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What is the difference between an Exfoliant and a Peel?

Posted by GlyMed Plus Education Team on

What is the difference between a Chemical Exfoliant
and a Chemical Peel?

Choosing a chemical exfoliant or peel can be confusing, especially if you don’t know what to look for. You might ask: What is the difference between a chemical exfoliant and a chemical peel? Essentially, they both exfoliate the skin, but the depth and the way they exfoliate is different. GlyMed Plus is here to help make it easier to understand the differences in chemical exfoliants and peels.

What is a chemical peel? A treatment in which a licensed professional applies an acid solution to the skin to exfoliate and remove damaged layers of the epidermis.

Chemical Peels are separated into two groups and they vary in strengths.

Groups: Organic Acids & Aromatic Acids

Strengths: Very Superficial, Superficial, Medium Depth, and Deep.

Groups Explained

Organic Acids (TIMED) are considered “wounding agents” and are grouped as exfoliants. They contain ingredients like Glycolic and Lactic acids (also known as AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids) that provide nutrients and perform metabolic functions. These acids work from the inside out by detaching the lower layers of the stratum corneum to achieve exfoliation. The results from these peels are light to medium flaking of the skin and not necessarily “peeling” which is why we refer to them as Chemical Exfoliants. These acids are typically timed – meaning you leave them on the skin for a specific amount of time and then remove them. The longer the acid is on the skin, the deeper or stronger the exfoliation.

Aromatic Acids (LAYERED) are foreign to the body and perform a deeper exfoliation, resulting in “peeling” of the skin, which is why we refer to them as Chemical Peels. Ingredients such as Salicylic Acid, Trichloroacetic acid and Resorcinol that are highly keratolytic (deeply exfoliating) work by dissolving the stratum corneum layer-by-layer from the outside. These acids are “dose” dependent, or layered, meaning they are applied layer-by-layer. The more layers performed, the deeper the peel.

Strength (Depth) Explained

0: Very Superficial
Removes the outer layer of the Stratum Corneum
The lightest professional exfoliation offered with no downtime. These peels are a great way to introduce clients to the world of chemical peels if they have never received one before.

1: Superficial Peels
Chemical Exfoliant or Peel extends into the Stratum Granulosum
Great for skin that is prepared and ready for more active treatments to achieve results. Depending on the client and treatment performed, these peels lead to little or no down time. Light flaking or peeling is present for a few days, post peel.

2: Medium Depth Peels (Max 4 layers)
Chemical Peel extends through all layers of the Epidermis
These chemical peels are the greatest form of exfoliation that most Estheticians can perform. Clients MUST be prepped and ready to receive these chemical peels as they will be providing a deep desquamation to the skin.

3: Deep Peels
Extends through all the layers of the Epidermis and into the Papillary & Reticular of the Dermis
Can ONLY be performed by a Physician and includes extensive down time.

Peel Depth

If you have more questions on chemical exfoliants and peels, please call our friendly Master Aestheticians at 800-676-9667 or email us at

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