The History of Facial Peels and How They’ve Changed Over the Years.

Would you believe us if we told you that Cleopatra regularly indulged in facial peels to rejuvenate her complexion? While her technique may look a little different from the products currently holding a spot on our shelves, it’s true that this much-loved skin treatment has had a place in skincare dating back to ancient Egyptians. Despite centuries of fine tuning formulas and scientific discoveries, some of the ingredients used in facial peels (like our beloved AHAs) are still found in products today—which is a true testament to their efficacy. Keep scrolling for a peek at how facial peels have changed over the years.

Ancient Times

One of the first known records of a "facial peel" was discovered during ancient times, when the Egyptians (yes, including the queen Cleopatra herself) would bathe in sour milk to exfoliate and restore their skin. This actually isn’t as weird as it sounds; one of the most common AHAs, lactic acid, is derived from milk. It’s a gentle exfoliant that leaves behind a smooth and supple complexion—no need to leave the milk out though, we included it in The Shortcut Overnight Facial.


The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were also known to regularly apply "face masks" made of crushed grapes—and even, allegedly, bathe in red wine—for a glowing complexion. The key ingredient in this treatment is tartaric acid—a lesser known AHA that’s still used today, primarily in conjunction with other exfoliating acids to keep their pH levels stable and prevent potential irritation. Lemon extract (now more commonly found in the form of citric acid), sulphur, and limestone were also regularly used to fade sun spots and freckles and lighten complexions, since sun damaged skin was looked down upon during those times. However, more serious versions of facial peels were used back then too, albeit safety probably wasn’t as much of a concern. The Turks would intentionally burn their skin using fire while Gypsies are rumored to secretly pass along recipes for deep chemical peels that would evolve into today’s phenol peel—one of the most intense, medical-grade peels currently on the market.

Late 1800s

There wasn’t much progression on the facial peel front until 1874, when the Austrian dermatologist Ferdinand von Hebra experimented with peeling formulas (that included ingredients like phenol, croton oil, and nitric acid) to treat hyperpigmentation, particularly melasma, dark spots stemming from Addison’s disease, and freckles. Meanwhile in Germany, Paul G. Unna was curating treatments made with the acne-fighting salicylic acid and trichloroacetic acid, an ingredient found in medium-level chemical peels known as a TCA peel. Although these formulas helped shape a prototype for the facial peels we use today, back then these treatments were considered medical—not cosmetic—and were performed at hospitals for patients with severe scarring and spots (not for those seeking the benefits for aging skin that facial peels are touted for today). It wasn’t until word got around that chemical peels were being for cosmetic purposes in Paris, then referred to as “ecorchement” (or “skinning” in French), that facial peels became normalized as a beauty treatment.

Still, facial peels back then were not for the faint of heart. Typically a potent formula, softened with boiling water, was applied to the skin using a brush and covered with strips of gauze. After several days, the bandaging was lifted and a fresh (yet red and scabbed) complexion was revealed. Results couldn’t be proudly exhibited for some time, though, as it was recommended the patient remain secluded until these side effects subsided.


The powerful ingredient phenol came into play more frequently during World War I, where it was applied along with bandages to help wounded soldiers repair and fade their battle scars. It was around this time that “beautifier” salons began offering in-office treatments, too, performed by practitioners known as “lay face peelers” or “skinners”. This method of performing facial peels was a true beauty secret stealthily passed along by these lay face peelers and kept solely by the wealthy and Hollywood elite. In 1961, the first article revealing this secret recipe (called a Baker-Gordon peel, which is still used today) was published, catapulting chemical peels into mainstream use. Experimentation with peeling agents continued into the 1970s, when doctors Eugene Van Scott and Ruey J. Yu’s research helped officially coin the term alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which were then formulated into chemical exfoliators and facial peel products.

2000s - Now

Today, there’s a varied assortment of chemical peels—with a wide range of potencies—to choose from depending on your skin type, skin concerns, and yes, budget. While their elusive, somewhat scary reputation seems to have trickled down into modern times (who can forget the horror that fell across our faces after watching Samantha reveal her red-tinged complexion during that infamous Sex and the City episode?), facial peels are a safe, widely-accepted treatment—there are currently over 150 million search results related to the practice on Google—that can deliver serious skin-changing results. Thankfully, there’s no longer a need to track down a “beautifier” or spend a week in hiding; while deep peels are done in-office and require some recovery time, most everyone will see benefits like a glowy complexion, faded dark spots and acne scars, and fewer fine lines from treatments you can apply at home, too. Our Instant Resurfacing Mask still uses AHAs discovered years ago, such as glycolic acid, to dissolve dead, damaged skin cells, brighten tone, even out skin texture, and smooth wrinkles.