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Chemical Peels v. Laser Peels, Which Is Right for You?

There is no question that peels, whether chemical or laser, can do wonders for the skin. For people battling acne or melasma, peels can be especially beneficial, while for those with general anti-aging concerns, peels can leave the skin looking brighter, smoother, and firmer. But with so many chemical and laser treatment options, which is right for you? Read below for information on choosing the right peel to meet your needs.

Chemical peel

Chemical Peels

Chemical Peels typically use an acid to slough off dead skin and reveal the new skin underneath.  As Dr. Neal Schultz, a board certified dermatologist in New York, explains, there are three types of chemical peels, superficial, medium and deep.

Superficial chemical peels

Superficial peels are the most popular and most common peels and also are the most affordable. They work using glycolic or salicylic acid to dissolving dead skin cells on the surface of the skin which restore sheens and luster, and makes the skin smoother. These are what are often referred to as “lunchtime peels,” because they can be done easily over a lunch hour, are painless, and have no recovery time. In order to get meaningful and visible results, Dr. Shultz recommends a series of 4-6 superficial chemical peels every week or every other week.

Often superficial peels are available not just in a dermatologist’s office, but at spas or even at home. For a great home peel, try the Brazilian Peel, a peel of 10% glycolic acid that tends to show noticeable results after 4 weekly home treatments. for something a bit stronger, look to local spas an dermatologists.

Medium and Deep Chemical Peels

Medium and Deep peels work to address deeper problems in the skin and, according to Dr. Glenn Kolansky, a Board Certified Dermatologist in New Jersey, are often the next step for people who seek greater results than a glycolic or other superficial peel can give. These peels also often work better at addressing pigmentation problems and acne.  TCA (Trichloroacetic Acid) peels are one of The older and most common forms of medium peels, and the depth of the peel is determined by the strength of the acid or the time it is left on the skin.

Greater effects might be seen from a medium or deeper peel, but Dr. Kolansky cautions that the key to remember is that while more skin damage from the peel can show greater skin improvement, it also can have more side effects and down time. One prime example of this is the VI peel.

As a newer peel, the VI peel, is also getting quite a bit of attention for its ability to address pigmentation issues, such as melasma, and acne. The VI peel works by using high concentrations of glycolic acid, azaelic acid, retinol and vitamin C, and causes actual “peeling.”  Many women report excellent results, but also report heavy redness akin to a sun burn, followed by a peeling of the dead skin, again similar to the effects of sun damage.  A red appearance and peeling can last for up to a week. But a majority of women also tend to report excellent later results and highly recommend the peel.

Laser Peels

Laser peels go even further than chemical peels and often are ideal for those with significant melasma, acne, and deep acne scarring. Dr Shultz particularly recommends laser peels, stating:

“I love laser resurfacing. It will take away the browns, but nothing to take away the reds on your skin. It certainly take away fine lines, some medium lines, and makes the skin tighter-it just makes it look a lot better.”

Older lasers are “ablative,” meaning that they will take off the top layer of skin. The result is heavy downtime with a week or two of raw skin that requires the application of compresses, and month or more of redness afterward.  However, newer technology focuses on non-ablative, fractional technology, which does not remove the full top layer of skin.  Dr Schultz explains that these types of laser have little downtime-perhaps a day or two of redness, but in order to be effective multiple treatments are needed and the final result isn’t quite as good as what is seen from an ablative laser.

Laser peels can be done alone, or in combination with chemical peels. Kathleen Stegman, Founder of Midwest Medical Aesthetics, reports that she thinks combination treatments work best, stating that “a chemical peel done before any other procedure will help reduce the dead skin layer and allow the laser to perform better.”

Stegman prefers the non-burning lasers, such as the Portrait PSR, over other lasers such as Fraxel, CO2, and Erbium, because it does not burn skin. Instead, it uses a nitrogen plasma that goes under the skin while leaving the top layer intact to act a a wound dressing.

In the end, Laser peels offer the greatest result, but that comes with much greater expense. Downtime with a laser peel is often greater than that of chemical peels, and lasers are expensive, with treatments often running well over $1,000.


When considering peels, start with some light chemical peels. This will help you determine how sensitive your skin is to the process and also get you accustomed to it. Over time, if you want greater results, it is easy to move up to deeper peels or to laser technology. Those who simply seek brighter smoother skin will likely never have a need to go to the expense and downtime of a laser, while those with serious melasma, acne scarring, or those who seek serious treatment of fine and medium lines, will mostly likely find the best overall results from laser peels.

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