Salicylic acid peel is an acid solution that, when applied topically to the skin, can often reduce scarring, fine lines, wrinkles, and other blemishes. It will usually leave one’s skin fresher and younger looking. Since salicylic acid is a chemical compound, there are certain things you should be aware of before undergoing skin peel treatments, especially if you plan to do them in your home. There are other chemical skin peel products available, but it is generally considered the mildest. Nevertheless, it’s best to start treatments with a low-concentration solution that one’s skin will be able to tolerate.
The following paragraphs will provide you with an overview of what this peeling agent is, how to begin treatments, and what those treatments consist of, as well as the expected results, treatment recovery time, and possible side effects. A few precautions worth taking into account are also noted.
What Is Salicylic Acid and What Does It Do?
Salicylic acid, also known as 2-hydroxybenzoic acid, was originally produced from a substance that comes from the bark of the willow tree, although much of the compound that is in use today has been chemically synthesized from sodium phenolate, carbon dioxide, and sulfuric acid. The substance found in willow bark is a hormone called salicin. This hormone plays an important role in plant growth and development. Salicin has also been recognized as having medicinal properties for at least 2,500 years. In the early nineteenth century, chemists found a way to extract salicin from the willow bark. Soon after, it was found that the extract can be converted into a sugar and another compound that, when oxidized, produces 2-hydroxybenzoic acid. It’s not only willow bark that produces the extract from which the acid can be produced. A number of different fruits also contain the extract, as do several vegetables.
Whether it is produced from salicin extract or it is synthesized, salicylic acid has long been known for its ability to relieve pain as well as to reduce fever. In recent years, it has found wide use in many skin care products, especially in dandruff treatment products. It is also an active ingredient in a number of upset stomach relief products. It functions as both an anti-inflammatory agent and one that creates enzymes that produce pro-inflammatory mediators. It has antibacterial properties as well.
When used as a topical agent as is the case when certain skin conditions are involved, the acid solution breaks down lipids (i.e., oils and fats) in the upper layers of the skin. It also has a cleansing effect on the pores. It burns the skin as well. Consequently it could do damage to the skin if used in concentrations that are too high. Most over-the-counter peel solutions were at one time limited to 2%, but solutions as high as 20% and even 30% are now readily available. Higher-concentration solutions need to be applied with extreme caution even though a 2-hydroxybenzoic acid peel is gentler than most other chemical peels.
There are three categories of treatments: superficial peels, medium peels, and deep peels. For medium and deep peels, several treatments using a milder concentration are usually better than those starting with a higher concentration. As far as your integument is concerned, more is not necessarily better as far as the concentration of the acid solution is concerned.
What Is the Best Way to Begin Treatment?
You can always begin treatment at home starting with a low-concentration solution. Just be sure to read the precautionary notes that come with the product. It’s especially important to keep the acid away from the eyebrows, eyelids, and lips, as the skin in these areas is too sensitive to be using a peeling agent on. Unless the condition you plan to be using the treatment for is a mild one, it’s usually best to first see a dermatologist. Your skin type, as well as what it is you are trying to remove, reduce, or correct, will often have a great deal to do in determining the strength of the solution that would be most appropriate for your treatment. Most likely, you will be starting off on a 10% or 20% solution and possibly graduating to a higher strength in several steps over several treatments. These treatments can in some cases take several months and your skin will need to recover after each treatment. Less serious conditions can sometimes be treated in three sessions or less and may require no more than a 10% or 20% solution. Over time, your skin will become more and more tolerant of the peel and will be able to handle higher strengths should they become necessary.
If you do decide to treat yourself at home, a 2 oz. bottle of acid solution is likely all that you will need. A little will go quite a long way. These over-the-counter solutions also come in kits, with a kit generally consisting of the peeling agent solution, a peel prep solution, and a neutralizing spray. You might want to check the price of a kit against the price of the peeling agent solution alone since you can prep your skin with a gentle cleanser and an application of alcohol prior to treating it. As far as the neutralizer is concerned, a half cup of baking soda in a cup of water works just fine. Prices vary considerably, especially for the kits, so it may be worth your while to shop around. Some of these products contain other acids or chemicals in addition to salicylic acid, so it will pay to either read the label or get a recommendation for a commercial product from a dermatologist.
