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Do Chemical Facial Peels Brighten Skin?

There are many cosmetic options available for lightening dark patches of the skin. These include serums, creams, laser treatment, and chemical peels, amongst others1. This article will explain the different types of chemical facial peel and how they can help.

What are chemical facial peels?

hemical peels are highly effective in rejuvenating the skin and removing dark spots1. Solutions such as alpha hydroxy acid are applied to pigmented skin, which must be performed by a professional as it may be dangerous if not managed properly1. Such solutions are applied to remove the top layers of skin, allowing new smoother skin layers to grow in their place2.

Chemical peels can be done at different depths; lighter peels can be performed more than once to achieve the desired results, while deeper peels typically offer more dramatic outcomes, though they take longer to recover from2. Although they may sound scary, they are considered a reasonably safe option for lightening the skin3.

What causes dark spots on the skin?

There are many reasons why your skin may develop dark spots. These can include medical conditions such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)4. Melasma is a reasonably common skin disorder; although how it occurs remains unconfirmed, it is likely to be connected to overexposure to the sun, leading to higher melanin production in the skin5.

PIH is also quite common, although it is especially prevalent in darker skin types6. This happens when the skin has been inflamed or injured, which can lead to changes to pigmentation6. It can also be seen as a side effect following other conditions, such as acne and eczema6.

In addition to medical conditions, other causes of dark spots7 include:

  • Chemical skincare products irritating your skin

  • Clearing of a pimple

  • Healing of a wound caused by a burn, cut, insect bite, etc.

  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy

  • Overexposure to solar radiation

  • Certain medications

You must consider how your dark spot has been generated so that you can treat it most appropriately. While a chemical facial peel can lighten the area, it may darken again if the underlying cause goes untreated. For example, if the dark spot may be a side effect of regular medication, it is crucial that you do not simply stop taking the drug. If you find yourself in that situation, seek advice from your doctor. However, if it’s because you’re using a new face cream, perhaps try not using it and see if the dark spots begin to lighten.

What types of chemical facial peel exist?

Chemical facial peels are determined by the depth of treatment that they offer3. Therefore, there are three main types3:

  • Superficial

  • Medium

  • Deep

Superficial chemical facial peels

These treat only the upper-most layers of the epidermis and are typically used to treat conditions such as acne, melasma, dyschromia, photodamage, and actinic keratoses3. There are many causes of dyschromia, although it is mostly linked with PIH8. In comparison, actinic keratoses are scaly, dry patches of skin caused by damage from the sun9.

Medium chemical facial peels

Medium-depth chemical peels penetrate down to the papillary dermis and are used for more severe dyschromia, multiple actinic keratoses, pigmentary disorders, and treating scars3. As with superficial peels, this may need to be repeated to achieve the results you are hoping for2.

Deep chemical facial peels

As well as affecting the epidermis and papillary dermis, deep peels go through to the reticular dermis3. This option is preferred for reducing the number of treatments required, although it may take longer to recover from3. They are typically used to treat deep scars, pronounced wrinkles, and severe photoaging causing dark areas of skin3.

What are the ingredients in chemical facial peels that lighten the skin?

Again, the ingredients used depend on the depth of chemical facial peel that you are having10. The following is a list of such ingredients used for each type of peel outlined in the previous section:

  • Superficial chemical facial peel: Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and phytic acid.

  • Medium chemical facial peel: Trichloroacetic acid and Jessner’s solution.

  • Deep chemical facial peel: Phenol (carbolic acid).

How each of these ingredients help is explained below.

Salicylic acid

This is naturally derived from willow bark10 and has proven effects in treating acne11. It removes dead skin cells from the skin’s surface and can be used to lighten dark patches of the skin without causing irritation that other chemicals may lead to10. However, it may lead to some dryness in affected areas, so follow-up moisturization is important10.

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid comes from sugarcane and is widely respected as being the best-performing acid by skincare experts12. This stimulates collagen production and clears dead skin cells, meaning that skin becomes firmer and rejuvenated10. In addition, it is successful at lightening surface dark spots on the skin, although it may cause some irritation in sensitive skin10.

Lactic acid

This is found in milk, although vegan options are available13. It exfoliates the skin well, although it has limited benefits in terms of lightening10. An advantage of this product is that it is less likely to cause irritation10.

Mandelic acid

Mandelic acid is a versatile product that comes from almonds and can be used for various treatments, including lightening dark patches14. It is kind to sensitive skin and more suitable for people with darker skin tones10.

Phytic acid

This acts more as an antioxidant than as an acid, as it absorbs iron molecules in the skin that may damage DNA15. It is, therefore, non-irritating and so ideal for sensitive skin10. It comes from grains and legumes16, and demonstrates excellent results in lightening dark spots on the skin, particularly those caused by melasma17.

Trichloroacetic acid

As this acid penetrates deeper than those previously discussed, it is ideal for treating darker pigmentation or larger areas of discoloration18. However, you are likely to need a week to recover from this, and it is not recommended if you have sensitive skin10.

Jessner’s solution

This was named after Max Jessner, a dermatologist who developed the product during the 1940s10. It is very popular because of its excellent results in skin rejuvenation, including reducing dark spots associated with aging19. The concentration and balance of ingredients within the solution can be adapted for different skin types and more use with all levels of chemical facial peel, although it is most commonly used for medium-depth peels10.

Phenol (carbolic acid)

This is the most potent agent used in chemical facial peels and is used for the treatment of precancerous growths and severe acne scars10. It penetrates to the deepest layers of the skin and, as such, should only be applied by a professional10. It can also be painful when used and cause a downtime of up to three weeks, with redness potentially lasting for months afterward10. However, the results are excellent, with skin appearing fully rejuvenated and lightened10.

How should the skin be looked after following a chemical facial peel?

Aftercare following a chemical facial peel is essential, particularly if you have had a medium or deep peel. The following lifestyle choices are recommended20 to ensure that your skin recovers fully and that the lightening effects last as long as possible:

  • Moisturize and hydrate. Make sure that you keep up with a regular skincare routine in terms of moisturizing and hydrating. If possible, avoid using too much make-up as this may cause damage to your skin.

  • Eat healthily. Ensure you drink enough water to keep your body (including your skin) hydrated. Also, by eating a sensible balance of vitamins and minerals, you will be taking on many nutrients required for healthy skin, and that help to prevent signs of aging, such as dark spots.

  • Use high-quality sunscreen. One of the most efficient means of protecting your skin from becoming damaged or darker is to avoid overexposure to the sun. Therefore, if you are going into the sunshine, make sure you’re wearing high-quality sunscreen (SPF 30 or above).

  • Healthy choices. Exercising regularly will help to keep your skin hydrated. Also, stopping smoking will improve skin health, as will drinking less alcohol.


There are many reasons why dark spots may develop on your skin, and chemical facial peels can help with all of these. However, it’s important to treat the underlying cause as well as just helping with the symptoms.

Chemical facial peels have different ingredients for different depths of treatment, and these varying depths are used depending on what is needed to be treated and how severe the darkness is. Following treatment, it’s critical to continue to look after your skin by using sunscreen, staying hydrated, and eating healthily.

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