Chemical peels, also called chemexfoliation, are commonly used to exfoliate a few or many layers of skin to improve the skin’s appearance and texture. The peels remove outer layers of skin that may have become damaged by scarring, exposure to the sun, aging, facial blemishes, or some other condition. Peels are also used to correct uneven skin pigmentation.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons 2012 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report (http://www.plasticsurgery.org), more than 1.1 million chemical peel procedures were performed in 2012, up five percent over 2011. Chemical peels were third in the five most frequently performed minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures for 2012.
A glycolic acid peel is a type of chemical peel, and it is a milder, more superficial skin treatment compared to chemicals such as Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or phenol. The glycolic acid may be used on its own to perform the peel, or it may be mixed with other skin products such as cleansers or creams. It may be used effectively as a one-time application. However, because of its milder effects, it may also be used in a series of treatments over several consecutive days. The results of a glycolic acid peel generally include smoother-looking and a more evenly-textured skin. Although it causes some peeling of the skin’s surface, it is preferred by patients seeking cosmetic treatment because the recovery time is much quicker than that required after a peel performed using more aggressive chemicals.
The procedure itself includes cleansing the skin, applying the glycolic acid to the skin, neutralizing the acid after a short time, and wiping the chemical from the skin. The patient may experience a burning sensation when the acid is applied on the skin. Generally, a glycolic acid peel is performed as an out-patient procedure and does not require anesthesia.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and is included in the group of substances called alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). They are also referred to as fruit acids. It is used for medical purposes to perform cosmetic skin peels; however, it is also used for non-medical purposes such as dying textiles, tanning leather, preserving foods, and making ink, paint, and adhesives. One of the most beneficial properties of glycolic acid is its ability to penetrate the skin quickly and effectively, making it a popular and widely-used chemical used for cosmetic skin peels.
Because of their milder effects, glycolic acid peels are most commonly used as minimally invasive cosmetic procedures to improve the subject’s appearance. In certain instances, the peel may be effective to treat pre-cancerous skin growths, reduce the appearance of acne facial scars, and help control acne. Glycolic acid peels are suitable for men or women of virtually any age who are showing mild effects of aging or have scarring caused by acne. Physicians often recommend the peels for patients who want a quick recovery and who do not need deep treatments to resurface the skin.
The patient’s physician will advise on specific steps needed to prepare for a peel procedure. Generally, the patient is required to cleanse the affected skin regularly over a period of two or three weeks using products specified by the physician. Sunscreen, highly-recommended to protect anyone from sun exposure regardless of an imminent peel procedure, is mandated for daily use during the preparatory period. For glycolic acid peels, a topical medicine, such as tretinoin (Retin-A) may be prescribed to speed healing after the procedure. Physicians sometimes prescribe antiviral medications to prepare for more invasive peels, especially if the patient is prone to cold sores.
Benefits and Side Effects
People who undergo this procedure have brighter skin with more even-looking texture and pigmentation. The broader benefits to patients include a less invasive treatment process which typically does not cause discomfort beyond tingling or itching of the skin and a quicker recovery time following the treatment than the patient might experience from more aggressive products.
Although mild compared to other treatments, a glycolic acid peel still involves chemically removing several layers of skin, and the patient may experience redness and sensitivity in treated areas. There may be redness and flaking or peeling of the skin for several days following treatment.
Increased sensitivity following a peel procedure includes sensitivity to the sun and to certain substances commonly contained in skin care products. Patients should limit sun exposure and use sunscreen and protective clothing following treatment and continuously thereafter. Until the healing process is complete, patients need to also avoid using products that contain retinol, glycolic acids, perfumes, and dyes, especially on treated areas. The patient’s physician may make other recommendations, depending on the circumstances, such as limiting or stopping the use of cosmetics while the affected areas are healing.