How Chemical Peels Make the Skin Look Better

I've wondered how chemical peels really work to improve the texture, tone, fine lines, acne, acne scars, and overall look of the skin. After much reading, I found out that it's not simply the exfoliation of skin that makes skin look's what's happening deep inside that won't show up for a couple of months later.

Using an at home chemical peel evokes a complex repair process that builds more collagen.  

The process includes inflammation, proliferation, and remodeling. At-home chemical peels work long after the peeling finishes to improve skin.

Skin’s Healing Process during an at-home Chemical Peel:

1. Inflammation

All who have had a medium depth chemical peel experience the inflammation stage during the healing process, even if it can't be seen with the naked eye. I usually swell immediately after a chemical peel and the following day, which gives a nice, plump effect, so I can usually still go out on day 1 and/or day 2.

To minimize swelling, I eliminate as much salt as possible from my diet for several days before my chemical peel and during the healing process. I've been following a sugar-free and very low-carb diet for several years now, and sugar reduction is critical for fast and proper healing.

The purpose of inflammation is to prevent infection, even during a light or medium chemical peel. When the skin swells, leukocytes begin to clean away dead cells and destroy bacteria. Later, white blood cells called macrophages replace them. Macrophages continue cleaning the wound, although there may not appear to be a wound with a light or medium at-home chemical peel. If redness persists, I usually apply this antibacterial cream (not an ointment if I can avoid it); ointments will definitely cause breakouts!

Macrophages also secrete growth factors and proteins that facilitate the development of new cells to rebuild tissue. This stage begins as soon as the skin is wounded, and it can last several days, depending on the chemical peel strength and depth. One may even feel warmth from the histamine response and subsequent pain. Some patients on sites I've reviewed said that they have taken OTC painkiller or fever reducers. I have never done that.

During the inflammation period, I always use a good moisturizer that won't cause additional breakouts, such as Theraplex Hydrolotion. This giant 8 oz container lasts me about 8-12 months!

2. Proliferation

This stage of the healing process after a chemical peel lasts from two days to several weeks, depending upon the chemical peel depth and the chemical peel strength. During this time, the wound begins to heal by building tissue, including skin and blood vessels.

And this is the step that’s most important for aging skin: cells called fibroblasts move to the wound caused by the chemical peel and begin to produce new connective tissue called collagen. The collagen fibers develop into a matrix that creates the foundation for further healing. As we age, our bodies naturally create less collagen, but doing light chemical peels on a regular basis keeps the body's collagen machine working!

It will take months for the full collagen matrix to form, so you won't see much of an improvement immediately.

Now the leathery stage begins after the at home chemical peel: as the matrix forms and the collagen begins to strengthen, the edges of the wound start to contract toward one another. When the leathery texture begins, although it’s no fun to see, take stock that the body is creating collagen, which will build up the skin and fill in those lines. Keep applying a 
good moisturizer that won't cause additional breakouts, such as Theraplex Hydrolotion.

I like to also include a copper peptide during this stage because this can improve and speed up the recovery process. My favorite is Neova's CU3 Post Laser Copper Complex. This does NOT cause breakouts or rosacea flares for me, so I keep it on hand. There's also an ointment I've tried, but it's too occlusive for my acne-prone skin. Others may really like it. CAUTION: I've read several articles from doctors who advise using copper peptides ONLY when the skin is healing. It can cause problems if overused.

3. Remodeling

Even though the skin looks good after the peeling finishes, it’s only going to get better!  The process of remodeling starts after several weeks and can last for years after a chemical peel. Old collagen is broken down and then replaced with new collagen.

This process is also why we want to give our skin a break during the summer months to rest, and to avoid being exposed to more UV damage during the healing process.

Below is the actual first step in the healing process--if the skin is cut, torn, or bleeds for any reason. I didn't include it in the at-home chemical peel process because we should not be performing at-home peels that are strong enough to start this response within our bodies. Remember, chemicals can be dangerous and cause serious injuries! This is not a procedure that should be done without the consultation of a professional, and I am NOT a professional, so do NOT use my experience or information to replace medical advice.


This stage should not be necessary in any at-home chemical peel, but it’s interesting to know how it would work if one had a deep chemical peel at the doctor’s office.  Some deep chemical peels can cause bleeding, and this would be an important step in the healing process.  Hemostasis means to stand still or stop bleeding. Blood vessels constrict and blood platelets form a clot. A scab forms as the clotted blood dries. I've never experienced hemostatis with my at-home chemical peels.

Okay, enough of that...