Chemical peels and lasers are both outpatient procedures to exfoliate (peel layers off) the skin. Both types of procedures offer several “levels” that determine how deep the exfoliation is. Exfoliating the skin can improve its texture and reduce wrinkles, acne scars and other blemishes. Chemical peels are cheaper and faster, but light peels must be repeated every four weeks for several months to maintain the look.
No matter how effective the products in your skincare lineup claim to be, there’s really nothing more powerful (and fast-acting) than getting a laser treatment or a peel on your face. Both of these treatments can do wonders for the skin, but each caters to different needs. So, if you’re wondering, “Should I get a laser treatment or a peel?” ponder no further.
Both of these treatments get a bad rap for being painful or taking too long to heal, but the myths are just not true. Lasers and peels have been around for a long time, and the technology in lasers and acids in peels are constantly evolving and changing. Nowadays, the process is much less painful, takes less time to heal, and offers benefits that last longer than any lotion or potion could.
The Main Benefits of Chemical Peels and Laser Treatments
Let’s start with laser treatments, which target multiple skin issues, such as broken vessels, wrinkles, pigment, or scarring. There are two types of lasers: ablative (breaks the skin’s surface and has longer healing time) and non-ablative (doesn’t break through the surface of the skin and has much less downtime). “Some lasers offer mild resurfacing with little to no downtime, while others can have a week of pink, swollen skin,” says Mattioli.
A peel, on the other hand, can range from mild to deep, depending on what you’re trying to treat. Milder peels can help even out skin tone, pores, and texture, while medium-strength peels will target discolouration and fine lines. “Peels work by dissolving the desmosomes that hold the skin cells together, allowing for them to shed more easily,” says Mattioli. “Removing this outermost layer results in immediately softer, smoother skin.” Since laser treatments now target scars and wrinkles more easily, they’ve replaced a lot of stronger peels on the market.
The Differences Between Chemical Peels and Laser Treatments
Chemical peels and laser treatments are skin resurfacing procedures that remove old skin to promote new skin growth. Both treatments are commonly used to minimize acne scars and hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and correct sun damage issues such as age spots.
Foremost, what differentiates chemical peels and laser treatments is the procedure itself. As the name already implies, one utilizes chemical solutions to remove skin and the other uses lasers.
Chemical peels use acid solutions of varying strengths to treat the outer layer of skin. There are three types of peels: superficial, medium, and deep peels. Superficial chemical peels (e.g. VI Peel® and lactic acid peels) are gentle and utilize mild acids to exfoliate the skin lightly. Medium chemical peels (e.g. glycolic acid peels and TCA peels) are more intrusive and penetrate the middle and outer layer of skin. Deep chemical peels (e.g. phenol acid peels) are the strongest, using powerful acids to not only penetrate the skin but remove damaged skin cells.
Laser resurfacing treatments use beams of light to penetrate the skin, removing one layer at a time. The laser method allows for a more precise removal process, but is generally more expensive than chemical peels, according to 2017 statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. There are two types of lasers: ablative and non-ablative. Ablative lasers (e.g. CO2 and erbium) are more intense but provide the best results by vaporizing the skin. Non-ablative lasers (e.g. Fraxel) are less intrusive to the skin and heat the skin instead without destroying it. Keep in mind that because non-ablative lasers are not as powerful as ablative lasers, multiple sessions may be required for best results.
However, Dr. Shah notes that although chemical peels and laser treatments are different, there is some overlap in the benefits they offer and the issues they correct. “For example, a strong TCA (trichloroacetic acid) chemical peel can provide a resurfacing similar to a resurfacing laser, or both peels and lasers can be used to improve acne and acne scars,” she explains.
The two procedures also differ depending on skin tone. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, people with a darker skin tone benefit the most from chemical peels, as peels are an effective treatment against hyperpigmentation. Dark skin tones are often prone to hyperpigmentation issues such as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) because of an increased amount of melanin in their skin. Chemical peels use acid solutions to stimulate collagen production and contain antioxidants that better penetrate darker skin and treat pigmentation.
What Are the Popular Types of Chemical Peels?
