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You’ve seen it before: people with beet-red, “poreless” faces looking so tight they look like they might crack – and they will in a few days, resulting in a smooth, pinkish skin complexion. It's what usually happens when you use OTC depigmenting agents such as hydroquinone – a popular product in the Philippines. But does it really improve your skin or are chemical peels a safer bet? Here, an expert shares her thoughts.

Skin Lightening Agents vs. Chemical Peels

Many people fear chemical peels because they believe they have the same effects as OTC peels sold in drugstores. The latter – orange or brown hyperpigmentation treatments – is known to cause severe redness, blistering, and crusting in the skin, along with a burning sensation. People may endure this, thinking it’s what the skin must go through to achieve the desired result, but it’s not always a pretty or successful metamorphosis. 

What is in these “peels”? They contain a combination of chemical peels, hydroquinone, and , according to Dr. Hazel Hao-Dy, MD, FPDS. A chemical peel exfoliates the skin using acids, such as , while tretinoin, also known as all-trans retinoic acid, is commonly used to treat acne, wrinkles, and texture. Hydroquinone, on the other hand, is a topical skin-lightening agent that inhibits melanin production.

“Chemical peels work by resurfacing the skin. The depth would depend on whether it is a superficial, medium, or deep peel. Hydroquinone cream is the standard depigmentation or skin-lightening agent. Tretinoin is a synthetic retinoid derived from vitamin A that increases skin cell turnover,” says Dr. Hao-Dy.

Which Kinds of Peels Improve Skin Complexion?

As with any treatment, safety should be a major consideration. “How safe it is to use would depend on your skin concern and skin type, plus the level of active ingredients,” says Dr. Hao-Dy. “Cosmetic grade chemical peels are generally safe for at-home use, while medical grade peels should be applied with the guidance of a professional.” These effectively exfoliate, smoothen, and brighten the skin complexion with little irritation.

Topical hydroquinone, on the other hand, has the risk of ochronosis, which is paradoxical hyperpigmentation where it is applied for prolonged periods without rest. She adds, “In my practice, I have seen a lot of complications from using OTC peels and depigmenting products, such as irritation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, among others. It is always better to consult a doctor/dermatologist before trying these.”

“It is also important to apply an adequate amount of sunscreen when using peeling or depigmenting agents, as this may increase photosensitivity,” she says. A found that these also reduce skin thickness and disrupt the epidermis, making the skin more susceptible to sunburn. Always apply a with at least SPF 30 before heading out and reapply every two hours.

How to Choose a Chemical Peel

With so many acids, how do you know which is best for your skin complexion? “While the active ingredients may be similar, the potency of medical-grade peels or those done in the clinic would be higher,” Dr. Hao-Dy explains.“The best type of peel would depend on your skin type or skin condition, but in general, AHAs like are used to improve tone and pigment, while salicylic acid is good for acne. For dry or sensitive skin, formulations with mandelic or lactic acid are most suitable.”

For safe and gentle brightening, use POND'S Bright Miracle Ultimate Clarity Day Serum, which enhances the skin’s UV damage defense with regular use.

Peels are popular in the Philippines, where many are still trying to lighten their skin complexion. “Filipinos traditionally associate fairer skin with beauty and a higher socioeconomic status,” Dr. Hao-Dy says. “But I always advocate for my patients to be comfortable in their own beauty and I'm happy to say that more patients appreciate and love their morena skin. We try to achieve even-toned skin, rather than lighter skin.”