Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Chemical Peel

Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Chemical Peel
Courtesy of HBO Go

Thanks to a certain episode of Sex and the City, Samantha Jones may be the reason people are wary of getting a chemical peel. The end result demonstrated by Kim Cattrall (see above) is on the more extreme end of the spectrum, but nonetheless completely intimidating. Here to debunk the myths spread during that fateful moment in SATC Season 5, we spoke to Renee Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous skin care line, to get all the details on everything you need to know before embarking on the treatment. First things first, you'll want to get a consultation before officially committing, and ask your dermatologist or esthetician exactly what you can expect in the days to follow. "That's what gives it a bad reputation, when people weren't informed of what to expect, and they're totally taken off guard," Rouleau says. "You want to have a consultation first to understand which formula is right for you."

Your skin care professional should be able to determine your perfect peel by just looking at your complexion, but be sure to bring up any issues like acne, sun spots, or fine lines that you hope to address. And be vocal about just how much downtime you're willing to put up with, as the formula can be tailored to your desired intensity. "If you're unsure, ask your professional to do a patch test on a small area of the face, just to see how your skin will respond," Rouleau advises. Need more advice? Keep reading for the details.

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Not All Peels Are Created Equal

Generally speaking, peels done at a dermatologist's office tend to be stronger than the ones done by an esthetician at a spa, so decide how aggressive of a treatment you want, then speak to your pro about each of the varying formulas. "Peels that use enzymes are better for people with rosacea, and they're good for people who have red, inflamed skin. Glycolic peels are good for brown spots, discoloration and preventative aging, while lactic options are good for sensitive or irritated skin," Rouleau explains. "If you have acne-prone skin, go for a salicylic peel—it has the smallest molecule of all the acids and really gets into the pore lining to better kill the acne-causing bacteria, decongest, clear clogged pores, and dry up any current breakouts." Micropeeling is another gentle alternative to the full-on treatment, and can be done once every few weeks. "You aren't burning the skin as much and the exfoliation is still happening, but it's not as visible," she explains. "We do a version called Bio-Brasion, and the idea with doing the lighter peels once a week or every few weeks is that it's building on itself, and it works a little deeper each time." Better yet, there's less downtime.

Determine If You're a Good Candidate

If you struggle with hyperpigmentation, acne, fine lines, post-breakout marks, or all of the above, then congratulations! You're a good candidate for a chemical peel. "The goal of all of this is to correct those sorts of problems, and if these are issues for you, then you'll have the best results because you're trying to change something," says Rouleau. "Because you slightly injure the skin, you stimulate the repair processes and jump-start cell rejuvenation, though for anti-aging treatments, those are done less often. When you're correcting a problem like dark spots or acne, the frequency will be higher until you get the problem under control, and then you go into maintenance." Though people with rosacea can get a peel, those who have very red, inflamed skin should steer clear of the treatment until their complexion calms down. 

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You'll Need to Figure Out a Time Frame

Another thing Sex and the City got wrong? The dramatic dryness doesn't actually start until two to four days after. Your skin will be slightly pink the day of your peel, but will look pretty amazing in the day to follow. "We usually do my clients on Wednesday, knowing that the downtime will occur over the weekend when they're off from work," Rouleau says. Figure out which day of the week you feel like laying low, then count two or so days back before booking your appointment. The time of year you get your peel is one more factor to consider. Because heat can trigger pigment cells to become more active, a glycolic treatment in mid-summer isn't ideal. "Peels are generally best performed from November to May; when you're out in less sun and heat, the melanin cells won't be stimulated," she adds. "January is actually the best month to see your true pigmentation since by then, your summer-induced pigmentation will have faded, whether you do peels or not. You'll be able to see just how deep the discoloration is several months out of the sun, and you can create a strategy around that."

After-Care Is Just as Important

Obviously right after getting a peel, all of your exfoliants should be put out of commission until your dry period ends. Apply a light moisturizer just for comfort purposes, but let the peel run its course (usually just a few days) to get the best results. "The whole point is to let the skin shed, so to over-moisturize actually prolongs the process by attempting to make the dead skin cells stay hydrated and on the skin when they should be lifted off," Rouleau says. Make sure not to overdo it with your washcloth, especially while your skin is wet, as you could unintentionally exfoliate away new skin cells along with the old. "When your skin is wet, those cells are softened and they come off easily," she says. "Even though you see some flakiness on the surface, it could still be attached to live cells that aren't ready to come off underneath, so be gentle, and don't rub too hard." Once the peeling process finishes, you can resume your regularly scheduled skin care regime, with the addition of a few exfoliating acids and gentle face scrubs to keep up the results between appointments. Says Rouleau: "If you go through a series of treatments and don't keep up with the exfoliation, everything will go back to the way it was before."

 
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