What Is a Chemical Peel?

A chemical peel is a skin treatment for improving the appearance of skin

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Chemical peels are treatments for improving skin issues—usually cosmetic ones—on the face, hands, or neck.

Chemical peels involve a chemical solution applied to the skin to remove the top layer. The skin that grows back is newer and smoother. There are three types of chemical peels—from light to deep—and their use depends on the skin issue that needs addressing. 

Though you can apply some chemical peels at home, professional peels are the strongest and can offer the best results.

This article discusses the types of chemical peels, their uses, and what to expect during recovery.

chemical peel procedure

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Can You Apply Chemical Peels at Home?

Though you can apply some chemical peels at home, professional peels are the strongest and can offer the best results.

What Exactly Does a Chemical Peel Do?

A chemical peel uses a chemical solution to remove the top layers of skin—usually on the face, hands, or neck.

The most common peeling solutions contain acid, such as salicylic acid. The acid in the chemical solution acts as an exfoliant, eventually causing skin cells to peel off. This then reveals new, smoother skin underneath. How much skin the chemical peel removes depends on how deep it goes. 

Chemical peels are one of the most common non-invasive cosmetic procedures in the United States. They are a completely optional treatment and are generally safe for the skin.

Talk to your healthcare provider or dermatologist if you’re interested in learning more about whether they recommend a chemical peel for you and your skin.

Types of Chemical Peels

Though there are some peels you can apply at home, they most often require a professional because of the solutions they require. There are three main types of chemical peels:

  • Light: Removes the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis). A mildly acidic solution, such as alpha-hydroxy acid, is applied to the skin to exfoliate it gently.
  • Medium: This goes a little deeper through the outer layer of skin and into the upper part of the middle layer (dermis). A more acidic solution, such as higher-concentration glycolic or trichloroacetic acid, is applied to remove damaged skin cells. 
  • Deep: Penetrates down to the bottom part of the middle layer. A stronger acid solution, such as trichloroacetic acid or phenol, removes damaged skin cells. A deep chemical peel provides the most dramatic results, but recovering from it takes longer.


Generally speaking, the purpose of a chemical peel is to treat cosmetic skin issues.

For example, chemical peels are useful for treating both acne and acne scars. Chemical peels cause skin injury to promote regeneration and remodel skin tissue. A combination of chemical peels may also reduce side effects from the peels. 

The type of chemical peel a dermatologist applies depends on the issue they're treating.

For example, a light chemical peel may be appropriate for treating acne. The more extensive the skin issue, the deeper the peel. 

A light chemical peel can improve mild skin issues like discoloration to make the skin look refreshed, while medium and deep chemical peels can treat more moderate skin issues like fine lines, wrinkles, freckles, and age spots. A medium chemical peel may also treat precancerous skin growths.

Both light and medium chemical peels may be repeated to achieve or maintain the desired results. A deep chemical peel is usually only applied once.


The amount of time it takes to recover depends on the type of chemical peel and can range from one to three weeks. The deeper the peel, the longer the recovery:

  • A light chemical peel takes one to seven days to heal
  • A medium chemical peel takes seven to 14 days to heal
  • A deep chemical peel takes 14 to 21 days to heal

Recovery can look different depending on your skin, sensitivities, and the type of peel you received. Some common side effects of chemical peels include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Crusty, peeling skin
  • Blisters

Your dermatologist will advise you about any ointments or lotions you can apply after your peel and whether and how long you should avoid sun exposure to allow the skin to heal safely.


Chemical peels are a skin treatment for removing the top layer of skin. They generally treat cosmetic skin issues like wrinkles and discoloration, but they may also treat precancerous skin growths. The side effects and recovery time for chemical peels depend on the depth of the peel. The deeper the peel, the greater potential for side effects and a longer recovery.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Soleymani T, Lanoue J, Rahman Z. A practical approach to chemical peels. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018;11(8):21-28.

  2. American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Chemical peels.

  3. Kontochristopoulos G, Platsidaki E. Chemical peels in active acne and acne scars. Clinics in Dermatology. 2017;35(2):179-182. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2016.10.011

By Emily Brown, MPH
Emily is a health communication consultant, writer, and editor at EVR Creative, specializing in public health research and health promotion. With a scientific background and a passion for creative writing, her work illustrates the value of evidence-based information and creativity in advancing public health.