Although the image is well-worn enough to be cliché, the flaking face of Samantha in Sex In The City still comes to the minds of many of us at the mere mention of a facial peel. I had my first professional peel last week at the offices of New York Dermatologist, Dr Dennis Gross (arguably, the father of the facial peel). Actually, it was my first peel period. It was such a revelation that I immediately wanted to understand the skin’s physiology and how this procedure really works. I also launched my one-woman campaign to demonstrate that “peel” is a misnomer and that, if properly done, this is really about cell rejuvenation. But before getting into that, I went in search of the truth about peels.

Peeling begins with exfoliation

A peel treatment is setting out to exfoliate the skin. The stratum corneum is the skin’s outermost layer and it is made up of dead skin cells (corneocytes). The stratum corneum is responsible for the skin’s moisture retention and the build up of dead cells results in dryness and loss of radiance. Peeling removes dead cells only (unless it is a deep chemical peel treatment, of which more to come below).

Exfoliation and cell turnover

As we age, the turnover rate of our cells slows down. In our teens they turnover at an average rate of 28 days. At my age (55) this has slowed down to 60 days. This is the rate at which cells reproduce in the epidermal junction and where they are held together by lipids, ceramides and long chain fatty acids.* The young cells gradually migrate to the skin surface where they die. Exfoliation speeds the process of skin cell turnover. Hence, my observation that a peel is really all about cellular rejuvenation.

The DDG peel

The first thing to be said about my peel experience with Dr Dennis Gross is that I did not peel. Exfoliation should not be about taking off layers of skin and visible skin peeling should not be seen. The sloughing of dead skin cells is barely visible. On the other hand, bits of flaking skin are the unfortunate result of heavy-handed use of strong exfoliating actives such as retinol.

Dr Gross is probably best known for his signature chemical peels and proprietary mix of alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxyl acids (BHAs). AHAs (acids such as glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, mandelic and tartaric) exfoliate the surface of the skin, accelerate cell turnover and some, such as lactic acid, act as humectants. BHAs (willow bark) go deeper and actually exfoliate dead cells hanging around in the skin’s pores.

As I reported in my video, I experienced notable, but not uncomfortable tingling, that subsided within a few minutes. My cheeks looked red for a couple of hours. There was no peeling or flaking, just refreshed-looking skin.

The deep peel

This is all very different from the deep peel. Most deep chemical peels are based on TCA (trichloroacetic acid). Downtime can last several days or a week. Even more dramatic is the phenol peel. There are tons of variations, but mostly they come down to TCA with, in the case of the Vi Peel, some retinol, an AHA or two and some phenol. Peeling will be significant, but the shiny new skin, some of it actual scar tissue, will be enough for some people to have regular treatments. Personally, I think the results look unnatural and that regulars have noticeably thin-looking skin. According to Dr Gross the downsides of a deep peel include potential increase of free radical damage and permanent epidermal atrophy.

Gentle and regular versus deep and damaging

I have to confess a personal and deep-rooted bias against inflicting damage on my skin. Traumas (deep peeling, ablative laser and so on) force the skin to produce new cells as if it had been wounded – which it has. I don’t want injure myself in the name of anti-aging. In any case, although the short-term results can be seductive, in the long term they can lead to thinner skin and, perhaps, the speeding up of the Hayflick limit. With this in mind, I was intrigued when Dr Gross said that gentle and regular treatments get better results.

Peeling at home

After my office visit, I was given a month’s supply of Dr Dennis Gross Original Alpha Beta Peel ($88 in the shop) daily peels. Six days in, I am in love with this product. It is a two-step system that deploys pre-moistened towelettes. Step one is the application of AHAs and BHAs, some green tea and chamomile. After two minutes a neutralizing and hydrating solution is applied with vitamins C and E, ubiquinone and retinol. I’ll be writing a full review at the end of 30 days, but already I can report a fresher complexion and wrinkle softening. But no tingling, redness and absolutely no peeling.

*Thank you to the office of Dr Dennis Gross for sharing an internal (and very insightful) presentation on skin physiology.

I'd love your input. Have you ever had a facial peel - what was your experience? If not, what are your perceptions of a peel? Chime in by leaving me a comment below.