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What Is Chemical Exfoliation? What Are the Possible Risks?

Expertly reviewed by Dexter Macalintal, MD · Internal or General Medicine

Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Aug 18, 2022

What Is Chemical Exfoliation? What Are the Possible Risks?

Chemical exfoliation, or skin peeling, refers to the procedure of removing topical layers of the skin with the use of a chemical solution. This helps in removing dead skin cells to reduce one or more of the following:

  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Acne 
  • Scars
  • Skin discoloration and pigmentation
  • Other skin imperfections and concerns 

Through this treatment, the areas of concern from the abovementioned list eventually peel off. Thus, promoting the growth of new cells and improving the skin’s appearance revealing smoother and more youthful skin beneath. 

Your dermatologist can perform this alone or in combination with other cosmetic procedures in respective clinics. They can carry it out at various depths, ranging from light to deep. But, deeper chemical peels may produce more dramatic results that would result in a longer downtime for healing to happen. 

Chemical exfoliation is most widely done on the face, neck, and/or hands. 

What Skin Conditions Can Benefit from Chemical Exfoliation?

There are specific skin conditions wherein chemical peelings are beneficial in boosting skin tone and texture. Some of which include:

  • Mild scarring
  • Rough skin and scaly patches
  • Spots (sun spots, age spots, liver spots, and freckles)
  • Actinic keratosis
  • Melasma
  • Different Types of Chemical Exfoliation

    Different chemical solutions produce different outcomes. Your skin goal, alongside your doctor’s assessment, can help you determine what kind of peeling you should do for your skin. There are three depths of peeling, mainly mild peel, medium peel, and deep peel. 

    Mild/Light Peel

    A superficial chemical peel removes the epidermis or the topmost layer of the skin in the most subtle way possible. Thus, treating fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone, and dryness of the skin. It can also help address your concerns with rough sun damage to promote a healthy glow. 

    It typically uses a combination of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs).

    Some common BHAs present in different skincare products are:

    • Glycolic acid
    • Lactic acid
    • Salicylic acid
    • Maleic acid

    Because this form of chemical exfoliation is mild, people with any skin type can tolerate it with a little (in just a span of hours or days) to no downtime. You can opt to have a mild peeling every two to five weeks, as suggested by your dermatologist.

    Medium Peel 

    The next level of peeling the medium chemical peel — aids in removing dead skin cells not only in the epidermis but as well as some areas of your upper middle layer of skin (dermis). 

    Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is the most common form of peeling agent for this type.

    If you have some skin discoloration, age spots, acne scars, or fine-to-moderate wrinkles, this option may work best for you. However, it may take a week or more to heal, hence needing some downtime. 

    Deep Peel 

    Since it runs skin deep, a thorough chemical exfoliation removes more skin cells in comparison to the other two. It penetrates all the way to your skin’s lower middle layer. Deep wrinkles, scars, and/or precancerous growths are the main reasons why doctors and patients alike consider this peeling depth. 

    Pretreatment for a deep chemical peel can last up to eight weeks, which also implies a significant downtime. 

    This one-time treatment typically uses a strong form of TCA, phenol. But, there are also other peeling agents and combinations that your doctor can recommend. When performing deep peels, you may need some assistance from local anesthesia and sedative. 

    What Are the Possible Risks and Complications of Chemical Exfoliation?

    Peeling, be it in physical or chemical form, can cause some adverse reactions to the skin, including but not limited to the following:

    • Skin redness and irritation
    • Skin discoloration
    • Crusting and scaling
    • Skin burns and swelling
    • Scarring
    • Allergic reactions to the chemicals
    • Infection
    • Increased sensitivity to sunlight

    There is a tendency for a person to develop liver, kidney, or even heart damage due to deep chemical peels. The presence of phenol (specifically carbolic acid) can bring damage to the heart, causing irregular beating. Moreover, this substance can also be toxic to the kidneys and liver. 

    Key Takeaways

    Chemical exfoliation is a skin-resurfacing procure that could provide you with significant skin improvements. However, it is worth noting that there may be some adverse effects that may take place. 
    Make sure to consult your dermatologist before getting this kind of treatment. Discussing your medical history with the medications you are currently taking alongside your expectations can help you prepare for it.

    Learn more about Skin Care and Cleansing here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Expertly reviewed by

    Dexter Macalintal, MD

    Internal or General Medicine

    Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Aug 18, 2022

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