What Does the Treatment Consist of?
First, you will want to cleanse your face with a gentle cleanser and then apply alcohol to the skin before beginning the actual treatment. The alcohol serves to remove oils from the surface of the skin. Removing the oils allows the acid solution to penetrate deeper and more evenly. It’s also recommended that you apply Vaseline to your lips and eyebrows for protection from the acid. The acid solution can then be gently applied to one’s skin, either by yourself or by a trained specialist. You might initially feel a slight amount of stinging or itching, but both should dissipate in a few minutes. The process should never be a painful one if the correct concentration has been applied. A typical treatment will usually take between 10 and 30 minutes after which the skin will most likely appear red and shiny, a condition that will fade away in a short time. Once your skin has been rinsed off, a high-SPF sunscreen should be applied. It’s important to wear sunscreen at all times when you’re outdoors while you’re undergoing this type of treatment since your integument will be extra-sensitive to sunlight during the healing process. It might be best to forgo a summer vacation at the beach or on the water, taking a hike at higher elevations, or skiing during the weeks between and immediately following treatment sessions. The best advice is to become a sunscreen fanatic during the time you are undergoing treatments.
What Are the Expected Results and Recovery Time?
Any itching or stinging sensation you may experience will usually go away in a few short minutes. Once this happens, the acid has done its job, although you can be expected to experience some peeling later on. Peeling usually occurs about three days after the treatment and can last for up to a week. Not everyone will experience the same degree of peeling. Some people peel very little or not at all, while others may peel rather heavily. Everyone will feel a sensation of having a very dry skin for some time. The frequent use of skin moisturizer is recommended. Once the peeling has ceased, the results of the treatment session should become apparent and you will usually be able to determine at that time if you need one or more follow-on sessions.
What Are the Side Effects or Precautions that Should Be Taken?
The most common side effect from having these treatments is the peeling. The peeling in itself is harmless, but you should be careful not to pick at any of the peels or flakes that may appear. Your skin might also take on a pinkish tinge for a day or two, but this is normal. A frosting-like substance may also appear on your skin following a treatment. This is harmless and is due to the formation of salicylic acid crystals, which can be easily washed or wiped off. If you have undergone a deep peel treatment, your skin may take on a somewhat mangy appearance. This is of course harmless, but you probably won’t feel like attending a fancy-dress ball for a day or two until your manginess disappears. On occasion, blisters, scabbing, or crusting may appear, or the skin may become extremely sensitive, but none of these conditions are particularly common and will not be experienced by most people. Scarring or changes in pigmentation due to these treatments are quite rare.
Makeup can be applied following treatment although it would be best to wait for a few hours. Rough sponges or harsh cleansers should not be used on treated areas for at least a week or until any peeling that may be present has subsided. While exercise is good for you, strenuous activity should be avoided for a day or two. The reason for this is that perspiration can cause the treated areas to sting and this stinging sensation could last for several hours.
It’s generally advisable that you do not undergo peel treatments if you’re pregnant, although it has not been established whether or not any harm could result. The same applies if you’re breastfeeding. Some sources indicate that it is safe to undergo treatments while breastfeeding, but in any event, it would be good to check with your physician, obstetrician, or dermatologist to see what might be safe and what might not be.
If you’re allergic to aspirin or other salicylic compounds, you should not use salicylic acid to treat your skin. Lactic acid or glycolic acid would be a preferable choice.
In general, an acid solution peel is safe to use under most conditions. If deep peel treatments seem necessary, it might be best to have them done by a specialist. Just remember that several treatments with a weaker solution are generally better than one or two treatments with a stronger solution and they will produce the same results. Don’t forget to use sunscreen frequently and liberally.