- VI Peel® (superficial grade): The VI Peel® is a gentle, relatively painless peel that is effective on all skin types and skin tones. Made from a blend of trichloroacetic acid, Retin-A, salicylic acid, phenol, and vitamin C, it is often used to treat hyperpigmentation and reverse sun damage.
- Lactic peel (superficial grade): A lactic peel is derived from milk and works best on dry and sensitive skin. It helps balance skin pH and gently exfoliates by dissolving dead skin cells.
- Glycolic peel (medium grade): A glycolic peel is made out of glycolic acid that promotes the production of new collagen and elastin by targeting the skin’s outer layer. It is often used to treat acne/acne scars and tighten pores.
- TCA peel (medium grade): A TCA peel uses trichloroacetic acid and is more aggressive than the glycolic peel. It is often used to correct skin pigment issues and soften wrinkles.
- Phenol peel (deep grade): A phenol peel powerfully penetrates the skin to treat severe wrinkle and discolouration issues. It often requires lengthy recovery time and may feel uncomfortable compared to milder peels.
What Are the Popular Types of Laser Treatments?
- Fraxel Laser Treatment (non-ablative): The Fraxel Laser Treatment uses FDA approved fractional laser technology to rejuvenate skin. This type of laser works best on mild to moderate acne scars and fine wrinkles.
- CO2/Carbon Dioxide Laser Treatment (ablative): The CO2 Laser Treatment uses pixelated carbon dioxide lasers to treat more extreme skin issues such as deep wrinkles and severe acne scars. This type of laser is generally not good for treating skin redness.
- Erbium Laser Treatment (ablative): The ablative Erbium laser is a milder and less intrusive laser treatment than the CO2 Laser. The laser penetrates the epidermis (the outer skin layer) and also stimulates the production of collagen. It is often used to reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots.
Which Treatment Is Best for Your Skin?
A myriad of skin conditions has met their match, thanks to chemical peels and laser resurfacing. Both treatments share the goal of reducing signs of aging or improving skin appearance. But which treatment is right for you? The answer to this will depend largely on your preferred level of intensity, what you’re looking to correct and the time and cost you’re willing to set aside for the procedure. Understand what each process entails so you can pick the right option for you.
Laser resurfacing is a technique that directs short, concentrated, pulsating beams of light at the skin to treat the skin. Peels, on the other hand, use fruit acids or chemicals with varying levels of intensity to strip the top layers of skin.
Pros and Cons of Laser Treatments
Lasers use highly specific wavelengths of light to target skin concerns. Different light wavelengths have different skin targets. Some lasers target the brown pigment associated with uneven skin tone, sun damage and age spots. Other lasers target redness, rosacea and visible fine blood vessels, whereas ablative and fractional (semi-ablative) lasers are able to completely or partially remove the outer layer of skin (epidermis) and heat the deeper layer of the skin (dermis). As the skin heals and regenerates, more collagen is produced in the dermis, and this improves the surface texture of the skin so that it appears smoother and firmer.
A laser is highly effective but operator-dependent, so ensure the skin specialist is fully trained in operating the device. Lasers are generally more expensive than peels, but results can be achieved with fewer treatments.
Pros: The depth, energy, and per cent of skin treated can be easily controlled with a laser, allowing for a more targeted treatment that can be individualized for each person. Ultimately, that means you may require fewer treatments with a lower risk of scarring. Plus, certain lasers can address more than one issue at a time; for example, Fraxel and IPL can treat both redness and brown spots in one fell swoop.
Cons: Lasers are more expensive (ranging from about $300 to over $2,000 for a single session), depending on the type, according to the 2017 American Society of Plastic Surgeons Report) than chemical peels, and in many cases require more than one treatment to see results. And who is doing the lasering definitely matters: “The efficacy of the procedure depends on the knowledge and skill of the laser surgeon in manipulating the parameters of the laser to best target the problem. Step one: See your dermatologist for a thorough skin check and to make sure the cosmetic issue you’re trying to treat (say, brown spots) isn’t something more serious (say, possible skin cancer). Seek out board-certified plastic surgeons who specialize in cosmetic treatments; most physicians who specialize in lasers have multiple lasers in their practice (so they aren’t going to sell you on “one laser that does all”) and often belong to professional organizations such as the ASDS (American Society for Dermatologic Surgery) or ASLMS (American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery).
