Chemical peels are great for stubborn skin concerns such as hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. It used to be a treatment you can get exclusively at professional medspas and dermatology offices, but now there is a whole category of skincare products you can choose from that claim to be at-home versions of peels. So how do these home peels stack up against the professional peels? Can they actually target hyperpigmentation and fine lines like professional peels? How do you shop for the best one? We answer all of these questions and more below!
Professional Chemical Peels vs. Home Chemical Peels
Professional in-office peels will always be much more efficacious than home-use versions. For example, salicylic acid (BHA) is often found in home-use products at 0.5% to 2%. But you can find the very same ingredient in professional peels at 15% to 30%. For the classic AHA, glycolic acid, the home use levels typically sit at ~30% at a mildly acidic pH of ~3.5. However, at professional levels, you can find this at a whopping concentration of up to 70% with a pH of ~1.
This means that professional peels can penetrate much more deeply into your skin. At a professional level, depending on the strength of the peel, you can experience quite a bit of discomfort in the following days as your skin recovers. This higher chance of irritation is part of the reason why these types of peels shouldn’t be done at home. You definitely want a professional to evaluate your skin’s reaction to the peel for the entire duration of the treatment to ensure post-treatment irritation and side effects are kept to a minimum. While your skin is healing, you’ll start to notice those coveted skin brightening, tightening, and clarifying benefits. You can get a professional in-office strength peel once every 4 to 8 weeks depending on your skin concern based on your provider’s discretion.
On the other hand, home-use peels are much more tame than professional peels. You can still experience some light tingling, skin redness, and mild irritation after, but it should NOT be at a level where you experience pain or lingering redness that lasts for several days. Most home peels can be used up to once a week. Though at this weakened level, the efficacy you can expect is less dramatic than professional versions, but you can still see very clear, visual improvements to your skin. However, this can be pretty dependent on the type of home peel formulation, which varies greatly! Let’s take a closer look at how to shop for an effective home peel specifically for your skin-ario!
Selecting a Home Peel Based on Your Goal
Home Peels for Hyperpigmentation and Dark Spots
Something you might not know is that brightening vs. actively tackling hyperpigmentation are two very different goals. The general category of home peels can actually be an effective way to brighten skin and improve overall skin tone. However, because of the stubborn nature of hyperpigmentation, in order to actively tackle dark spots, we recommend reaching for more intensive home peels with at least 25% glycolic acid. We explain more on why these higher-strength home peels are just one important arm in your hyperpigmentation strategy.
Home Peels for Darker Skin Tones
There are some concerns that darker skin tones (Fitzpatrick Skin Type IV-VI) are more susceptible to post-inflammatory, post-peel hyperpigmentation. These concerns typically come from professional peel use. Still with home-use products, it’s important that with all new products we take it slow. If you haven’t already, we recommend making sure your skin handles lower concentrations of these chemical exfoliants (say ~10% level) before moving to a home peel. Additionally, if you’re looking for a starting point, glycolic acid has some literature behind it as a well-tolerated AHA for these Fitzpatrick skin types.
Can Sensitive Skin Types Use Home Peels?
Despite your initial hesitation, sensitive skin types can still benefit from peels! But before venturing into home peels, we recommend starting with milder formats of chemical exfoliants such as exfoliating toners and serums to gauge your skin’s tolerance and test for any initial unwanted skin reactions. If your skin is responding well to these lower-level AHAs and you’ve been using these products for some time, you can definitely consider leveling up! Look for peels with gluconolactone or lactic acid with concentrations of ~20%.
A Special Note About TCA Peels
While you’re doing homework on chemical peels, you might run across an ingredient called TCA, trichloroacetic acid. This is a very effective ingredient that is often used in a professional setting for a much deeper penetrating peel. The scary thing is that you can actually find products that claim to have 35% TCA or even higher on sites like Amazon to use at home. We’d strongly suggest NOT going for these types of products! At these strengths, you can really hurt your skin without proper supervision. It’s not worth it!
If we were to give an idea of the general home peel landscape, this is is roughly what makes sense to us:
If you were to do a general search of chemical exfoliant peels, there are a lot of products that we would consider more as nightly exfoliating treatments/serums than actual home peels. We define home peel products as higher strength peels that are only meant to be used a few times a week. The idea with this mapping is to hopefully give you an example of how to shop for a peel that’s right for your skincare experience and routine needs. Do you want to take a more conservative first step? Look towards the mild spectrum. Are you a more seasoned exfoliant veteran? Looked to the higher strength peels.
Case Study: The Dermalogica Peelfoliant
Throughout this guide, we dropped different types of exfoliants and concentrations (%s) to look for, but there is a special scenario to keep an eye out for on the home peel market landscape - the complex blend of actives.
Dermalogica’s Peelfoliant includes a hodge-podge of ingredients. The formula contains 15% AHA+BHA+PHA blend, 10% fruit enzymes, and 5% phytic acid. With big blends like this, it can be really really hard to gauge what efficacy level by just screening the ingredients. All 3 claimed ingredients are quite mild, when combined, it’s hard to gauge just what efficacy/intensity level we’re dealing with.
This is where reading instructions and deciphering product clinicals is incredibly helpful. (Technically we should always read the instructions before using a product for the first time, right?!) Peelfoliant’s instructions recommend using it as a wash-off mask for just 1-3 min every other day when starting out. Based on the short duration time and shorter frequency of use, you should be on alert to definitely take this product slow starting out.
Product tip: For this particular category, we recommend reading the instructions and prioritize trialing products with testing. Each home peel’s use can be very different from using it once a week, every other day, to even how long to use the product for. These differences can really affect your use experience and ensure you don’t end up with over-exfoliated skin. *hiss!
Home Peel FAQs
Can I use other exfoliating products when I’m using home peels?
Yes! Check your home peel’s instructions but most home peels are used at a maximum of once a week. Between these peel sessions, you can use other exfoliating products. Just keep an eye out for over-exfoliation. There are home peels out there that are positioned as daily or more frequent than once-a-week use such as Dr. Dennis Gross’s peel pads. In those scenarios, we would recommend not using other chemical exfoliants.
How often can I use at-home peels?
One of the more common home peel product formats is a rinse-off mask. Check the instructions of your product, but typically using these peels once a week is enough to visibly see those skin benefits without worrying about unwanted side effects.
Can I use home peels after I get professional peels?
There are studies out there that show home peels can help extend the efficacy of professional peels. But that is HIGHLY dependent on what kind of professional peel you received, how your skin reacted, and where your skin is in the recovery process. We would recommend discussing with your peel provider on when you can do a home peel after your professional peel.
How do I care for my skin after doing a peel?
Soothing, hydrating serums are your friend here. Consider using a heavier more occlusive moisturizer that contains petrolatum, butters, or waxes to protect your skin from external aggressors. And of all things, definitely sunscreen on the daily!
Roberts, W.E. (2004), Chemical peeling in ethnic/dark skin. Dermatologic Therapy, 17: 196-205. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1396-0296.2004.04020.x
BURNS, R.L., PREVOST-BLANK, P.L., LAWRY, M.A., LAWRY, T.B., FARIA, D.T. and FTVENSON, D.P. (1997), Glycolic Acid Peels for Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Black Patients. Dermatologic Surgery, 23: 171-175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1524-4725.1997.tb00014.x