A myriad of skin conditions have 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 skin to treat skin. Peels, on the other hand, use fruit acids or chemicals with varying levels of intensity to strip the top layers of 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, discoloration 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 deeper treatment will last longer. You may not even notice the full effect of a laser treatment for months, depending on the depth of the procedure. Even though the deeper peels that use phenol or tricholoracetic 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.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost of a chemical peel is $706, depending on the procedure and where you live. For example, a mild face peel costs around $100 per application but a Phenol full face peel can cost $3,000 to $4,000. For a deeper peel like Phenol, recovery time is usually around two weeks, whereas light chemical peels that use alpha or beta hydroxy acid have no recovery time at all.
This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.