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At-Home Face Peels: Do They Work? Are They Worth It?

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I know you’ve recommended the Philosophy Microdelivery Peel a zillion times. However, after browsing on the Sephora site, I keep eyeing the Appleseed Resurfacing Kit by Fresh (no longer avaible). But for $150? Holy Apples Batman!

Have you ever used any Fresh brand products, and are they worth the insane prices?
To give you some perspective, I’m 28 with very oily skin, large pores, and over the past year have gotten kind of a lumpy, mottled complexion (it’s not acne, but it’s just junky). I almost never wear makeup to the office, so want skin that can shine on its own. I had a facial once at an Elizabeth Arden spa and noticed absolutely no difference afterwards. Regular use of the Olay Regenerist serum does help keep my pores minimized, but doesn’t seem to be doing anything for my overall complexion.

Thanks for your help,
De in D.C.

While I certainly noticed a huge change in my complexion when I left the drugstore aisles behind and dipped my toes into the higher-end brands, I do have my limits. And any single product or kit that costs over $100 is way past that limit. Hell, even the Microdelivery Peel kit would usually be over that limit, except for the fact that I HAVE had mostly positive experiences with the brand and know how my skin handles their ingredients. (AND I had the opportunity to try the Peel ahead of time, thanks to Philosophy’s tendency to include samples in all their products.)
So no. I have no experience with the Fresh peel or really, with the Fresh line. The price point is just too high ($125 face cream and $50 eye gels, for example). If, say, I’d tried Olay and Neutrogena and Clinique and Philosophy and Dr. Brandt and nothing had worked, perhaps I would keep moving on up the price scale and eventually ended up at Fresh or PerriconeMD and perhaps I would consider it worth it, because seriously.

I’m not a teenager anymore, I should NOT have to deal with crappy skin.
But I’m sooo not about spending a ton of money just because, nor do I believe that every price at Sephora is justified, or that something is inherently BETTER because you CAN’T buy it at Target, or that all the “science” and “research” behind some of these brands is any better than the ridiculous pseudo-speak you get from the commercials that go on and on about essential protein complexes in mascara, or whatever the hell.

Basically: if a bar of Dove soap keeps your skin happy, BY ALL MEANS USE THE DOVE SOAP. If your skin is not happy, well, you might want to look into something else, and yeah, you’ll probably spend more money, but still. Baby steps! We’re looking for the highest impact at the lowest price.

That said, let’s look at the Appleseed Peel ingredients. Once you get past all the pretty-sounding stuff (apples! iris extract! pomegranate milk! more apples!) that frankly, probably doesn’t really do much, this is essentially a glycolic acid face treatment. Glycolic acid is a pretty standard option for acne-prone, acne-scarred or aging skin, and you can easily find dozens of other peels and masks and face washes (at Sephora AND Target) with the same active ingredient.

Most acne treatments contain a hydroxy acid — either glycolic or salicylic. The Microdelivery Peel is a salicylic acid-based one. Proactiv uses glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide — another common (but often harsh and drying) acne fighter. When you’re looking for an oily skin or acne treatment, chances are that once you scan past the fruit oils and vitamin boosters and antioxidants the companies like to distract you with, you’ll find one of these three active ingredients. And this is where the product gets the majority of its firepower.

This is NOT to say that the other ingredients are totally worthless — these acids (and especially benzoyl peroxide) can be VERY irritating to your skin. Very drying, or can make oily skin worse by triggering an overcompensating kind of reaction. A lot of us, when faced with zits or icky pores, suddenly start reaching for the tube with the highest percentage of acne-fighting ingredients possible, even though a more measured approach is better. The other “natural” ingredients in the high-end face peels can also help minimize the irritation of the acids. (Sad but true, the drugstore brands generally have more unpronounceable chemical ingredients that send me searching through the Cosmetics Database and Wikipedia, trying to figure out the safety level or just WHAT EXACTLY IN THE WORLD THAT IS.)

