Chemical Peel Process and Aftercare Explained

Whether you’re a seasoned skincare pro or a first-timer, getting a chemical peel can feel intimidating. After all, it is a specific process, and it’s essential that you take care of your skin the right way afterward to avoid potential side effects and to get the desired results for your skin.

But that isn’t a reason to shy away from chemical peels. Though there are important steps you need to take to get the most out of your peel, rest assured: it is a manageable process. 

Though the chemical peel process may sound scary, it’s a lot less complicated than it may seem. Today, we’ll walk you through this process, explaining exactly what a chemical peel is, what you can expect the day of, and how to take care of your skin afterward. 

What Is a Chemical Peel?

To understand how to support your skin after a chemical peel, you first have to understand what the procedure actually is. 

A chemical peel is a cosmetic procedure that “removes” the top layers of skin to reveal new skin underneath. Which skin layers are targeted depends on the type of chemical peel. 

Light Chemical Peels

Light chemical peels , also known as superficial peels, target the outermost layer of skin called the epidermis. The epidermis (also known as your skin barrier) is your skin’s first line of defense, meaning it sees the most wear and tear over time. This can cause it to become damaged, or even just look tired. 

By stripping away this top layer, light chemical peels make room for the fresh skin sitting just beneath to come to the surface, treating fine lines and breakouts in the process.

Medium Chemical Peels

Medium chemical peels target the epidermis and the very upper parts of the dermis — the layer of skin just below the epidermis. By targeting the middle layer of the skin as well, this type of peel works to lighten acne scars, lift wrinkles, and reduce discoloration like hyperpigmentation. 

Deep Chemical Peels

Deep chemical peels are the strongest type of chemical peel, targeting both the epidermis and dermis skin layers in their entirety. 

Your doctor or dermatologist might recommend this peel if you have severe skin damage or are dealing with precancerous growths in the skin. This type of peel uses harsh chemicals that are stronger than those used in light and medium chemical peels — meaning it requires the most aftercare. 

What Does the Chemical Peel Process Entail?

While every chemical peel involves the application of some chemical solution, the exact formula of this solution — and the steps taken by your doctor following it — depends on the type of chemical peel you’re receiving. 

Steps for a Light Chemical Peel

When you walk into the room, the first thing your dermatologist will do is prepare the skin. Using a gentle cleanser, they will clear the skin of any dirt or excess oil that might interfere with the peel. Then, they will cover your eyes and hair to protect them from the chemical solution. 

For light chemical peels, your dermatologist will apply a chemical solution of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) to remove the top layer of skin. While the exact formula will vary, common acids used for light chemical peels include glycolic acid, lactic acid, alicyclic acid, and maleic acid. 

The chemical solution will sit on your skin for a few minutes, gradually whitening your skin as the clock ticks by. You may feel a mild stinging feeling during this part. 

Once the peel has done its job, your dermatologist will use a neutralizing solution to wash away the excess acid from your skin. This is the last step of a light chemical peel. 

Steps for a Medium Chemical Peel

For a medium chemical peel, your dermatologist prepares the skin in the same way with a gentle cleaner. But unlike this superficial peel, a medium chemical peel uses a stronger chemical solution. 

Medium chemical peels use trichloroacetic acid, an exfoliating chemical, in combination with glycolic acid to treat the skin. Your dermatologist will apply the solution to your skin and let it sit there for a few minutes to work deep in your skin. 

Once the skin is finished whitening, your dermatologist will then soothe the treated skin with a cool compress instead of a neutralizing solution to wash your face. This cool water helps combat the stinging from the chemical peel, which is a bit stronger here than in a light chemical peel. 

Steps for a Deep Chemical Peel

Deep chemical peels are a much more intense procedure than light or medium ones, so they have a completely different set of steps. 

To begin, your dermatologist will actually set up an IV to deliver fluids to you throughout the process. Then, they will numb the surface of your skin to prepare it for the chemical solution. 

Deep chemical peels use a high concentration of carbonic acid, or phenol, on your skin. This chemical is highly potent, so your dermatologist will likely only apply it in small sections at a time, working in short intervals and giving your skin time to rest between sessions. This can take up a lot of time (often over an hour), making deep peels the longest of the three types of chemical peels. 

What Should You Expect After a Chemical Peel?

Just because your dermatologist removes the chemical solution from your skin and sends you on your way doesn’t mean your chemical peel is over just yet. In fact, the peel is just beginning. 

After your chemical peel, you begin the healing process from the cosmetic treatment. And naturally, there are some reactions you may experience following the procedure. 


After your chemical peel, you may notice your skin is drier than normal. This is because the chemical peel stripped away some of your skin’s natural oils along with those top layers of skin. 

This dryness is totally normal. As your skin begins the resurfacing process following your peel, it will also resupply your skin with those essential natural oils, bringing your skin’s moisture barrier back into balance. 


