At home chemical peel

Face Off: What To Know About At-Home Chemical Peels

Doing a chemical peel at home does require some homework beforehand. You want to avoid tanning or being in the sun for about two weeks before using a chemical peel. Remember: Sunscreen is your best friend.

At-Home Chemical Peels Aren’t As Scary As They Sound—Here’s How to Do One

A full rundown on at-home versus professional peels, how to do a chemical peel, and what to be aware of.

Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona. For the last 10 years, she’s covered beauty, health, wellness, and travel for leading lifestyle outlets, including NBC, The Zoe Report, Bustle, Glam, TripSavvy, and others.

Haley is a Wisconsin-based creative freelancer and recent graduate. She has worked as an editor, fact checker, and copywriter for various digital and print publications. Her most recent position was in academic publishing as a publicity and marketing assistant for the University of Wisconsin Press

Though the term can sound a little daunting, chemical peels are a legit skincare game changer that most people can benefit from incorporating into their routine. While strong chemical peels that penetrate deeply are best performed under the care of a professional and within a clean, clinical setting, you can indulge in a very mild variation of this skincare treatment in your own home.

We’re diving into more details what an at-home chemical peel is like, how to DIY this beauty treatment safely, and considerations to keep in mind along the way.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels are exactly what they sound like: A skincare treatment that utilizes chemicals—typically alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or enzymes—in order to peel away layers of the skin.

The process reveals a fresh, bright, and youthful complexion almost immediately, which makes it very appealing. “They can also stimulate the growth of new cells to improve the appearance of fine lines and dark spots,” notes Merry Thornton, MD, a board-certified physician assistant and the owner of Element Medical.

At-Home Versus Professional Peels

At-home chemical peels are classified as superficial, which means only the outermost layer is removed. In other words, they’re usually much gentler compared to professional peels. To get technical, at-home peels remove the epidermis layers of skin, while deep professional peels can penetrate as deep as the upper part of the dermis.

“This can result in faster and more drastic results, but with more downtime,” Thornton notes. “Superficial peels are also done in dermatologist offices for those looking for an in-office treatment with low downtime.”

At-home peels usually contain an enzyme or AHAs, such as lactic, glycolic, salicylic, mandelic, or malic acid, or a combination. Thornton tells us that the results are less dramatic compared to a professional chemical peel. However, a bonus is that they involve no downtime and, with consistent usage, can improve the look of texture, fine lines, pigmentation, skin tone, and even acne.

At-home chemical peels range from mild to strong, but none will be as deep as a deep chemical peel performed by a professional.

Chemical Peel Strengths:

  • Mild: “Mild peels typically use alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are derived from fruit and milk,” says Kaylee Esplin, a master esthetician for SkinSpirit. “These peels are suitable for most skin types.”
  • Medium: Medium-strength peels use beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, which are effective for treating acne-prone skin. Or they may contain higher percentages of AHAs and/or BHAs.
  • Strong: “Stronger peels, such as those that use trichloroacetic acid (TCA), should only be done by a professional,” notes Esplin.

How Often Should You Do Chemical Peels?

The ideal frequency of at-home chemical peels ultimately depends on the strength of the peel, your skin type, and your skin’s tolerance. Very mild acid treatments can be performed once every couple days, while medium strength peels are ideal for two weeks.

Esplin says, “This allows enough time for your skin to heal and recover from the treatment. If you have sensitive skin, you may need to wait longer between peels or use a lower strength product.”

How To Perform At-Home Chemical Peels

Rule number one is to follow label instructions to a T. Some peels may require more or less frequent use, or may have a recommendation for how long the product sits on your skin before being rinsed.

One of the most common mistakes people make with at-home chemical peels is over-exfoliating, or leaving the solution on the skin for too long. This can cause skin irritation, redness, and even scarring.

“Additionally, it’s a good idea to start with a lower strength peel and gradually work your way up to higher strengths as your skin becomes more accustomed to the treatment,” advises Esplin. “It is also essential to protect the skin from the sun after a chemical peel, as the skin may be more sensitive and prone to damage.”

