Chemical Peels vs. Microdermabrasion: Similarities and Differences


It doesn’t take much for signs of aging—or, simply put, “life”—to start appearing on the face, where they are especially noticeable. Every late night with the kids or afternoon spent too long in the sun starts to take its toll, leaving marks in the form of spots, dull skin, and fine lines. Stress and hormone shifts can contribute to acne flare-ups, while any number of conditions or accidents can result in a long-term reminder of what happened in the form of a scar. The dermatologists at Tucson’s Ironwood Dermatology have seen it all, and regularly hear from patients—including new moms—who want to know if there’s something they can do to reclaim a more refreshed look.

Two commonly suggested treatments for all of the problems noted above are chemical peels and microdermabrasion. These options have something specific in common: They remove the outer layer of skin to expose the fresher layer beneath. This action also encourages a natural healing response, which promotes new collagen growth for a smoother, more resilient look.


That said, these treatments accomplish that goal in two different ways.


Chemical peels are solutions painted directly onto the skin. The compound typically has an acid as its active ingredient, whether glycolic, lactic, or salicylic. The strength of the peel and the length of time it is left on the skin determine how deep it penetrates and how dramatic the ultimate result will be.


Peel sessions can be expected to last about half an hour, with the results being revealed throughout the following days. Essentially, the acid causes the outermost later of skin to act like it does after a sunburn. Following a period of redness and sensitivity, the skin will flake or peel away, which gives the treatment its name. Fine lines and wrinkles, acne, and some signs of sun damage will peel away too, leaving skin that is smoother and softer.

Unlike a chemical peel, microdermabrasion removes the older, outer later of skin and its dead cells right away. The treatment involves the use of a device that gently buffs the skin, something like removing an unwanted layer of paint along with any trapped dirt, grime, stray marks, and shallow scratches. Fine lines and certain scars, blackheads and other symptoms of acne, and hyperpigmentation and other forms of sun damage can all be reduced, with the newly exposed skin showing off a healthier glow.


Microdermabrasion also leaves the skin feeling tender and looking red for a few days after, until the skin fully heals itself.


Since both treatments take away a layer of protection, sunscreen and avoiding ultraviolet exposure are particularly important following a session. Removing that layer does, however, make it easier for the infusion of serums that can further hydrate and improve the look and health of the skin. Without the barrier of dead cells and blocked pores, the skin is more ready to absorb nourishing topicals.


These two treatments are not the only options for patients who want to resurface. Dermaplaning, which involves manual exfoliation by a skilled cosmetic professional, can also get rid of unwanted debris and promote healing. Lasers may also be used to ablate the skin, taking away unwanted cells and promoting collagen production.


Why are there so many different strategies for treating the signs of time passing and sun damage? No two people age the same, so no single treatment is going to be ideal for the entire population. While each technique is effective, some will be more appropriate than others for patients with particular skin types, varying degrees of damage, and unique cosmetic goals.


Anyone considering freshening up their look should work with a team led by board-certified dermatologists who have experience with a wide range of skin types and treatments.


Learn more about various rejuvenating treatments, including chemical peels and microdermabrasion, by contacting the dermatologists at Tucson’s Ironwood Dermatology online or calling 520.618.1630.