I’ve worked in the beauty industry for most of my adult life, so when it comes to lotions, potions, and procedures, if you’ve dreamt it, feared it, or loathed it, I’ve probably tried it. At the ripe old age of 24, I giddily succumbed to a big-name celeb dermatologist as he injected Botox into my forehead to erase furrows that didn’t exist.
Years later, I spent an evening in front of the bathroom mirror massaging a gumball-size lump of renegade Restylane from the cheek into which it migrated back into the nasolabial fold where it was originally placed to—you guessed it—erase a furrow that almost didn’t exist. In the year leading up to my wedding, my skin prep was so militant, I left no pore unpurged, no wrinkle unfilled. When I look at the pictures, I may be the most “well-rested” person I’ve ever seen. Little do people know how much work was involved.
But it was somewhere around my wedding shower seven years ago that I started receiving compliment after compliment about how radiant my skin looked. Friends said I had the glow of a woman in love. At a business meeting, I was told I looked “dewy.” Not to take anything away from my husband, but my newfound luminosity had less to do with the chemical cascade released by our looming nuptials and more with the chemical blend in the peels I had added to my anti-aging arsenal. For all of my go- forth-and-try attitude, when it came to peels, I was uncharacteristically anxious. Just the words “chemical peel” conjured images of Sex and the City’s Samantha’s burned red face in the episode featuring Carrie’s book party. She wore a black hat and veil to hide the damage. Remember? Shudder.
“Women tend to be apprehensive about peels because there are those that are quite deep and require downtime, but a series of light peels is just as effective at quickly removing large amounts of the dead cells that make skin look dull, hold onto discoloration, and can clog pores and cause acne,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, co-director of DC’s Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. “You’re not going to get that effect by using a scrub, and though it seems counterintuitive, peels are actually gentler and can be formulated with acids better for those with sensitive skin.”
The ingredients most commonly used include alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, and tartaric acid)—which are helpful for sun-damaged skin to even out skin tone and pigmentation and create that radiant glow, says Tanzi —and beta-hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid, which go a little deeper into the skin for better acne control and stronger exfoliation. Retinoic acid may also be added to loosen blackheads, reduce oil, and even out discoloration.
The Vitalize peel I started with eight years ago is a blend of salicylic and lactic acids, and is still my monthly go-to when my cellular turnover is even slower, my complexion even duller, and—with two kids under 4—my lack of beauty sleep so copious that I will likely only catch up once I’m dead.
The process is simple: After my face is cleansed and wiped down with an alcohol solution, the liquid blend of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol (a disinfectant) is applied. As each area is covered, there’s a bit of warmth, which subsides within minutes— by the time the peel is being applied to my chin, my forehead isn’t tingling anymore. Up to three layers of formula may be applied, depending on what’s going on (if there’s extra pigmentation from a breakout or if I’ve skipped a month or two). When my last pregnancy left me with a hint of melasma, we went for the full three layers, and the discoloration flaked off with just one treatment. After a few minutes, a solution with retinoic acid is applied for even deeper exfoliation. You’ll see an instant glow, though with a touch of yellow, which can sometimes look like a bit of a tan, other times like a hint of jaundice, and is gone as soon as the face is washed (wait at least four hours).
About three days later, the fun really starts, and by fun I mean peeling. You need to drown your skin in good moisturizer to stop the excessive amount of flaking skin. The experience has taught me that the best day to get a peel is either the day before an event, so you still have the post-peel glow, or ten days prior to an event, so the peeling is finished. Expect the worst days to be three through seven. But by the time it’s over, you really do look smoother, more even-toned, and, dare I say, dewy. Like one of the most well-rested people you’ve ever seen.
A do-it-yourself peel is designed to work just like mild professional ones, but with a lower percentage of active ingredients to prevent stripping and over-peeling.
RéVive Glycolic Renewal Peel Professional System
Known among aestheticians as the Rolls-Royce of at-home peels, this kit is glycolic acid–based and combines cleansing pads with a pore-penetrating gel to tackle discoloration and minimize fine lines.
Best for Smoothing & Hydrating
Omorovicza Copper Peel
Thanks to a blend of blue copper paste and lactic acid, this foaming two-phase peel is gentle and hydrating, yet works wonders when it comes to making pores appear smaller and skin tone smoother. Each box delivers 24 weekly applications, making it a steal in the long run.
Best to Brighten & Reduce Discoloration
Philosophy the Microdelivery Triple-Acid Brightening Pads
Dark spots and discoloration fade fast with this triple-acid formula, which contains mandelic, phytic, and azelaic acids to clarify skin and visibly brighten in one use. The 12 individually wrapped pads are easy to use.
Best for Oily & Blemish-Prone Skin
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Peel Original Formula (30 applications)
This patented two-step towelette peel has a huge fan base, thanks to the ingredients that are packed in it—retinol, ubiquinone, and resveratrol to treat blemishes, balance oily skin, minimize the appearance of pores, and fade discoloration from previous breakouts.
Best for Oily & Blemish-Prone Skin
Peter Thomas Roth Un-Wrinkle Peel
Formulated with alpha, beta, and gamma hydroxy acids to exfoliate and amino acids to help repair collagen and plump the skin, these pads are gentle enough for dry skin and can be used several times a week to reduce crow’s feet and soften forehead and smile lines. 60 pads per container.