With that information in mind, here’s a simple step-by-step process for giving yourself an at-home chemical peel with an approved, over-the-counter product:

  • Step 1—Wash: Cleanse your face with a gentle face wash and warm water, then gently pat dry with a clean, soft towel.
  • Step 2—Apply the Peel: Apply the peel to freshly cleansed skin and allow it to set for the recommended duration of time. Using a clean cosmetic brush can help ensure an even application.
  • Step 3—Rinse: Rinse your face with lukewarm water, making sure to remove the peel completely. You may need to re-wash with a cleanser if it’s a sticky or stubborn peel.
  • Step 4: Skincare: Follow up with non-active skincare products, such as a moisturizing toner or serum and face cream.

“The use of at-home chemical peels can be complemented with other skin care treatments or products, but it is important to be cautious and follow recommended guidelines to avoid over-exfoliation or skin irritation,” notes Esplin. “Before combining chemical peels with other treatments or products, it is advisable to consult with a dermatologist or esthetician to determine the best course of action for your skin type and concerns.”

Are At-Home Chemical Peels Approved For All Skin Types?

Mild to medium at-home chemical peels are generally suitable for most skin types. However, if you have very sensitive skin or allergies, then it may be best to avoid them altogether.

Thornton also recommends proceeding with caution if you have very dry skin or a skin condition, such as rosacea. You can still enjoy peels, but it’s best to choose gentle and hydrating acids—such as lactic and glycolic—in low percentages.

Face Off: What To Know About At-Home Chemical Peels

Person checking skin condition in bathroom mirror after a shower.

You’ve started to notice some fine lines and wrinkles on your face (ugh!) or maybe your skin looks a little lackluster (blah!).

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And in your quest to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve your skin’s brightness, and diminish discoloration and brown spots, you may have thought about trying a chemical peel at home.

Previously, you could only get a chemical peel as an in-office treatment at your doctor’s office. Now, there are plenty of at-home chemical peels available, making it tempting to want to give this skin care approach a spin.

But before you get started, dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, walks us through how a chemical peel works and how to choose the best version for you.

What is a chemical peel?

A chemical peel is a chemical solution that’s used to improve the appearance of your skin. When applied to the top layer of your skin, the solution causes that skin to eventually peel off, unveiling a new layer of more youthful skin underneath.

“A chemical peel is basically a way to exfoliate your skin,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “You can use a chemical peel to target concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines or texture. You’re helping your skin cells turnover.”

So, how does a chemical peel feel when it’s on your face?

“It will tingle and it may burn a bit and feel hot,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “It’s mildly uncomfortable, but you definitely will know it’s doing something to your skin.”

And with most chemical peels, there is some downtime. Depending on the strength of the chemical peel, you may experience redness, peeling, flaking and sensitivity — similar to a sunburn — for up to two weeks after.

Chemical peels at a doctor’s office vs. at home

You may opt to visit a dermatologist for a chemical peel. By doing so, you’ll tend to get a higher concentration of ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid or salicylic acid.

Another bonus? You’re also getting the treatment applied by an expert who can make sure to target your skin’s concerns, like wrinkles or discoloration, with the right kind of chemical peel.

But if you want to explore the world of chemical peels in the comfort of your own home, Dr. Khetarpal says there are many versions available.

Whether the chemical peel is delivered via peel pads, a liquid application or a product that you wash off, at-home treatments tend to be gentler on your skin.

And due to the lower concentration of ingredients, you may need to apply a few treatments before you see any results like smoother skin or faded dark spots.

How to do an at-home chemical peel

Doing a chemical peel at home does require some homework beforehand. You want to avoid tanning or being in the sun for about two weeks before using a chemical peel. Remember: Sunscreen is your best friend.

You also want to consider what type of skin care ingredients you’re using in the lead up to a chemical peel.

