I Had An In-Office, Medical Grade, Level 2 Face Peel – Here’s Why You Need to Ask A Lot Of Questions Before Taking The Plunge
Bottom line – make sure you understand this is not a quick, painless, no fuss treatment.
As lookalike day bled into lookalike during this past year of sheltering in place, I began the nasty habit of scrutinizing my face in a 15x magnifying mirror. I had purchased the mirror to manage my burly brows which, as I’ve aged, somehow become stippled with alfalfa sprouts like growths between bedtime and breakfast. Though COVID induced hair loss galore on my head, my eyebrows have soldiered on, imbuing me with the air of an on-in-years professor when not groomed vigilantly.
“Eating by candlelight was glamorous but also a strategy to blunt the impact of my battered face.”
At 53, I am, as the French might say, “bien conserve” with smooth-ish skin, quasi-defined jawline, and a single chin. Still, I became fixated on the dark spots splattered across my forehead and cheeks, payback for a sunscreen-less childhood in Miami Beach. Also riveting were scaly blotches that refused to respond to serums or creams. I tried to obliterate these pre-cancerous patches (known as actinic keratoses) professionally with liquid nitrogen but here they were again – attention-grabbing, unwanted guests at my pigmentation pity party.
When the virus brought the world to a screeching halt, my career as a travel writer imploded. Hard-won assignments were scrapped, and my fast-paced life went up in smoke. With it, went my swagger. The dull, cautious creep of pandemic life unearthed long-buried insecurities. While others may have heeded the call for self-care, my mind sought solace in negativity, a comfort zone of sorts bequeathed by parents whose abusive brand of child-rearing was designed to inspire self-doubt even in the best of times. My inner critic came roaring back into action only too delighted to partake in the flaw-finding mirror mission. I may hold no sway over the wildcards that COVID placed in my path. But complexion perfection was within my jurisdiction.
I emailed my dermatologist photos of myself in sunnier times asking how, oh how could I revive the supple, luminosity of, say five years ago? And, without surgical intervention? Old school IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) was an option, but numerous sessions were needed to achieve a nominal result. The CO2 laser could certainly even out the skin tone and address the dark spots. The downside: significant downtime. Friends who had tried this hardcore ablative treatment saw results but reported looking like roadkill for a good three weeks and then wind burned for months beyond that. She asked if I was familiar with medical-grade chemical peels. “With your fair skin, you’ll get big results with no downtime,” she added. Bingo!
The next thing I knew, my face was being degreased with acetone (yes, as in nail polish remover) for a level 2 brightening peel. This type of aggressive treatment is designed to remove the uppermost layers of skin by way of acid exfoliation (20% lactic acid, 10% phytic acid, 10% azelaic acid, 5% niacinamide,10% retinol). Two days after the peel is applied, dead, dull skin begins to slough off. The controlled injury incites a collagen healing response which improves skin texture and minimizes fine lines and wrinkles. The technician told me that “a mild stinging sensation may be felt” during the 30-minute procedure. That, I would learn, was an understatement.
I should have asked more questions. Many more. Like how does sensitive, highly reactive skin fare with acid, will it be tough to sleep, how aggressive is the peeling, how long will I peel, how long does the redness and irritation last, will there be discomfort, and would I be somewhat presentable for Thanksgiving? But I was so eager for a reunion with radiance that I simply booked the first available appointment, details be damned.
I have a pretty high threshold for pain. And this peel hurt. I could barely tolerate a single pass of the product (it is supposed to be applied in multiple layers). As I lay there with the acid gnawing away at my flesh, all I could envision was an episode of Law & Order: SVU where Benson and Stabler uncover a grim sex trafficking operation involving burn victims.
By evening, I had the waxy, crinkle-burned countenance of Lord Voldemort.
I tried my usual pain management maneuvers: digging my forefinger nail into my thumb, biting my lip, and deep, measured breathing. But after a second layer was applied to my forehead and cheeks, the stinging was so acute that I called it quits, leaving the majority of the pricey potion on the table. I was told to leave the mask on for two full agonizing hours but doubted I’d be able to do that as I sat in my car – ice pack to cheek – waiting for the intensity to subside so I could safely drive home. Somehow I mustered up the strength to keep the product on (assembling Melissa Clark’s chipotle turkey chili helped keep my mind occupied) and through the beet redness, gobs of pigmentation rose to the surface of my skin within hours. By evening, I had the waxy, crinkle-burned countenance of Lord Voldemort.
As he slid into bed, my husband grimaced and scrunched himself as far away from me as possible. Sleeping was rough. The friction of my raw, lubed face against the pillow was agonizing. By day two, Thanksgiving, the peeling began. It was far more extreme than I had expected: ghastly blood speckled crevasses on either side of my nose, chunks of cheek flaking onto my clothing, and a crusty red slash on my chin with dangling and desiccated bits of flesh that looked like a warped goatee. I wore a mask while preparing the meal to avoid bits of my forehead making an unsavory cameo in the cornbread pudding.
The peeling got worse throughout the day. I was told to “allow the skin to shed at its own rate,” but I could not resist helping the process along. The perfectionist in me found picking at the tufts of mottled skin deeply satisfying. When I applied the soothing cream as instructed, the product sat atop the crispy flakes of skin magnifying the yuck factor tenfold. My daughters could barely look at me. “How long will you look like that,” they asked. “It’s creepy.”
Though it was just the four of us, we decided to get dressed up and have a fancy Thanksgiving dinner. I hauled out the tablecloth, the silver, my grandmother’s porcelain serving platters, and vintage bric-a-brac culled from European flea markets. Then, I dug out a cross-section of candlesticks and tea lights. Eating by candlelight was glamorous but also a strategy to blunt the impact of my battered face.
I am sure the nurse who treated me regretted giving me access to the patient portal that allowed me to communicate with her directly. I texted a steady stream of photos – including images of freshly picked red patches – asking, “Is this normal?” She begged me to let nature take its course and continue slathering on cortisone, retinol and Arbutase-fortified brightening cream. But even when my face was moist, flakes of skin poured down like dandruff onto my computer keyboard as I worked.
…flakes of skin poured down like dandruff onto my computer keyboard as I worked.
Meanwhile, I found it surprising that this procedure was labeled as “no downtime.” True it did not require bed rest. But the gnarly peeling was not suitable for Zoom or, in normal times, anything close to public-facing interaction. For once I was happy to slap on a face mask when I was out doing errands. That, plus a ski hat pulled down to the eyebrows, kept the nastiness concealed.
At the one-week mark, the peeling stopped. For one glorious day. Then it began anew, but lighter this time, and concentrated on the areas with sun damage. The ruddiness receded to pink as if I’d just returned from a brisk winter walk. Was it worth it? I think so. The new skin was smoother and tighter (dare I say glowing?) and the pores around my nose and mouth were less prominent.
After the initial peeling, tiny scabs formed under my eyes and on my forehead where the darkest spots had been. I did finally manage to leave them alone. Then, poof – they flaked off. A month later, those areas remained red but then my skin tone began to even out.
Now, that I’ve got a semi-youthful visage, I’ve found a new mood booster: vintage jewelry. Turns out the combination of dramatic earrings and a statement necklace delivers a much less invasive glow.