Personally, salicylic acid works best for me. I don’t get many pimples — just blackheads and the occasional ultra-clogged pores. My skin is mostly combination; my complexion tends to be uneven and dull. Glycolic acid makes my cheeks dry and my t-zone oiler — it’s just too harsh. So I stick with skincare regimens that include a little salicylic acid, but not too much, and I do like to see other natural ingredients for soothing purposes. I generally believe our skin does a very good job of protecting us and that smearing something on your skin does not mean everything listed on that bottle is going to end up in your bloodstream, so I’m pretty middle-of-the-road about natural vs. not vs. what that email forward you got from your coworker said about this and that and everything else causing cancer. (Parabens aren’t a deal-breaker, for example, but I consider it a plus when a product DOESN’T contain them.) I prefer an ingredient list I can pronounce and decipher on my own.

If you aren’t sure which hydroxy acid works for you, I’d start with a cheaper option than the Fresh kit. Like I said, you can find both salicylic and glycolic acid-based products all over the price scale. (The Olay serum you mentioned has some moisturizing ingredients, but nothing for acne or oily complexions. I’ll be honest — that’s not a great ingredient list there, with a lot of parabens, benzyl alcohol, fragrance and nothing really natural or non-chemical to balance that stuff out.) I’d start with a cheaper option to see how your skin reacts — you may get more dryness with a drugstore treatment, but you SHOULD still see a reduction in oil and blackheads and breakouts with one or both of the acids. Once you figure out which one works for you, THEN you can start thinking about spending more money on something fancier, IF YOU EVEN NEED TO.

I do like the peels over daily serums, creams and treatments, though — they are pricier but the once or twice-a-week application is waaaay better for your skin than harshing it up everyday. (You know how we get. “Oh, this pimple spot treatment really cleared up that zit! I’m gonna start smearing it all over my face twice a day!” And this inevitably leads to an unbalanced oily-dry-red-angry skin disaster.) (Although yes, Philosophy’s Hope in a Bottle moisturizer contains some salicylic acid, and I do use that on my t-zone every day, though I keep other moisturizers on hand to swap out at the first sign of dryness.)

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Erin

    September 26, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Paula’s Choice!
    For serious. The only products that ever cleared up my oily, zitty, icky skin. PLUS she backs up her ingredients with cold, hard, independent research that she links to.
    If you feel skeevy buying something on the internet, you can just get little sample packs, but the stuff is not that expensive, and you get a decent amount. ($150?? for a peel?? Omg.)
    Just my two cents. 🙂

  • marymuses

    September 26, 2008 at 10:15 am

    I have problem skin (lumpy and bumpy due to acne scars, plus some normal aging skin heinousness, even though I’m just 32) and have had great success smoothing things out and brightening up with Origins’ Modern Friction. If you go to an Origins store, they will give you a facial right there for free and will even send you home with samples so you can see how your face does with their products over a longer amount of time.
    I have had nothing but good experiences in my Origins store. In fact, just this week I went in because I am about to leave on vacation and have run out of some of my products, but can’t afford to buy the full size containers yet. They happily gave me samples to last me through my vacation. How awesome is that?

  • Amy M

    September 26, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I have to second the Paula’s Choice recommendation. Paula is the lady who wrote those books “Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me” etc… The products are lovely and unscented and don’t contain a lot of unnecessary ingredients. The prices are reasonable and the bottles are large and last for a long time. I’ve been using the products for (gulp…) 10 years. I’m 35 and got carded last week buying a bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s, so it seems to be working. I think that her Beta Hydroxy Acid product would work beautifully for the skin problems described above.

  • TasterSpoon

    September 26, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Good advice, and I’m tempted by the comments, too. I love free samples!
    I started sporadically using the RoC “Resurfacing Facial Peel Kit” ($25) for wrinkles. I haven’t noticed any change in the wrinkles, but I have found that it seems to have done away with those annoying bumps just under the surface that never quite turn into pimples but never really go away either.
    Then again, my RoC campaign started around the same time I started taking antibiotics for an injury, so it could have been them.
    The RoC peel, as far as I can tell, is citric acid and glycol based. It has “active enzymes.” And I just noticed for the first time a separate line that informs me that This Product Contains Mushrooms.