“If you’ve been using a vitamin A cream like a retinol, tretinoin or adapalene, it thins the top layer of your skin,” cautions Dr. Khetarpal. “The chemical peel will go a little bit deeper, so you’re going to get more of an effect.”

Another important task before doing a chemical peel at home?

“Do a test area first,” stresses Dr. Khetarpal. “Apply a small amount to your jawline or behind your ear. Give it a day and see how your skin reacts. And you want to do this especially if you have sensitive skin, dry skin or eczema, just to make sure you don’t end up with inflammation or a reaction to something in the product.”

Dr. Khetarpal offers some other tips:

  • Start with a clean face. On the day of your chemical peel, make sure you start with a freshly washed face that’s free of excess oils and makeup.
  • Protect your skin. Dr. Khetarpal likes applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the sensitive skin around your eyes. You may also want to use a headband to keep the hair out of your eyes and face. And if you have sensitive skin, you may want to use gloves to protect the skin on your hands.
  • Consider your applicator. Some chemical peels just come in liquid form so you may need a cotton ball or cotton pad. “I would also keep a washcloth nearby in case you started to get a lot of burning or discomfort,” she advises.
  • Follow the directions. If the instructions of your chemical peel say to keep the peel on just for 30 seconds for your first application, do it. Don’t be tempted to leave it on longer. “Most at-home chemical peels increase the time you’ll leave it on per application,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “You don’t want to risk irritating your skin.”

Some peels are self-neutralizing and can be left on your skin. But others need to be washed off or neutralized with a separate solution. It’s important to read all the directions and make sure you have all the necessary components before you start a chemical peel.

Choosing the right chemical peel

“There are a lot of different options out there,” Dr. Khetarpal notes. “A chemical peel can be tailored to your needs depending on your skin type and concern.”

First, let’s learn about the different types of chemical peels:

  • A light chemical peel. The majority of at-home skin peels are considered this and referred to as a “lunchtime” peel, meaning they may help with mild skin issues like texture or minor hyperpigmentation. This type of peel usually has little to no downtime.
  • A medium chemical peel. This type of peel, which penetrates the middle layer of your skin, is typically done in a doctor’s office. It may be recommended to treat scarring, fine lines and wrinkles, and discoloration like age spots. You may experience redness, swelling and peeling — and may even develop blisters. Your skin will crust over and peel off over two weeks.
  • A deep chemical peel. If you have deep wrinkles, severe scarring or hyperpigmentation, a dermatologist may suggest this in-office treatment that targets the middle layer of your skin. Expect a lot of downtime with this treatment. Your face will be bandaged, and healing takes about two weeks.

When it comes to ingredients, chemical peels typically include:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids. This includes glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. “These alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble,” says Dr. Khetarpal. “Alpha hydroxy acids are going to be a little bit lighter and can be done on all skin types. Many of them are even safe during pregnancy and nursing.”
  • Beta hydroxy acids. This includes salicylic acid. “These ones typically help with acne,” she says. “Beta hydroxy acids are going to be a little more aggressive.”

Chemical peel aftercare and possible side effects

If you take birth control pills, are pregnant or have a family history of discoloration, you may have an increased risk of developing abnormal pigmentation.

“If you’re someone that has a history of cold sores, a chemical appeal can trigger an outbreak,” states Dr. Khetarpal.

How your skin responds to a chemical peel will depend on the strength and type of chemical peel you use. You may experience a sunburn-like reaction, which can include redness, flaking and peeling for up to a week.

During this time, you want to use a gentle cleanser to wash your face, followed by a moisturizer and sunscreen.

“You’ve just disrupted your skin’s barrier and you’re trying to restore it and help it heal,” explains Dr. Khetarpal. “Keep your skin moist by using a very gentle moisturizer. You want to baby your skin.”

There are a lot of upsides to exploring the world of at-home chemical peels. Just make sure to do your homework, consult a dermatologist and follow a product’s instructions to ensure the best outcome for your skin.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy