When I came across Sabrina's story about how she won her battle with acne scars and hyperpigmentation because of professional peels, I knew I had to share it on Sisterlocked. Her before and after is awe inspiring and I hope this helps someone else struggling with similar skin issues.


What comes to mind when you hear that word? Dry and flaky skin? Extreme face peeling videos on YouTube? A Sephora worker putting some product on the back of your hand, massaging it for a bit until it clumps up, and then they tell you, "that's your dead skin"?

The word is used and thrown around so frequently in the skincare world that people either go crazy for it or are intimidated by it.

Let’s be frank: A peel is any product that helps get rid of dead skin. It may work just on your
epidermis, or it will go deeper into your skin promoting new growth, and in turn, peeling your
outer layer. A lot of peels contain acids, usually as AHAs, such as Glycolic, Lactic, or Citric
Acid, or BHAs, such as Salicylic acid.

Professional peels may contain AHAs and BHAs as well, plus other ingredients like retinols. What makes professional peels so different is that authorized estheticians can administer higher doses that you can’t find over the counter. Even if you can find these higher doses through online shopping, there is a huge margin for error if done incorrectly or left on too long, so it is not recommended. When these products are used correctly under the supervision of a registered esthetician, these products can produce positive results.

Professional peels have been a lifesaver for me. Since high school, I was prone to the occasional pimple or breakout, and they would leave a new dark scar when they faded. Most of these pimples appeared on my forehead and jawline, so it was impossible to hide it. I’m a tomboy at heart, so I didn’t care too much about my looks, and didn’t bother with makeup, but with time, I started feeling more self-conscious when I would see those scars in pictures taken of me. Once, I even decided to cut bangs to hide those marks. That caused two issues: The oils and creams I put in my hair only caused more breakouts, and (like my mom would tell me at the time) my bangs didn’t even look good. I found myself wanting to put on makeup for performances, or anywhere I think photos may be taken.

When I started postsecondary, I finally had some spare change and freedom, so I started looking into skincare. I first tried what any black person would try: cocoa butter, shea butter, aloe vera, vitamins, and oils; however, I already had a feeling that they wouldn't work. They didn't work on the mosquito bites from a trip to the Caribbean when I was 12 years old, so why would they work now? Heck, it's been 12 years since that trip and I still see traces of those bites. I used to work that cocoa butter into my skin every night and I'm sure many many many skin cycles have passed, yet, they're still there. I knew my marks wouldn’t fade on their own, nor would these natural products help. I had to find a different solution.

I tried a few other cheap products from Walmart and Black hair stores, but they didn't seem to make a difference either. I invested in the Tea Tree line from The Body Shop that the workers recommended to me. I loved the squeaky clean face scrub and still use that as my main face wash, but otherwise, I didn't see a difference. The Tea Tree line is supposed to help with blemishes, but back then, I thought blemishes meant marks and scars, not active acne.

One day at church, I bumped into a girl I knew in the washroom and she was putting on Nadinola, a popular hydroquinone product. She had more acne scars than me and said she saw a difference with it. I looked on eBay and found it for $30 after shipping. It was a bit pricey, especially for a broke college kid like me, but I figured it would be worth the investment. I tried it twice a day, everyday. Layering it. I think I did see some progress, but with time, I noticed my overall face getting a bit darker. [Do note, I was a black kid who thought black people didn't need sunscreen].

I decided to look online again, and found an Indian, natural, whitening product for about $3. I bought it. I tried it. The next morning...my skin was burning! It was dry, flaky, and so uncomfortable. For the first time in my life, I was having a bad reaction. I passed by a walk-in clinic after school and they told me to buy some aloe for the burns. After my skin healed, I was left with very dark patches, especially around my mouth, my forehead, and around my eyes and cheeks. I was devastated! If I thought I felt insecure before, I was a fool because this was just downright embarrassing. Embarrassing enough to make a normal girl stay home unless she had her makeup on. The patches were so dark that even when I wore foundation and concealer during my college graduation, you could still see where the dark patches were. It was that bad.