Chemical peels may also leave your skin looking a bit red for a few days following the procedure. This is because the skin cells that your peel uncovered are newly resurfaced and have to get used to this exposure. 

Your skin naturally gets tougher the closer to the surface it is. In fact, the outermost layer of your skin is often made up entirely of dead skin cells. When you remove these cells and replace them with living ones, your skin can be more sensitive than usual because your skin barrier can feel more. As these outer cells toughen up over time, the sensitivity — and the redness — will fade. 


For the same reason that your skin may look red after a chemical peel, it can also feel irritated too. 

Remember that the new skin cells on the surface of your skin are not used to the amount of stimulation that they’re currently receiving. As the outermost layer of your skin, these skin cells are responsible for protecting you from the outside world. They’re the first line of defense. 

But this layer sensitive skin isn’t as tough as normal, so that level of protection will be a little lower for a few days. As these new skin cells gain strength, your skin will become the impenetrable defense it was before — and your skin won’t be as sensitive. 


Chemical peels are called “peels” for a reason: your skin is going to flake off. 

Though your dermatologist applies the chemical solution during the procedure, this isn’t actually when the dead skin cells begin to fall off. Instead, your peel will begin to activate two to three days following the procedure

Once the chemicals start to really take effect, you’ll notice skin from the treated area starts to peel or flake off. This is totally normal — good, even. This means the chemical peel is working. As the top layer of skin falls away, you make room for new skin cells to take its place. 

What Are Some Chemical Peel Aftercare Tips?

While some side effects are normal after your chemical peel, and there isn’t a lot you can do to avoid them, you’re not totally powerless. 

Chemical peel aftercare is designed to soothe your skin and help you take charge of the healing process. We’ve compiled four tips to help your skin feel great post-chemical peel. 

1. Use SPF

One of the best things you can do for your skin after an intense cosmetic procedure like a chemical peel is to wear sunscreen

Remember that your skin is at its most vulnerable right after a chemical peel. Your skin cells aren’t used to this much exposure, and their defenses are going to be down as they get used to their new job. Sunscreen helps bridge this protection gap, supporting the new skin by protecting it — and your other skin layers — from the sun’s harmful rays. 

Also keep in mind that your skin is going to be a bit dryer following your chemical peel. A hydrating, nourishing sunscreen like the M-61 Hydraboost Moisturizer SPF 30 allows you to both protect your skin from sun damage and help replenish the moisture barrier — making it an essential part of chemical peel aftercare. 

2. Opt for Gentle Cleansers

After your chemical peel, you should be conscious of what skincare products you’re using on your sensitive skin. When it comes to washing your face, gentle cleansers are the best choice for a post-chemical peel. 

As with your SPF, opting for a moisturizing cleanser like the IS Clinical Cream Cleanser is a great way to cleanse your skin and help replenish its natural oil barrier after a chemical peel. This formula deeply cleanses your skin without drying it out, leaving your complexion silky smooth.

3. Moisturize

If the first two tips haven’t clued you in yet, hydration is super important following a chemical peel. To treat your dry skin, moisturizing is key to chemical peel aftercare. 

Nourishing creams like the Augustinus Bader The Ultimate Soothing Cream are best to soothe your skin after a chemical peel. This formula intensely hydrates, soothes, and restores dry, stressed skin — in a clinical trial, participants said skin hydration improved by 188.47%, and transepidermal water loss was reduced by 31.48%. 

4. Scale Back on Exfoliation

Because your skin is more sensitive after a chemical peel, you want to avoid using any harsh chemicals, acids, or other skincare products for a few weeks. This includes exfoliation. 

Exfoliating after a chemical peel can irritate your new skin cells, which are already delicate and prone to pain — not to mention that the chemical peel itself already cleared your skin of any dead skin cells, so even if your skin wasn’t highly sensitive, you wouldn’t need to exfoliate anyway. “Fight the urge to remove the excess skin yourself, and let your skincare routine do the heavy lifting,” notes Melinda Hany, Registered Nurse.

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a deeper exfoliation than the products in your normal skincare can provide, then a chemical peel treatment might be just what you need to even out your skin tone and remove the dead skin clinging to your face. 

The peeling process naturally removes layers of dead skin cells that weigh your skin down and dull your shine. However, in order to get the most benefits from this cosmetic procedure, proper aftercare is a must. 

With the right skincare routine post-chemical peel, your skin will not only feel brand new but feel as great as it looks. 


Light Chemical Peel | American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Medium Chemical Peel | American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Deep Chemical Peel | American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Chemical peel | Mayo Clinic

How does the outer layer of skin cells on my finger detect when I am touching an object? | West Texas A&M University

How to Care For Your Skin After a Peel | Dermalogica®