If you’ve ever picked up a product and taken one look at a label using the words “peel” or “acid” and immediately backed away, you’re not alone. Visions of red, flaky skin and potential burns will do a lot to turn someone off the latest skin-care trend. But, this is no trend. It’s a tried-and-true way to reveal better skin. We spoke to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross, who also happens to have a successful skin-care line based on—you guess it—at-home peels. Here’s what you need to know about acids and peels.
First Of All, Don’t Be Afraid—But Be Aware
Many over-the-counter peel or acid options are safe for you to use without a high risk of irritation. “It’s not a thing that’s going to give you redness and flakiness—people often think of that Sex and the City episode, where Samantha emerged like she walked through a fire—this is not that, this is a new age,” says Dr. Gross. Basically, most things you buy over-the-counter aren’t going to be strong enough to do serious damage, and formulations have come along way to reduce any possible irritation by adding soothing and calming ingredients and using more palatable percentages of actives. But as a general rule, pay attention to your skin and reduce the amount you use the product if you do find your skin reacting.
Why You Should Use A Peel
“If you look at what the basic things are that everybody looks to improve, you can divide it into three categories,” says Dr. Gross. “Everyone wants lines and wrinkle to look better, they want the texture and surface of their skin to look more smooth and radiant, and then you have colour issues—red issues, brown issues—they want to improve.” The good news is, a peel helps with all of these issues, sloughing off dead skin to reveal a brighter complexion and encouraging collagen production. But an under appreciated benefit of peels is how they help your other products perform better. “No matter what product a person uses, using a peel first and layering over your serum or moisturizer that you love, or even just putting on makeup, is going to look even better and work even better.” This is because you’ve basically prepped your canvas (aka your face) by using a peel. It will allow the other skin-care products to penetrate more deeply, or in the case of makeup, allow you to get rid of dead skin.
Ditch Scrubs And Use Exfoliating Peels Instead
“I personally prefer solutions as the means of exfoliating versus scrubs,” says Dr. Gross. There are a couple reasons why. The first is, Dr. Gross doesn’t believe in injuring the skin to make it better—and you can definitely injure your skin with abrasive scrubs that can create micro-tears—“scrubs are basically like sandpaper.” Second, with a solution you get a much more even removal, allowing for more control and consistency.
Higher Concentration of Acids Isn’t Always Better
Dr. Gross swears by his own method of multiple acids at lower concentrations, than higher doses of acids for a more dramatic effect. This allows his products to be used daily, and to be more effective when used long-term. It also means, no red, flaky irritated down time. “If you consider the skin, the epidermis, it very often is diagrammed to look like a brick wall,” says Dr. Gross. “So acids at high concentrations actually are going to destroy and poison the bricks. What I do is I actually take the cement between the bricks and gently dissolve them, so the bricks just fall gently off.” Bottom line? If you want something that you can maintain in your daily routine, that will make your skin feel good right away, but that won’t be super reactive, acids at low doses are the way to go.
Look For AHA and BHA
The acids we’re talking about here tend to fall into the category of AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) or BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid). Dr. Gross uses a combination of both of these in his daily peels, to reap some serious anti-aging and skin-texture rewards. Both of these categories of acids work to exfoliate and make the skin look and feel firmer and smoother. There are differences between the two, which is why you’ll often see them used in tandem. AHAs (the most common are glycolic or lactic acid) are water soluble and work on the skin’s surface and are a great option for people with very dry skin. BHAs (often salicylic acid) work on the surface and in the pore—they’re oil soluble so they are pulled deeper into the skin and great for those suffering from acne or those who have enlarged pores.
What Do I Need To Keep In Mind?
If you do find that you have a bit of irritation, use your solution less. Inflammation can be an indicator that your skin is out of balance; so don’t try to push through. You can build up a tolerance over time, but it’s best to start low and slow if your skin is prone to sensitivity. Also, it’s a great idea to pair your peel with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid to make sure that you’re keeping your complexion on an even keel.
Here are a few products we love:
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $110
These daily peels come in pre-soaked pads with two steps—one which is the active peel, and the next, to be applied two minutes later, which helps to restore the skin’s PH. The combination of five acids at low doses makes this an every day staple, without the down time and redness. For a truly tailored skin-care experience courtesy of Dr. Gross, make sure to head to Gee Beauty and try The Alpha Beta Lift and Lighten Photo Facial ($450) which uses acids and IPL to truly transform your skin! Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $110
Glossier Solution, $29
Containing both AHAs and BHAs this aptly-named solution helps to clear acne, and gently exfoliate to improve skin tone and texture while also hydrating with glucerin, aloe and niacinamide. Glossier Solution, $29
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, $68.25
This cult-status beloved product gets a lot of hype, but it’s because it really works. Lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid and salicylic acid gives this peel it’s active properties and though you might be turned off by the smell, you won’t be by the results. Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, $68.25
Goop Exfoliating Instant Facial, $175
Not all acids and peels are leave on products, and one of the newest to Canada comes with a Gwyneth Paltrow stamp of approval. This is one potent mask, and includes AHAs in the ingredient list. Only leave on this mask for a maximum of three minutes and only use it a couple times a week. Although it’s immediately tingly and comes with those warnings, it leave your skin soft and smooth and looking amazing. Goop Exfoliating Instant Facial, $175
Pai Skincare Copaiba Deep Cleanse AHA Mask, $60
Although many peels aren’t necessarily natural or green options, you can definitely find a natural option if you prefer. Acids, and AHAs in particular have many natural sources including milk and fruit. This AHA mask from Pai features AHAs derived from fruits, beets and sugar cane. Pai Skincare Copaiba Deep Cleanse AHA Mask, $60
(Story by Contributing Editor, Alexandra Donaldson)