As our skin-care cabinets become increasingly filled with medical-grade formulations, finding the at-home equivalent of a chemical peel has become easier and more accessible. There are high-concentration acids that promise to resurface your skin overnight, peel pads that leave your complexion super smooth, and masks that effectively melt away dead skin cells in 15 minutes flat. But though these options are fairly close to what you’d get in an esthetician’s office, there’s nothing quite like the real deal. That’s because certain ingredient concentrations can only be used under the guidance of a professional, which means you typically can’t access the heaviest hitting stuff in your own bathroom. That is, unless you’ve got a professional literally sitting in your bathroom with you. Enter: The virtual chemical peel, which I had a chance to try thanks to the team at Aristocrat Plastic Surgery and a steady WiFi connection.
Chemical peels are effectively the most amped-up type of exfoliation that you can get, and use intense actives to literally peel away the surface of your skin. The result, as you can imagine, is a baby-soft complexion that looks like it’s never once been exposed to the elements. “A peel is an anti-aging treatment with a host of benefits that include exfoliation, but it also builds collagen, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, boosts radiance, shrinks pore size, diminishes dark spots, clears the complexion, and can even help with rosacea,” Dennis Gross, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare, previously told Well+Good. Because of the hardcore ingredients that are involved in this type of treatment, you get months’ worth of exfoliation in only a few days.
While the process usually takes place in a dermatologist or esthetician’s office, translating it over video chat was surprisingly simple. The process started with a virtual consultation, during which Louisa Agate, a medical aesthetician at Aristocrat Plastic Surgery, took a close look at my skin and asked what particular concerns I was hoping to treat with the peel. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne scarring have always been my biggest issues, so I told her that I wanted a formula that would even my skin tone and texture and buff away any dullness.
A few days later, I received my personalized peel kit in the mail. In it, there was everything I needed to prep my skin for the treatment, the treatment itself, plus two after-care products (a vitamin C and a retinoid). “What I put in was a combination of trichloroacetic acid, retinoic acid, mandelic acid, resorcinol, a little bit of salicylic acid, and a lactic acid,” says Agate. “The PCA helps with the texture, the lactic and mandelic acids help to hydrate and calm the skin, and also helps to unclog the pores to make the other ingredients more efficient.”
On the morning of my actual peel, I FaceTimed with Agate so she could guide me through the step-by-step application process. I started with clean, dry skin, and used alcohol wipes to remove any leftover grease so that the peeling products would be able to fully penetrate. Then, using a q-tip, I applied a thin coat of Aquaphor to my eyebrows, lash line, nostrils, and eye and lip corners to protect those areas from peeling. I used a cotton swab to brush the acid peel onto my face, using long, slow strokes from the top of my forehead down to the bottom of my chin. I continued this process four more times until all the product was used up, starting in different spots and alternating between vertical and horizontal brush strokes to make sure that my entire face was evenly covered. After the second layer, my skin started to tingle, and by the fourth pass, it was nearly on fire. Agate had me watch for white patches called “frosting,” which indicate that the peel is really working.
After I had applied five layers of the acid peel, I repeated the process with a retinoid serum. According to Agate, because retinoids help to stimulate cell turnover, this step helped to ensure I would get a deeper, more even peel overall. I left the serums on for the rest of the day (and got some pretty weird looks at the dog park, considering they turned my skin the color of a carrot), then rinsed them off with water before bed. After that, my only job was to wait for the peeling to start.
The next morning, I noticed some light flaking around my lips, and by the end of the night, my skin was shedding like a snake. So what, exactly, was happening? “If you look at the skin under a magnifying lens, it looks like fish scales, which are being held down by an intercellular glue,” says Agate. “The acids that I put together dissolve the intercellular glue that holds those scales down so as it dissolves that glue, your skin starts to peel off and shed.”
The peeling continued for three more days—at one point, it got so intense that I had to cancel a date—and it took every ounce of willpower in my body not to pick it off. Resisting was worth it, though, because by the end of the weekend my skin looked better than it has since I hit puberty. The acne scarring on my cheeks had completely disappeared, and there was no sign of the hyperpigmentation that surrounded my lips since last summer. As someone who uses a lot of exfoliating acids in my regular routine, I was shocked at what a difference the medical-grade stuff made on my complexion. It had a steady, even, inside-out glow, and weeks later I’m still reaping the benefits of its effects.
Exfoliating on the reg is important, too. Check out the video below to find out why.