Pros and Cons of Chemical Peels
Chemical peels encompass many ingredients and protocols but broadly speaking, and they cause the skin to shed cells. This shedding reveals fresh, bright skin beneath and indirectly stimulates new collagen production in the dermis, promoting firmness and fewer fine-lines. Peels are an excellent option for improving skin texture and fine lines, addressing acne and congested pores, and reducing sun damage and pigmentation. Many peels such as lactic acid can also increase hydration levels.
Pros: Since peels work by exfoliating, they’re often useful in treating acne, and overall can do more to improve the texture of your skin, increase radiance, and minimize the look of pores. Again, they’re also cheaper than lasers, with a national average cost of about $700.
Cons: Depending on what you’re trying to treat, you may need a series of chemical peels to see the best results. They’re also unlikely to improve deeper scars or wrinkles significantly, and peels can’t improve redness in the skin.
What You’re Targeting
The number of skin conditions that can be targeted with peels is impressive, ranging from acne scars and age spots to pigmentation issues and sun damage. While a chemical peel may lessen fine lines and rough skin, the treatment won’t do as much good with deep wrinkles or sagging skin. Lasers tackle skin conditions ranging from sun damage to brown spots or scarring. Some types of wrinkles are better candidates for laser treatment than others, such as lines around the eyes and vertical wrinkles framing the mouth. Texture also benefits from the use of a laser, which can tighten and smooth skin.
Level of Intensity
Peels and lasers also come in different levels of intensity. You can choose a light peel that can be done during a lunch break, such as alpha hydroxy acid, or opt for a deeper treatment with a higher concentration of trichloroacetic acid to tackle fine lines, discolouration or rough skin texture. If you’re new to peels, start with a lightweight treatment featuring milder ingredients like lactic acid, mandelic acid and willow-bark acid, and work your way up to more concentrated formulas. Laser resurfacing treatments come in two different types. Ablative lasers strip away the outer layers of skin, taking wrinkles and problem spots with them. Non-ablative lasers are the less invasive option; these stimulate the skin to produce more collagen.
Ease of Use
Both procedures can be done in your dermatologist’s office or at home. However, both at-home peels and laser devices that are sold over the counter don’t have the same intensity as the treatments delivered in the doctor’s office. Both can also result in side effects—redness, hyperpigmentation or scarring—if not used as directed.
Potential Side Effects
A chemical peel does just what its name implies: peels away the outer layers of skin. For those with skin sensitivities, this can pose problems. Some people may experience a change in skin tone on treated areas, which can be temporary or permanent. You can, however, minimize the risks of peels by choosing the right treatment for your skin type—a lower concentration of active ingredients, for example—and the right treatment for your skin issue, such as salicylic acid to treat acne. The reaction to lasers will vary depending on the person and the type of treatment. Resurfacing treatments in a doctor’s office may leave scabbing and reddened skin for several weeks as the skin heals. All treatments carry a risk of scarring or infection.
Cost, Maintenance and Recovery Time
On average, laser treatments are a more expensive option than chemical peels. The exact price varies depending on the type of treatment, anesthesia used, the experience of the person performing the treatment and more. The average cost of laser skin resurfacing is $2,146 for ablative and $1,062 for non-ablative, according to ASPS (American Society of Plastic Surgeons) 2014 statistics.
Though the benefits from laser resurfacing can last a long time, the less invasive treatments may need to be repeated more frequently. Lighter treatments using both lasers and peels will be less expensive than a deep treatment, but the results of the more in-depth treatment will last longer. You may not even notice the full effect of laser treatment for months, depending on the depth of the procedure. Even though the deeper peels that use phenol or trichloroacetic acid to reach the middle layer of skin have a recovery time of a few weeks or more, the results can last for up to 10 years.
Your choice of skin resurfacing treatment will depend on your individual skin type, age, ethnicity, sun exposure, preferences, and your overall health. The best way to determine which treatment suits your needs best is to visit us at our San Francisco clinic for a physical assessment and evaluation.
Ultimately, you have to understand that laser resurfacing treatments and chemical peels are helpful for improving overall skin tone and texture. However, for the best results, they must be accompanied by a healthy lifestyle, such as getting enough sleep and not smoking. A consistent skincare routine also helps.