All About the Phenol Peel - Is It Worth the Risk?

By Emily M.| Last updated on August 9, 2023

Phenol peel is among the riskiest beauty treatments – but the results are showstopping. We’re here to explore its characteristics and answer: Is it worth it?

phenol peel

Image source: Instagram @seaversoonmd

A phenol peel is the deepest of chemical peels, known for being a very high-risk/high-reward treatment.

The allure of the phenol peel lies in its ability to produce showstopping and long-lasting improvements in skin texture and appearance. However, its inherent side effects also make it a very risky procedure.

We’re here to give you an overview of the characteristics, benefits, and risks of the phenol peel and help answer the most commonly asked question if this procedure is worth it.

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What Is Phenol Peel?

A phenol peel, also known as carbolic acid peel, is the deepest of all chemical peeling treatments.

Phenol is an organic molecule derived from petroleum derivatives and the ingredients are very aggressive which gives its ability to penetrate very deep into the skin.

This is how it’s able to produce such dramatic improvements that can last a lifetime.

Since the phenol peel is the strongest peel out there it has to be done by a medical professional. Unlike most chemical peels that can be adjusted to varying depths, phenol peel is only used as a deep chemical peel.

In other words, while an AHA or BHA peel encourages the gentle shedding of dead skin cells sitting on the surface of your skin, a phenol peel goes past that superficial layer and reaches into the dermis.

A phenol peel is only recommended for those with severe acne scarring, deep wrinkles, or sun damage from chronic UV exposure who are not candidates for other types of treatments.

What Is Phenol Peel Used For?

As mentioned, deep phenol peel isn’t exactly a first choice, even for moderate to severe skin concerns. In fact, it’s used pretty much as a last resort – only for deeply rooted issues like deep wrinkles and scarring.

Let’s go over the most common phenol chemical peel uses:

Phenol Peel for Wrinkles

Phenol peels are primarily used for reducing deep wrinkles. The peel’s deep exfoliation process removes damaged skin layers and stimulates collagen production, resulting in smoother skin texture.

Phenol skin peel can target any deep wrinkles, whether it’s around the mouth, on the forehead, or even around the eyes.

Image source: Instagram @thedermcentre.vicpark

Phenol Peel Under Eyes

The phenol face peel under the eyes isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s sometimes even used on eyelids.1

Phenol peel under eyes is mostly used for resolving crow’s feet. However, this area is very delicate and we are talking about a very aggressive procedure, after all. So it’s best to look for a less aggressive alternative.

Image source: Instagram @dra.laisxaviier

Phenol Peel for Melasma & Other Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is usually shallower, so it’s easily treated with medium-depth chemical peels, even if a couple of treatments are necessary.

However, some people have deep-rooted melasma, usually from cumulative sun damage. These are the clients that may be good candidates for phenol peel.

A medical professional decides whether the hyperpigmentation is severe enough to justify going for a phenol peel.

Image source: Instagram @clinicarevivare

Phenol Peel for Scars

Phenol peel scars treatment can be an effective option for certain types of scars, particularly deep scars and acne scars.

By removing the damaged skin layers and stimulating collagen production, phenol peel smooths out skin texture, blending in scarred tissue with the rest of the skin.

But phenol peel may not be suitable for all scar types and all skin types. A dermatologist will evaluate your scar type, skin condition, and medical history to determine if a phenol peel is suitable for improving your scars.

Image source: Instagram @esteticarenovva

Phenol Peel for Stretch Marks

Although stretch marks are a form of scarring that occurs when the skin stretches rapidly, phenol skin peel isn’t specifically designed to target this issue.

This treatment primarily works by exfoliating the outer layers of the skin and while that can help improve the appearance of scars, the nature of stretch marks goes beyond the scope of what a chemical peel can address.

There are other, more suitable treatments for treating stretch marks that carry much lower risks than phenol chemical peel does. You can read about them here.

Who Is a Candidate for a Phenol Peel? Suitability & Contraindications

Ideal candidates for this procedure typically have severe wrinkles, sun-damaged skin, and other significant skin imperfections.

And phenol peel is generally only recommended for individuals with fair skin due to the higher risk of hyperpigmentation in darker skin types.

Those who shouldn’t get phenol chemical peel include:

  • People with a history of heart, liver, or kidney problems,
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women,
  • People with certain skin conditions like rosacea or another inflammatory skin condition

But before getting a phenol peel, your dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon will conduct a thorough evaluation of your skin and medical history to determine if you’re a suitable candidate.

They may also recommend pre-treatment with topical creams to prepare your skin and minimize potential risks.

Image source: Instagram @awplasticsurgery

Phenol Peel on Dark Skin

Phenol peels are generally not recommended for individuals with darker skin tones due to the risk of pigmentation issues.

Phenol peel can cause a significant risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin in response to inflammation) and hypopigmentation (lightening of the skin in treated areas) in individuals with more melanin in their skin.

How Do I Prepare for a Phenol Peel?

The purpose of a phenol face peel preparation is to mitigate as many risks as possible.

Managing pre-existing conditions like melanin-related concerns or redness associated with conditions like rosacea can proactively help ensure a safer and more effective outcome when considering cosmetic procedures.

In fact, it’s crucial to address these issues beforehand as phenol skin peel could potentially worsen them.

Pre-treatment prep can include using prescription skin treatments, discontinuing retinol and avoiding the sun.

Since deep phenol peel is a serious procedure, prep work isn’t exactly easy either. You may need up to a few months’ work before you’re cleared to proceed with the treatment.

What Does Phenol Peel Process Look Like?

