Oh, what we wouldn’t give for our skin to be like a dry-erase board. Acne scarsSun damage? Deep wrinkles? Swipe them with some felt and start anew. Unfortunately, dry-erase isn’t an effective skin treatment. To undo the past, you’ll need something a little stronger. Actually, a lot stronger — like an alpha hydroxy or even phenol peel.

Chemical peels are the closest you’ll get to a blank slate treatment, and they’re exactly what they sound like. A chemical is applied to your skin to loosen the bonds holding dead skin cells to your face, allowing them to fall off and reveal newer, undamaged skin cells. But not all chemicals are created equal — a dry eraser can swipe off the first few layers of marker, but Windex is needed to penetrate multiple passes of ink. Likewise with chemical peels. Many AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) peels and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) peels are mild and can even be performed at home. Their results are also relatively mild, and downtime is little to none. Phenol peels, however, are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum — they can wipe away a lot. And could never happen in your bathroom.

“A phenol peel is one the strongest peels available,” says Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. So strong, in fact, that it’s sometimes administered under IV sedation. Without it, the pain would be pretty terrible, even with a topical numbing cream. And due to the corrosive strength of the phenol, a full recovery can take months (and the early phases can be a little er — gruesome). 

Meet the experts:

  • Tanuj Nakra, MD, is a double board-certified facial and ophthalmic plastic surgeon in Austin, Texas. 
  • Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
  • Melissa Doft, MD, is a double board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City. 

Phenol peels have been administered since the 1920s and were once the only option for smoothing coarse wrinkles or acne scars. But they’ve become a less and less common offering in doctors’ offices ever since ablative lasers (like the CO2 and YAG) arrived on the scene in the 1990s. In fact, while the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that nearly 1.4 million chemical peels were performed in 2019, New York City-based plastic surgeon Dr. Melissa Doft says she is rarely asked about phenol peels. In recent memory, she says, there has only been one patient who wanted one — because her mother had seen dramatic results years ago. 

While it is generally viewed as a last-resort treatment for serious damage, a phenol peel can bring you lasting results — the clean slate you’ve been dreaming of. So is it worth the risk and recovery? We asked the pros to tell us more about phenol peels, what to expect, and if there are better alternatives. 

In this story:

What is a phenol peel?

Let’s start with the basics: What is phenol? “Phenol is an organic molecule derived from petroleum derivatives,” says Tanuj Nakra, MD, a double board-certified facial and ophthalmic plastic surgeon in Austin, Texas. “It is used in aesthetics because of its ability to penetrate deep into the skin — causing a controlled injury that when healed, can produce dramatic improvements in facial wrinkles.”

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