When I first got into the working field, I was only making minimum wage. After paying off all of my smaller loans, debts, and bills, I started looking into high-end skincare products from Sephora and Shoppers Drug Mart. I made the mistake of being cheap last time, so I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. I tried Ole Henriksen, Philosophy, Clinique, Dr. Dennis Gross, GlamGlow, Clarins, LancĂ´me, Vichy, La Roche Posay, etc. I did see some progress for the first time since buying skincare, but it was not to the degree I had hoped. $130, 4 weeks...and it's barely fading an acne scar? I was quite disappointed.

Eventually, after doing some research and watching some videos, I decided to look into professional treatments. I had a credit on Groupon, so I looked for microderm treatments on there. I searched for clinics that weren't too far from home and had good reviews. I ended up deciding on Redwood Medi Spa in North York, Toronto.

I walked into the clinic; very cute and intimate, but also very bright and clean. I was greeted by the owner, a friendly, upbeat, asian lady named Maggie, who had the most clear and smooth skin I had ever seen. It was literally glowing. She handed me a form to fill out and made me a cup of tea. The form was a few pages long and had many questions regarding my skin routine, concerns, allergies, and medicine.

After I filled it out, Maggie sat down and went through it with me. She would ask for more details about my skincare routine, what I had tried in the past, and performed a visual analysis of my skin. She also got mad when I checked 'no' to using sunscreen and wrote 'because I'm black' when the form asked why. She lectured me about the importance of it even if I'm black, especially when using sun-sensitive products like brightening creams. After that day, I never skipped sunscreen. Not once.

After the consultation, I was placed in a room, given a robe to change into, and got under the warm comfy covers. She came in, put a towel headband on, did one last inspection of my skin, then started the procedure. She would talk me through each step since my eyes had to remain closed. She washed my face, did the microderm treatment while paying special attention to my darker spots, used a steamer to open my pores, performed extractions, wiped my face, used a static wand to kill bacteria, put on a mask, gave me a shoulder and foot massage, wiped off the mask, then put on some cream and sunscreen. We talked throughout the treatment and I asked her about herself and how she ended up in this field. Turns out, she dealt with acne as a young adult, and on her journey to find solutions for it, she became passionate about the field and sought to become an esthetician. She was very open and sociable, which made me feel more comfortable being in her care.

After changing back into my clothes, she walked me to their product room and showed me some of Obagi's Hydroquinone line and recommended it for my hyperpigmentation. After using Nadinola and doing more research, I was a bit wary about using hydroquinone again, especially if each product was $80+. She understood and then showed me Image's Iluma line which brightens without hydroquinone, but they too were expensive and I had a tight budget. She didn't push the products, but told me to keep it in mind as it would help. She then pitched a special package for 4 microderm treatments, only available for first time clients. I didn't mind coming back for more, but I couldn't afford the set, which was about $400 or so, if I remember correctly. She told me if I can pay part of it now, I can pay the rest later when I come back. So I took her up on the deal.

Fast forward 5 months. I finished my last microderm treatment, so Maggie recommended that I try professional peels. I was hesitant after seeing some extreme peeling videos on YouTube, but she ensured me that they would never do anything that strong. She also said they would work you up through the strengths, so I decided to try one before buying a package.

The peel is a bit cheaper than the microderm because it isn't a full 1.5 hour facial. They can be done in about 30 minutes as it only includes a cleansing, peel, and some cream/sunscreen at the end. Some peels neutralize on their own, while others need to be timed and carefully watched to ensure they are manually neutralized at the right time.

For me personally, I would rate the stinging level of a professional peel a 2-4 out of 10, depending on the strength. I didn't find it uncomfortable at all, but Maggie told me stories of other clients who got the same peels and were begging for her to take them off, so she would be shocked when I'd give it a 3 out of 10. To be fair, I have tried at-home peels that would burn or tingle more than the ones administered at the clinic, but they wouldn't produce the same physical peeling as the clinic would. [Perhaps I'm just a masochist. I don't mind some burning, tingling, or pain. PMS cramps, wisdom teeth surgery, headaches...I never take painkillers...but that's partly because I can’t swallow pills anyway. When it comes to my face, I associate tingling as a product working. I'd happily bear another 5 minutes of stinging if it means my face will look better in a week. Don't be like me.]