Phenol peel resembles any other chemical peeling process, but it’s a much more complex procedure.

For starters, it cannot be done in a regular beauty salon and should only be administered by a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

It even requires monitoring of vital signs due to the potential effects that phenol can have on cardiac function in an overdose situation.

This means phenol peel at home is not possible – at all!

Topically applied phenol can cause extreme discomfort, so to minimize it, your treatment provider will give you either a local anesthetic or an oral or IV sedation. This is what makes the procedure more bearable.

During the treatment, which typically takes 1-2 hours from start to finish, phenol peel will be applied in sections.

After each section, they will wait for the phenol to be absorbed into the skin. This takes around 15 minutes. And then they will continue onto another area.

So, in other words, the treatment goes like this: apply phenol to the forehead, wait 15 minutes, and remove. Apply phenol to cheek, wait, then remove. And so on…

The reason for this sequential approach is to reduce the cardiac risks associated with the procedure. Plus, it also allows the liver to detoxify the phenol and the kidneys to excrete it, thereby reducing the risk of systemic toxicity or a phenol overdose.

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Is Phenol Peel Painful?

Yes. The peeling solution is so strong that it’s sometimes administered under IV sedation. Without it, the pain would be pretty intense, even with a topical numbing cream.

However – there is a silver lining: there is the new generation phenol chemical skin peel that apparently no longer requires sedation because the phenol solution itself works as an anesthetic.

Unlike previous phenol chemical skin peel, there is no risk of toxicity associated with the new formulation of phenol solution.

According to some studies, Exoderm, the modified phenol peel, has shown reduced side-effects such as arrhythmia, long-lasting redness, hypopigmentation, and scarring.

Image source: Instagram @fabianapietro_dermato

Is Phenol Peel Safe?

It’s safe enough – if done properly and by a qualified professional. But it still carries a number of risks.

Phenol Peel Risks

While phenol peels can provide dramatic results, they are more invasive and carry greater risks compared to milder chemical peels. Potential risks and side effects may include:

  • Temporary or permanent skin discoloration (hypopigmentation or hyperpigmentation).
  • Scarring, particularly in people with a history of keloid scars.
  • Redness and swelling that can last for several weeks.
  • Increased sensitivity to sunlight.
  • Infection and delayed healing.
  • Possible heart, liver, or kidney complications due to phenol absorption into the bloodstream.

Because of such high risks, it’s important to be completely honest with your doctor about any medical conditions you have – even if they seem unrelated.

If you’re worried about the risks, you can start with something a little less intense. Let’s look into some alternatives.

Phenol Peel Alternatives

If you’re wondering if phenol peel is still worth it – even after all these risks, pain, and downtime – for some people it certainly is!

But, nowadays, with so many advances in the beauty industry, there are several alternatives that work really well – ablative lasers like CO2 and YAG.

Fractionated laser resurfacing is a much lower risk, while still producing impressive improvement, and can be performed on almost all skin types (except for the darkest pigmented skin tones).

So more and more clients are opting for lasers rather than phenol skin peel since phenol chemical peel is generally viewed as a last-resort treatment for serious damage.

If you’re set in stone about getting a chemical peel, consider trying less intense ones first.

A TCA peel, which is much stronger than a typical AHA or BHA peel, is a great option. Although the results are more subtle, the recovery is far faster than with phenol peel.

Plus it’s safer to do multiple medium-depth peels and get results over time, than remove a thick skin layer at once.

There’s also microneedling, with its many variations that are targeting signs of aging like PRP microneedling or RF microneedling.

While it may not deliver the same dramatic results as a phenol peel, it is a safer option. You will, however, need multiple sessions to see improvement of deeper-rooted issues.

Phenol Peel Recovery

Phenol peel recovery is long and intense.

During phenol peel healing, you need to be monitored by a professional. Regular check-up appointments are necessary to ensure your healing progress is going to plan and so you can address any concerns you may have.

While your skin recovers from a phenol peel, you can expect to experience peeling, crusting, oozing, swelling, discomfort, and redness in the treated area. These side effects come in phases over a six-week period.

Image source: Instagram @dr.marija_ristanovic

In the first stage (first 5-10 days), you’ll notice the top layers of your skin start to peel off.

During this stage, you will probably be instructed to use greasy occlusive dressings2 (like Aquaphor or Vaseline, for example) to minimize the risk of scarring and pigmentation.

Studies have shown there are many advantages to these kinds of dressings, such as minimizing discomfort, easy monitoring of the wound, and so on.

Your face will then completely scab over. When the scab starts to shed it will reveal fresh, pink skin. This is the new, smooth, and undamaged skin layer.

Keep in mind, the redness needs some time to go away so be patient. Full recovery can continue for several months.

During this whole process, you’ll want to stay out of direct sunlight and be extra diligent about sun protection!

How Much Does Phenol Peel Cost?

Phenol peel can be priced anywhere from $3,000 and $6,000, depending on your location and the extent of the treatment. So the phenol chemical peel cost goes much, much higher than other chemical peeling treatments.

Since it’s such an expensive procedure, check with your insurance. In some cases, it might cover part of the price.

Phenol Peel – Main Takeaways

As the deepest of all chemical peeling treatments, the potent abilities of phenol peel allow it to induce a controlled injury that leads to dramatic improvements in wrinkles, scars, and deep hyperpigmentation issues.

However, given its intensity, the phenol peel demands a skilled medical professional to ensure safety and minimize potential complications.

So, although it provides such a dramatic improvement, due to its high risk it’s often looked at as a last resort, and alternative treatments like lasers or medium-strength peels are recommended instead.



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