Understanding Skin Discoloration After a Chemical Peel: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

skin discoloration after chemical peel

Chemical peels are a popular skincare treatment used to enhance skin texture, tone, and overall appearance. However, many people worry about skin discoloration after a peel. Is it normal? What causes it? How can you prevent and treat it?

In this article, we’ll answer these questions and more. We’ll cover why your skin might darken, turn brown or purple, and whether chemical peels can worsen hyperpigmentation. Let’s dive in!

Is Skin Discoloration After a Chemical Peel Normal?

Yes, experiencing some degree of skin discoloration after a chemical peel is relatively common. The skin undergoes a controlled injury during the peel, which can lead to temporary changes in pigmentation as it heals. Mild discoloration, such as darkening or lightening of the skin, is often a normal part of the healing process.

Do All Chemical Peels Cause Temporary Changes in Pigmentation?

Not all chemical peels cause temporary changes in pigmentation to the same extent. The likelihood and severity of discoloration depend on the depth of the peel:

  • Superficial Peels: These peels, like glycolic or lactic acid peels, usually cause minimal pigmentation changes. Any discoloration is typically mild and resolves quickly. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, only 1.9% of people with dark skin experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) after a superficial chemical peel. This suggests that while the risk exists, it is relatively low for superficial peels.
  • Medium Peels: Peels such as TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peels penetrate deeper and can cause more noticeable pigmentation changes, particularly in dark-skinned individuals. These changes might take longer to heal.
  • Deep Peels: Phenol peels are the most intense and in some people can cause significant changes in pigmentation, which may take several months to fully resolve. Because deep peels have a higher risk of causing long-lasting or permanent changes in skin color, they are usually not recommended for people with dark skin.

Mild vs. Serious Discoloration

While mild discoloration is quite common and part of the normal healing process, more serious and lasting discoloration is less common. This type of discoloration is often associated with darker skin tones (Fitzpatrick skin types IV-VI).

Individuals with these skin types are at a higher risk for complications such as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or hypopigmentation, which may persist without appropriate treatment and care.

Why Does Skin Discoloration Happen After a Chemical Peel?

Skin discoloration after a chemical peel happens as a response to the controlled injury inflicted on the skin. Here’s why it occurs and the types you might notice:

  • Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH): The inflammation from the peel can cause your skin to produce too much melanin, resulting in dark spots. This is more common in people with darker skin tones.
  • Hypopigmentation: If the peel goes too deep, it can reduce melanin production, leading to light spots or patches. These are usually temporary but can last several weeks to months.
  • Skin Darkening and Brown Spots: Often part of the healing process, these spots usually lighten over time with proper care.
  • Sun Exposure: Your newly exposed skin is more sensitive to UV damage, which can worsen discoloration.
  • Purple Skin: In rare cases, you might see purplish discoloration due to bruising or deeper skin injury. This should be checked by a dermatologist.

Skin discoloration doesn’t only happen due to your skin tone or the depth of the peel, with deeper peels carrying higher risks of hyperpigmentation. It can also occur if the practitioner lacks experience or if the peel chosen isn’t suitable for your skin type. Properly selecting the peel type and following pre- and post-care instructions can help minimize these risks.

Can Chemical Peels Make Hyperpigmentation Worse?

Yes, in some cases, chemical peels can make hyperpigmentation worse. This is especially true if the peel is too strong for your skin type or if you don’t follow post-peel care instructions properly. Here’s why this happens and how you can avoid it:

Why Hyperpigmentation Can Worsen

  • Strong Peels: Using a peel that’s too strong for your skin can cause deeper damage, leading to increased melanin production and darker spots. This is why choosing a peel that’s appropriate for your skin type is crucial.
  • Improper Aftercare: Not following the recommended aftercare (including sun protection!) can leave your skin vulnerable to UV damage and other irritants, which can exacerbate hyperpigmentation.

How to Avoid Worsening Hyperpigmentation

  • Consult a Dermatologist: Before getting a chemical peel, talk to a dermatologist. They can help you choose the right type and strength of peel for your skin and provide guidance on how to prepare and care for your skin before and after the treatment.
  • Follow Aftercare Instructions: Always follow the aftercare instructions given by your dermatologist or esthetician. This usually includes avoiding sun exposure, using gentle skincare products, and applying sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
  • Pre-Treatment Skin Conditioning: Using products like hydroquinone or retinoids before your peel can help condition your skin and reduce the risk of worsening your hyperpigmentation.

By taking these precautions, you can minimize the risk of making hyperpigmentation worse and achieve better results from your chemical peel.

How to Prevent Skin Discoloration After a Chemical Peel

Preventing skin discoloration after a chemical peel involves several key steps. By taking these measures, you can help manage and reduce the risk of developing hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation. Here’s a detailed guide on how to prevent skin discoloration:

Pre-Peel Preparation

1. Use Skin-Conditioning Products

Practitioners may suggest different topical agents during the pre-treatment phase to prepare your skin:

  • Hydroquinone: This ingredient helps lighten dark spots and even out skin tone. Start applying it 2-4 weeks before your peel to reduce the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). Use it in concentrations of 2–4%, and stop 3-5 days before the peel. Resume using it 1-2 weeks after the peel.
  • Retinoids: Products like tretinoin increase cell turnover and strengthen the skin. Apply tretinoin cream (0.025–0.05%) at night for at least 2 weeks before your peel to help the peeling agent work more effectively.
  • Glycolic Acid: Using glycolic acid (5-10%) can gently exfoliate your skin and prepare it for the peel.
  • Kojic Acid and Azelaic Acid: These ingredients help reduce pigmentation and prepare your skin.

