Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) Peels

Includes ingredients that have been used for more than 2,000 years

Quick and Effective

Smooths and rejuvenates the skin.

Made from naturally occurring acids found in fruits and other foods, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peels–or, at least, the main ingredients in them–have been popular for removing dead cells on the surface of the skin (thus smoothing and rejuvenating the skin) for a very long time. In fact, more than 2,000 years ago Egypt’s last pharaoh, Queen Cleopatra, is said to have regularly bathed in sour goat’s milk to improve her skin. She was on to something. The lactic acid from sour milk is one of the acids used in modern AHA peels. Other popular AHA peels used citric acid (from citrus fruit) and glycolic acid (from sugar cane).

You can buy AHA products in drugstores and department stores, but these products are not permitted to contain AHA concentrations of more than 10 percent–too low, really, to have much effect on the skin. Also, over-the-counter products usually have a high pH, or acidity, level, which further dampens their effectiveness.

Stronger concentrations of up to 30 percent can be used only by trained professionals, including aestheticians–preferably in a physician-supervised setting. And physicians alone are permitted to use drugs with the highest AHA concentrations–up to 70 percent.

How AHA Peels Work

AHA peels essentially work by exfoliating the skin. They loosen and remove the layer of dead cells (keratinocytes) on the skin’s surface (the stratum corneum), thus revealing the smoother, healthier-looking layer below.

Regular treatments can help with fine lines, brown marks and dry spots (solar keratoses). They also can help minimize acne scarring–and even help with the treatment of acne by stripping away the plugs where acne bumps can form.

AHA peels can be done not only on the face, but on the neck, chest, arms and hands. They’re often combined with microdermabrasion for even greater results.

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What is a treatment like?

These "lunchtime peels" generally take 15 to 20 minutes. Your skin will be cleansed with acetone or isopropyl alcohol, and then the peel will be applied and removed. During the application of the peel you may experience a numbing and/or stinging sensation, but this effect is usually very mild. No anesthesia is needed.

For a day or two afterwards, your skin will appear slightly red and some flaking may occur–effects similar to those of a mild sunburn. But you can return to your usual daily activities immediately. You should use a sunblock for several days after treatment, for your skin will be more sensitive to the sun–and thus more susceptible than usual to sunburn.

Side Effects

Too-frequent use of alpha hydroxy acid peels can cause skin to become irritated and inflamed, particularly when the concentration of the acid is too high or left on the skin too long. And some people should not have AHA peels. These include people who are using the acne medication Accutane or who have active cold sores, as well as women who are pregnant.

For these reasons, it’s important to received AHA peels in a physician-supervised setting, where you’ll receive care from trained professionals who know what questions to ask and how to perform the treatment safely and effectively.


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