Chemical Peel vs. Laser Treatment: Which Is Best for You and Your Skin?

Cost, downtime, and results are key considerations

Updated 03/18/19
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Dreaming of that flawless, wedding-ready complexion? In the world of skin resurfacing, two treatments stand out. No doubt you’ve heard a lot about the wonders of chemical peels and laser treatments. But which technique is right for you? Well, that depends. To help you decide between these two popular pre-wedding skincare treatments, we tapped celebrity aesthetician Jordana Mattioli to help break down the benefits, recovery, and costs—so basically everything!—associated with chemical peels and laser treatments. Here’s what you need to know:

First off, chemical peels and lasers share virtually the same goal: to improve skin’s overall appearance and erase imperfections. While these procedures tackle many similar concerns—including discoloration, fine lines, and rough texture—that doesn’t mean they are interchangeable.

“There are a few points to think about when I’m deciding what is best for my client. Ultimately, it depends on the issues being treated, how fast they want results, and budget,” explains Mattioli.

Peels are great for superficial irregularities. “For wrinkles, stubborn pigment, and vascular issues [veins], we need to get deeper into the skin with lasers.” The latter is better for collagen remodeling and superior in terms of precision too. For example, when using a laser to target acne scars or a few brown spots, it’s possible to focus on them individually. “It also delivers faster results than peels, and there are color-blind models that can safely treat darker skin.”

All skin types can benefit from mild- to medium-strength peels. Mattioli urges that the stronger ones should be used with caution on darker complexions, which tend to be more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Which brings us to downtime. In terms of recovery, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. “In-office peel options are endless. Some will require no downtime at all. You might experience a little redness and flaking, but that’s it,” says Mattioli. “There are hundreds of different lasers. Many offer mild resurfacing with little or no recovery period, while others (namely ablative) can leave you looking pink and swollen for up to a week.”

But again, this varies depending on the specific procedure. Aftercare, however, does not. Mattioli advices patients to avoid scrubs, cleansing brushes, washcloths, retinoids, topical acne medication, and alpha/beta hydroxy acids so as not to interfere with the healing process for about a week. In terms of topicals, stick to a gentle cleanser with antibacterial support, soothing moisturizer, hydrating serum, and broad spectrum mineral sunscreen. Following treatment, it’s also best to skip strenuous exercise and heavy sweating for 72 hours.

Of course, cost is an important factor to consider. Peels tend to be more wallet-friendly at $150 to $500 a pop. There are also great at-home options from brands like Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare (try the Alpha Beta Medi–Spa Peel, available at Sephora) and Peter Thomas Roth (try the Professional Strength 40% Triple Acid Peel, available at Sephora), both of which ring in at under $90. “I recommend Dermalogica Rapid Reveal Peel to my clients," notes Mattioli. "It’s easy, affordable, and gives instant gratification." Lasers, on the other hand, can run anywhere between $300 and $3,000 per session.

Courtesy of Dermalogica

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Both procedures deliver enduring results, but it depends on the issue being tackled. “When you smooth out wrinkles, that deeper collagen is there for a long time. Pigment can be tricky. Normally you can get months or years of even tone if you are diligent with SPF and have a solid skincare routine.”

So, what’s the takeaway? The choice essentially comes down to what complexion woes you want erased. For certain conditions, it’s worth the money to splurge on a laser for stronger results, whereas for other concerns, a peel will definitely do the trick. When in doubt, seek out the advice of a licensed dermatologist or aesthetician.

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