Chemical peels may sound scary but they're now better than ever. So should you have one? Facialist Abigail James talks you through it

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The word ‘peel’ can evoke memories of Samantha’s disastrous one in Sex and the City. But that red rash of a reaction was down to old-school methods. Skin peels have come on leaps and bounds since then and can be game changers.


Their aim is to exfoliate (remove) cells from the surface and correct imperfections. They also speed up collagen production to give you vibrant, smooth skin. Peels generally work within the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). The kind of stronger peels, such as a Jessner Peel, often used for severe acne and deep ageing lines, work within the dermis to force the skin into creating a whole new layer. They can result in redness, swelling and full-skin shedding, so require downtime of one to two weeks. They are not my chosen method of treating the skin. Those with thin, delicate,  reactive skins  would do best to steer clear of them.


The two key points of difference are:

1. How deep the peel will penetrate
2. What the intended action is

These points are determined by the type of acid, its concentration, the pH of the peel, how many layers are applied to the skin and the length of time it’s left on for. In general, the deeper the peel, the more downtime, disruption to the skin and risk of prolonged healing.


The lower the pH, the deeper the peel will penetrate. It’s possible to have a 40 per cent peel [ie the concentration of peel ingredient] that has a high pH, which means its impact will be minimal, and a 20 per cent peel that has a low pH, which means it can be more aggressive. The pH scale runs from 1 (acid) to 14 (alkaline). The pH of skin is 5.5, which is slightly acidic, and is why soap, with its pH of 8–9 has a drying effect. Water has a pH of around 7; face wipes have one of around 10.


These are from a plant source and are part of the peeling family. They are the gentlest type of peel and create very little sensation on the skin, so they’re usually suitable for all skin types, including sensitive ones. Perfect for a quick brightening, skin smoothing and freshening-up, they’re great for all-round skin health. They work in a Pac-Man type of way, gently eating up and dissolving dead cells on the surface of the skin. After an enzyme peel, I find skin looks and feels radiant for a number of days.


These are naturally occurring acids that help to exfoliate the surface, as well as speed up skin cell turnover. They have a deeper and longer lasting impact than enzymes. Many brands have professional peels that are made up of a combination of AHAs to give a rounded result. They can often be found in your home skin products, over-the-counter exfoliants, cleansers and masks in lower concentrations


Some peels are perfectly safe and effective to have with no previous skin preparation. They’re often included as part of general facials as an effective method of exfoliating and boosting the skin. They’re great if you need a quick freshen up before attending a special event. I would recommend using a gentle cleanser and no exfoliant at home for at least two days after the treatment and it’s essential you wear an SPF. Other peels may require you to have prepped the skin with certain products, so that you get the best result and minimal downtime. Cut out any retinol products one week before the treatment and only resume using them at least seven days afterwards or you’re likely to experience sensitivity.

After your peel, avoid perfumed skincare and high levels of aromatherapy as these may irritate the skin. Cut out strong cleansing washes that contain AHAs, as well as antibacterial ingredients such as salicylic acid. Instead, opt for gentle, soothing cleansers for three to four days. You might need to factor in your work-life schedule for medium-strength peels – your skin might be slightly flushed immediately after, then look vibrant for a few days. By day four to five, it might feel a little dry and itchy but by day seven to ten, it will be more vibrant than ever. If you’re having a course of peels these are usually staggered two weeks apart to maximise results.

Skincare peeling ingredients

  • LACTIC ACID: SOUR MILK: good for hydration
  • GLYCOLIC ACID: SUGAR: good exfoliator
  • MANDELIC ACID: bitter almonds – oily – problem, antibacterial, larger molecule than lactic
  • CITRIC ACID: LEMONS: good for pigmentation
  • AZELAIC ACID: apples – good for breakouts
  • KOJIC ACID: mushrooms – good for pigmentation

This is an extract taken from  Love Your Skin  by Abigail James, £20, Published by Kyle Books, Photography by Jenni Hare

Find out more about Abigail James on her  website  and follow her on Instagram  here