk, sunglasses and hat firmly on, I hibernated for the rest of the day. And no, I felt no tingling, or burning whatsoever. Until that is, I went to bed. After applying the post-treatment towelette to my face (this is included in the take-home kit and contains skin-refining tretinoin) my skin started to tingle ever so slightly. Had it been day-time, this would have been no big deal, but when you’re trying to catch some zzzzs? Not so easy. Cue: sporadic night’s sleep. All in the name of beauty, sigh.

DAY 2: NO BIGGIE

The next morning, I woke a little grumpy (I’m not good without my eight hours) but remembering Dr. Swengel’s words: “on day two, you’ll start to look like a little bronzed prune as the top layer of skin starts to dry.” Bring it.

After gently treating my skin with the tretinoin towelette again, the irritation disappeared ­– even without my post-treatment moisturizer – and my skin looked decidedly less orange. Patchy and blotchy, yes, but irritated? Not so much. I did, however, notice some brown spots that definitely weren’t there before. I discovered this is because of the Perfect Peel’s dark tint, though. Nothing to worry too much about.

Throughout the day, I experienced a little itching, but nothing a girl can’t handle. Day two in a nutshell? Very little drama.

Left: The essential The Perfect Derma Peel take-home kit. Right: My blotchy, day 2 complexion.

DAY 3: THE VISUAL LOW POINT

This was when the peeling party really began.

“At day three to five, depending on how oily your skin is, you’ll start peeling around the mouth and other areas of motion,” warned Dr. Swengel.

“Then, expect your skin to peel up and out towards the hairline. Just remember NOT to peel your skin off as it will scar. Also, stay out of the sun until the peel is complete,” advised Dr. Swengel.

Well, I can confirm that on the morning of day three (after a MUCH better night’s sleep may I add), my chin looked like this.

Left: Eureka! Let the chin peel begin. Right: By the evening, the peeling had grown significantly and it was fascinating to watch (but NOT touch, obvs).

Yessss! Throughout the day I continually checked my face in the mirror and although it took all my willpower not to pick, scratch or peel my skin in that oh-so-satisfying Elmer glue fashion, I held tight and watched as the peeling spread from my chin up to my nose. It’s like Dr. Swengel knew. Funny that…

When my husband arrived home from work in the evening, he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“I don’t like it,” he said continually all evening. Oh, right, thanks babes.

DAYS 4-6: OK TO FACE THE WORLD AGAIN

Day four was a Saturday and one in which I’d a) planned to play golf and b) be seeing friends for dinner in the evening. Hmm, poor life choices right there. While the peeling was certainly not quite so unappealing to the naked eye, spending four hours outside in the California sun was a stupid idea. Like, really stupid. I applied sunblock like it was going out of fashion, hid under a visor and stood with my back to the sun as much as possible, but still, I wouldn’t advise this. And my golf score proved what a terrible idea it was…

By the evening, the peeling had subsided even further, so dinner was without too much of a drama. Plus it was a very dark restaurant – result.

On Sunday, I did nothing but hibernate for most of the day. Again, the peeling had travelled up and outwards and was now concentrated around my hairline and around my eyes (I wasn’t keen on this so much. Dry, tight eyes? Not my idea of fun). My neck also felt itchy and looked red, but all in all I felt like I was definitely through the worst.

Left: Riding out day four on the golf course. A very foolish idea indeed. Right: By day five the shedding had almost gone – just a little around the hairline.

By day six I looked like I simply had dry skin and dandruff. Admittedly, not the look I’d normally go for, but certainly better than the previous few days and clearly over the worst.

DAY 7: ALMOST THERE

The peeling process seemed to be almost over by the morning of day seven. My neck still felt annoyingly tight and dry, but my face was definitely getting back to normal, other than some general all-over dryness. More importantly, my skin was starting to look good. Like, really good. The texture was visibly smoother and it seemed to have a certain clarity that was not there before. I wouldn’t say it was glowing (yet) but the dryness was putting a halt to that. Let’s give it a few more days for the dryness to subside…

DAY 10 AND BEYOND: REAPING THE BENEFITS

Around about day nine, the dryness and tightness had finally gone and my skin started to feel super-soft and continued to look clear and more even. I started getting back to my regular daily skincare routine and tentatively returned to applying retinol every night. This is highly advised for maintaining the best results from a peel, but I was dubious because I didn’t want the dry, flakiness to return.

It didn’t. Phew. Instead, I started to notice a huge difference in how smooth my skin felt when applying tinted moisturizer or foundation. There was also a small improvement in terms of brown spots and acne scarring, and my redness had practically disappeared. Result.

Left: Day seven and looking much more fresh-faced and glowing. Right: By day ten I was really pleased by the clarity of my skin. Long may it continue!

So, my advice in a nutshell?

1. If you’re thinking of going for The Perfect Derma Peel, prepare to look below par for a week. And don’t plan on doing anything ‘public’ on days one and three as this is when you’ll look your flaky worst.

2. Get ready for a poor night’s sleep on day one.

3. If it’s sunny, do yourself a favor and stay inside – especially on days three and four when your peeling will probably be at its most prevalent.

4. Take a week off exercising – getting hot and sweaty will exacerbate redness, sensitivities and irritation.

5. Don’t pick, itch or peel your skin. At all. Ever.

Was I pleased with the results The Perfect Derma Peel gave me? Definitely. Would I do it again? Probably. Am I trying to keep my skin permanently out of the sun now? You’d better believe it.

Watch my full treatment in time-lapse, below…