2. Sun Protection

  • Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen: Use sunscreen with SPF 50+ that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Start at least 3 months before the peel and continue indefinitely to prevent sunburn and reduce melanocyte activity, minimizing the risk of PIH.
  • Limit UV Exposure: Avoid excessive sun exposure and wear protective clothing and hats when outdoors.

3. Avoid Skin Irritants

  • Waxing, Electrolysis, and Dermabrasion: Avoid these procedures for at least 3-4 weeks before the peel to prevent additional skin irritation.
  • Other Skin Products: Stop using products containing glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and other potential irritants a week before the peel.

Test-spot Testing

  • Why It’s Important: Test-spot testing helps gauge your skin’s reaction to the peel. This can help identify potential adverse reactions and minimize unexpected side effects.
  • How It’s Done: A small amount of the peeling agent is applied to a discreet area of your skin a few weeks before the full peel. Monitor for any signs of irritation or excessive pigmentation changes.

During the Peel

Choose the Right Type and Strength of Peel

It’s crucial to consult with a dermatologist or licensed esthetician who can determine the best type and strength of peel for your skin type and concerns. An experienced and qualified professional will help minimize the risk of complications (including hyperpigmentation) by customizing the peel for you. This ensures the treatment is safe and effective.

Importance of an Experienced Practitioner

Selecting a skilled practitioner is essential for several reasons:

  • Personalized Treatment: They can tailor the peel to your specific skin type and issues, ensuring optimal results.
  • Correct Application: Experienced professionals know how to apply and remove the peel at the right time to prevent complications like hyperpigmentation.
  • Minimized Risks: Their expertise reduces the likelihood of adverse effects, ensuring a smoother, more even-toned complexion.

Post-Peel Care

Sun Protection

  • Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen: Use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from UV damage, which can worsen discoloration.
  • Avoid Sun Exposure: Try to stay out of direct sunlight, especially during peak hours. Wear protective clothing and hats if you need to go outside.

Gentle Skincare Routine

  • Moisturizers: Keep your skin well-hydrated with a gentle, non-irritating moisturizer. This aids in the healing process and helps prevent peeling and irritation.
  • Avoid Harsh Products: Stay away from products with alcohol, fragrances, or strong acids until your skin has fully healed.

Additional Tips

  • Regular Skin Monitoring: Keep an eye on your skin’s healing process. Note any changes in pigmentation and consult your dermatologist if you notice anything concerning.
  • Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and vitamins to support your skin’s healing and overall health.

By following these preventive measures, you can significantly reduce the risk of skin discoloration after a chemical peel and ensure a smoother, more even complexion.

How to Treat Skin Discoloration After a Chemical Peel

If you experience skin discoloration after a chemical peel, don’t worry—there are several ways to treat it. Here’s a detailed guide on the available options to help you get your skin back to its best condition.

Topical Treatments

  1. HydroquinoneResearch has shown hydroquinone to be effective in treating post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).
    • How It Works: Hydroquinone is a skin-lightening agent that reduces the production of melanin, helping to lighten dark spots.
    • Application: Typically used in concentrations of 2% to 4%. Apply it to the affected areas once or twice a day as directed by your dermatologist.
  2. Kojic Acid:
    • How It Works: Kojic acid inhibits melanin production and is often found in skin-lightening creams and serums.
    • Application: Use products containing kojic acid as part of your daily skincare routine.
  3. Azelaic Acid:
    • How It Works: Azelaic acid helps reduce pigmentation and also has anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Application: Typically available in gel or cream form, use it as directed by your dermatologist.
  4. Vitamin C:
    • How It Works: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can brighten skin and reduce the appearance of dark spots.
    • Application: Incorporate a vitamin C serum into your morning skincare routine to protect and brighten your skin.

Professional Treatments

  • Laser Therapy:
    • How It Works: Laser treatments target pigmented areas, breaking down the excess melanin.
    • Types: Options include fractional laser, Q-switched laser, and intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy.
    • Effectiveness: These treatments are effective but may require multiple sessions and can be expensive.
  • Microneedling:
    • How It Works: Microneedling involves using fine needles to create micro-injuries in the skin, stimulating collagen production and reducing pigmentation.
    • Effectiveness: This treatment can improve skin texture and tone over time.
  • Additional Chemical Peels:
    • How It Works: Mild chemical peels using ingredients like glycolic acid or lactic acid can help to gradually lighten dark spots and improve skin texture.
    • Consultation Required: Always consult your dermatologist before opting for another peel to ensure it’s safe for your skin condition.

Post-Treatment Care

  • Sun Protection:
    • Essential Step: Continue using broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher daily. Sun exposure can worsen pigmentation, so protecting your skin is crucial.
  • Gentle Skincare Routine:
    • Avoid Harsh Products: Stick to gentle cleansers and moisturizers to avoid irritating your skin further.
    • Hydration: Keep your skin well-hydrated to support the healing process.

Consultation with a Dermatologist

After trying the above treatments, it’s important to consult with a dermatologist if you’re not seeing improvements or if you’re unsure about which treatment is best for you. A dermatologist can:

  • Personalize Your Treatment: Tailor treatments to your specific skin type and condition.
  • Monitor Progress: Track your skin’s response and adjust treatments as needed.
  • Provide Professional Advice: Recommend additional treatments or combinations of treatments for optimal results.

Treating skin discoloration after a chemical peel can take time and patience, but with the right approach and guidance from a professional, you can achieve a clearer, more even complexion.


Skin discoloration after a chemical peel is common, but with the right preparation and care, you can minimize the risk. Always consult a professional to choose the best peel for your skin type and follow their advice for pre- and post-peel care. With patience and proper treatment, you can achieve a clearer, more even complexion.

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