Chemical Face Peel | MedStar Health
Image of a woman receiving a chemical peel

Whether it’s acne scars, sun damage, or wrinkles from age, your facial skin can experience a wide range of wear and tear over the years. If skin damage in the face has left you unhappy with your appearance, a chemical peel may be able to help. Also known as chemexfoliation or derma-peeling, a chemical peel is a facial resurfacing technique that can improve the texture and tone of your skin by removing damaged outer layers. With damaged skin removed, a new layer of skin can grow that is smoother and younger in appearance.

A chemical peel can address:

  • Certain scars, including acne scars
  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Irregular skin pigmentation
  • Rough skin
  • Scaly patches
  • Sun-damaged skin

Please note that this is not a substitute for a facelift, though it may be performed in conjunction with one. By itself, a chemical peel can’t treat deep scars, lines, wrinkles, or loose or sagging skin.

Planning and recovery

What to expect

During your initial consultation, it’s important that you discuss your expectations with your doctor. The procedure will be explained in detail, including its risks and benefits, the recovery period, and the costs. If you have a history of herpes, you should inform your doctor prior to the procedure.

You will also discuss with your doctor which type of chemical peel is right for you:

  • Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peel, also known as a superficial or light chemical peel, is the mildest of the peel formulas. AHA peels generally consist of a mix of acids such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and maleic acid. These can provide smoother, brighter-looking skin with less recovery time than other peel methods. AHA peels may be used to treat acne, dryness, fine wrinkling, and uneven pigmentation. Multiple treatments are generally necessary, and can be applied weekly or at longer intervals.
  • Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peel, also known as a blue peel or medium chemical peel, can treat fine surface wrinkles, superficial blemishes, and pigment problems. TCA peels, unlike AHA peels, affect both the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) and the upper part of the middle layer (dermis). More than one TCA peel may be required to achieve your desired results, but recovery times are shorter than with a phenol peel.
  • Phenol peel, also known as a deep chemical peel, can treat coarse facial wrinkles, scars, sun-damaged, blotchy or damaged skin, and pre-cancerous growths. A phenol peel can affect deeper parts of the skin, reaching the lower dermal layer. Because phenol can lighten your skin, your skin pigmentation may determine your eligibility for a phenol peel.

You will be instructed on how to prepare for your peel treatment. Sometimes Retin-A, a prescription medication derived from vitamin A, is used to pretreat the skin. This thins out the skin’s surface layer, allowing the solution to penetrate more deeply and evenly. If your skin won’t tolerate Retin-A pretreatment, an AHA cream may be used instead. You may have to spend a month or more in the pretreatment phase before your doctor will schedule your actual peel.

During treatment, your skin will be thoroughly cleansed. Then, your doctor will apply the chemical solution to your face. You may feel a stinging sensation during application. The application process generally takes about 10-15 minutes. You may need multiple treatments before the desired effects are achieved.

Recovery after treatment

After an AHA peel, you may experience some temporary flaking, scaling, redness, and dryness of the skin. However, these conditions will disappear as the skin adjusts to treatment. After a TCA or phenol peel, your doctor may prescribe a mild pain medication to relieve any tingling or throbbing you may feel. If you’re given pain medication for the procedure, you will need to arrange for someone to drive you home.

If tape was used to cover your face, it will be removed after a day or two. A crust or scab will form on the treated area. To help your face heal properly, it’s essential that you follow your doctor’s specific post-treatment instructions.

With a TCA peel, the discomfort and swelling you may experience will subside within the first week. In about one week to 10 days, your new skin will be apparent and you should be healed sufficiently to return to normal activities.

With a phenol peel, new skin will begin to form in about 7 to 10 days. Your face will be very red at first, gradually fading to a pinkish color over the following weeks to months. About two weeks after treatment, you may return to work and resume some of your normal activities. Your skin will be healed enough for you to wear makeup.

Protecting your skin from the sun is important following any of these chemical peels. Ask your doctor to recommend a sunblock with adequate UVA and UVB protection and use it every day.

Our locations

Distance from Change locationEnter your location

MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

3800 Reservoir Road NW,
BLES Building
1st. Floor
Washington, D.C., 20007


MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center

106 Irving St. NW
POB North
Ste. 3400
Washington, D.C., 20010

MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center

9105 Franklin Square Drive
Suite 214
Rosedale, MD 21237


MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at McLean

6862 Elm Street
Suite 800
McLean, VA 22101


Frequently asked questions

  • Am I a candidate for a chemical peel?

    You may be a good candidate if:

    • You’re physically healthy
    • Your expectations are realistic
    • You understand the risks that come with this procedure

    You may not be a good candidate if:

    • You’re prone to abnormal skin scarring
    • You have a dark skin tone or complexion
    • You have used acne treatments within the last year
    • You have a skin condition or use a medication that makes the skin more sensitive
  • What are the risks of a chemical peel?

    Chemical peels do pose some risks. These risks include:

    • Color change in the skin (temporary or permanent)
    • Infection
    • Reactivation of cold sores (herpes) if you’ve had them in the past
    • Scarring
    • Pain
  • How much does a chemical peel cost?

    The costs for chemical peels vary based on your specific needs. When you come in for your consultation visit, we’ll be better able to discuss fees in detail with you. Our staff will also review the financing options available and help with any payment questions you may have.