  • Jess

    September 26, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    L’Oreal used to have a glycolic acid peel that I LOVED! LOVED! LOVED!. The first time I used it I went into work the next day and was asked by multiple people what I had done. Makeup change? Facial? I can’t seem to find it anywhere…but my point is…glycolic acid worked for me in a peel that I could pick up at the drugstore.
    There’s a fine line you walk between paying for quality ingredients and paying for fancy packaging…and that goes not only for skin care but for virtually any product.

  • Suzy Q

    September 26, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I also use the RoC kit, also sporadically, and mostly because I got it cheap on the clearance shelf at Walgreen’s. It’s okay and certainly better than nothing. The one I REALLY like is the Murad Vitamin C one, but it is ridiculously expensive.

  • Erin

    September 26, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Paula’s Choice! I use her BHA (salicylic acid) gel and love it, but she also carries a range of AHA (glycolic acid) products — the BHA gel is unscented and does a great job of exfoliating without irritating my skin.
    The website notes that AHAs “have been reported to normalize hyperkeratinization (over-thickened skin)” — so that might be especially helpful here.
    The Paula’s Choice website is a great resource on its own, even if you’re not sure if you want to buy her products. The section called “Skin Care Facts” has unvarnished, research-backed advice for dealing with all kinds of skin problems, sans marketing-speak and sales pitches. (Not that I don’t love this column, Amy! :-))

  • Brigid Keely

    September 26, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Hey, De. Have you ever tried cleansing your face with oil? I know it sounds crazy, especially if you have oily skin with huge clogged pores. Why would you want to throw more oil onto an already oily surface? But the logic is that oily skin is sensitive skin, and reacts to over-cleansing and stripping of oils by… producing more oil. Yay! I have super oily skin on my face, chest, and back and am dry pretty much everywhere else. I mixed up a combo of castor oil and sunflower/sesemee oil (I had them both lying around; I forget the exact ratio) and used it on the shower one day. The results were pretty amazing, but rinsing the oil off was also time consuming. it would have gone a lot faster if I had a steamer or something.
    My skin is super sensitive to… uh… everything. I’m leery of most over the counter cleansers and products because a lot of it causes peeling or white heads. The oil thing really worked and I’d keep doing it if I had more time or thought of it. I think it’d be a really effective thing to do once or twice a month, but I can never remember to carve the time out for it. And it’s WAY less expensive than the products you’re looking at.
    Just a suggestion from one oily chick to another. 😀

  • sarah

    September 27, 2008 at 8:28 am

    After years of trying at home products and being unsatisfied, I finally found a site that sells actual salon level peels. I now just get my glycolic and salicylic peels at professional levels and use them at home. It’s awesome and so cheap. You would pay 70 or 100 dollars for a peel in an office. But you can get a bottle of peel for $50 and use it every 2 weeks and it’ll last you six months. (the place i get my supplies from is but just google salicylic or glycolic and a bunch of places will come up).

  • De in D.C.

    September 28, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Thank you so much for the comments ladies. I spent over 45mins in the facial care isle in target the other night reading labels, and then walked out empty handed. I looked at the products from Paula’s Choice and the Natural Skin Shop and will definitely be getting some samples to try that use the glycolic acid. I’ve tried moisturizers in the past with salicylic acid and ended up red and uneven. I don’t know if that’s a result of over-exposure from it being in a moisturizer, but I figured I need to start somewhere so might as well start with the AHA.
    To Brigid, I’ve tried using oil as a moisturizer after cleaning with cetaphyl, and found that it made me a weird combo of oilier and scalier. This was jojoba oil, which is supposed to be the closest to natural body oil. I do use it as a makeup remover (when I wear it, which isn’t often) but it doesn’t do a good job as a moisturizer. I don’t think having it as a single duty product would work for me.
    My sister in law is 4yrs older than me and got carded at dinner last night and I didn’t. That can’t continue! 😉

  • Laura

    September 29, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I tried samples of the Fresh apple peels – not sure if it was exactly the same product referred to here – but it pretty much burned my face off. I don’t have sensitive skin at all. My face was red for about two hours afterwards. Not nice. Glad I just had a sample to try and didn’t shell out for the whole deal.