The NHS guide to cosmetic procedures

Chemical peels

Chemical peels are liquids brushed on to the face to remove dead skin cells and stimulate the growth of new cells.

The aim of this cosmetic procedure is to improve the appearance of the facial skin – for example, by reducing age spots and evening out skin tone.

There are three types of peel: superficial, medium and deep. See What it involves for more information.

Superficial and medium peels are usually safe, provided they're administered correctly. Deeper peels are more risky.

Before you go ahead

Chemical peels can be expensive and have their limitations.

Cost: In the UK, chemical peels cost about £60-£100 for mild peels. Deeper peels may cost over £500.

Limitations: The effects of a superficial or medium peel aren't permanent. The effects of a deeper peel are long-lasting, but this is much more expensive, painful and risky.

Safety: Take time to find a reputable practitioner who is properly qualified and practises in a clean, safe and appropriate environment. Ask the practitioner what you should do if something were to go wrong. 

What it involves

Superficial peels:

  • skin cells removed from the top layer of skin (epidermis)
  • left on the skin for a few minutes
  • skin may feel tight for a couple of hours afterwards
  • regular treatment needed to maintain the effects

Medium peels:

  • skin cells removed from the top and middle layers of skin
  • left on the skin for a few minutes
  • a burning or stinging sensation may be felt when the peel is applied
  • skin may go brown or red in the days afterwards
  • it can take up to six weeks for the skin to return to normal
  • treatment is needed every 6 to 12 months to maintain the effects

Deep peels:

  • affect deeper layers of skin 
  • a local anaesthetic and sedative may be needed
  • a freezing sensation may be felt when the peel is applied
  • can be left on the face for 30 minutes or more, depending on the desired effect
  • your heart and blood pressure need to be monitored as phenol, the chemical used, can cause dangerous effects on the heart and kidneys
  • expect some peeling, redness and discomfort for a few days
  • swelling can last up to two weeks
  • skin redness can last up to three months
  • often results in lightening of the skin, so it's not really suitable for darker skin
  • it's a one-off treatment with lasting effects, so doesn't usually need to be repeated

Risks

Possible risks include:

  • darkening or lightening of the skin – this can be permanent
  • cold sores returning if you've had these before
  • scarring or an infection – although this is rare

As it heals, your skin would also be more sensitive to the sun, so you need to use sunscreen for at least a month after treatment.

The practitioner carrying out the procedure should advise how you can reduce your risk of side effects and complications.

What to do if you have problems

If you're not happy with the results or are experiencing problems, take up the matter with your practitioner through the clinic where you were treated.

If there are any complications that require medical attention, it is best that you go back to the practitioner who treated you. If this is not possible, you can go to your GP or local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Page last reviewed: 19/05/2016

Next review due: 19/05/2019

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