With each peel, I saw my skintone get brighter. More often than not, my face would physically peel and I would see the darker patches on my face flake away and reveal brighter skin underneath. The best feeling is washing your face in the morning and seeing these clumps of dark dead skin just fall off. It's satisfying and brings me a lot of hope and happiness thinking that I'm getting closer to my goal of having bright, clear, even skin.

Around this time, since I was making more money, I started investing in the Image and Obagi line the clinic recommended. They certainly helped a lot more than the products I bought from Sephora months ago. Although I was hesitant to use Hydroquinone, after realizing my mistakes (e.g., no sunscreen) and listening to her advice (3 months on, 3 months off), it became a game-changer. Clinic treatments obviously made the biggest difference when it came to my skintone, but I was able to make more progression with my skin routine at home.

Within a year of going to this clinic, all the acne scars from high school have faded. The dark hyperpigmented patches on my cheeks and around my mouth are still visible, but most of it has faded, and even I have to take a closer look to see what's remaining. I still break out here and there, which leaves me with new acne scars, but I can rest easy knowing with professional treatments and good products, I can get rid of them much faster. Maggie still scolds me everytime I come in with a new acne scar because she knows I picked at it. She has told me many, many times not to touch it, and even says she'll extract it if I drop by, but I can't help it. I'm weak! Find an esthetician that checks up on you and scolds you because they care about your skin and progress as much as you do.

In the end, I would certainly recommend professional peels to anyone who is still struggling with acne scars and hyperpigmentation. Before you drop in to the first place you see and get a peel done, follow these guidelines:

1. Avoid getting a peel done at a general spa.
I got my first ever microderm and facial at Elmwood Spa in downtown Toronto. Although the ambiance and the treatment are wonderful, they would not help with your hyperpigmentation. The treatments and products they use are good for anyone, but aren't meant to really help with your skin concerns. I asked the lady who did mine if it would help and she told me herself no. Hyperpigmentation on POC (people of color) is hard to treat, so that's understandable. They wouldn't stock the products you would need because that isn't their forte. You're also paying more for the extra amenities, such as water therapy, so I wouldn't recommend it if you actually want to fix your hyperpigmentation.

2. Avoid getting a peel done at a general salon.
Would you rather buy a book from a place like Walmart or Indigo/Chapters? Although Walmart sells books, they wouldn't have the variety of a bookstore, nor would their workers have the expertise to help you find what you are looking for or recommend what you should read. They hire general people and train them in a variety of departments. If you wouldn't go to Walmart for an educational book, why would you get a peel done at a place that does hair and nails as well? Why put your most important features in the hands of someone who may not even be a trained esthetician? Just think about it.

3. Ask lots of questions and check their knowledge on your skin type!
This is your face they are dealing with. Your face! So many things can go wrong in the hands of someone who doesn't understand your skin tone. This rule applies to everyone. Just because someone is black, doesn't mean they understand black skin; and just because someone isn't black, doesn't mean they don't understand black skin. Maggie, who is Chinese, knew and understood my skin better than I did. She told me that even black people need to wear sunscreen as we also suffer from skin damage. There are even times I’d inquire about their stronger treatments like laser resurfacing or fractora (radio-frequency skin resurfacing), but she wouldn't do them on me because there's too much risk with my skin tone. Ask as many questions as you have to, listen to their responses, see how confident they are about treating your skin, and if they would refuse to do things on you even if you asked. If they are as experienced as they say, they would have no problem answering your questions and explaining in detail their process or recommending something along with why they wouldn't.

4. Don't jump straight into peels.
Although it is tempting to go for the strongest, most life-changing procedure right away, your skin may not be ready for it. Start with treatments that have less side effects like microderms or facials before jumping into peels or microneedling. Some clinics may push you to buy a stronger treatment, usually because they would make more money off of them, but if they truly care about your skin, they would rather take the slow and steady route and play it safe than risk burning your skin or leaving you with scars that cannot be reversed.

5. Be prepared for embarrassment.
Peeling happens over a few days, and you're not allowed to pick at your flaking skin. Even if you put a lot of cream and moisturizers before you go out for the day, it can be absorbed within 4 hours and your flakes would become more visible. Being a receptionist at the time, I thought my skin looked okay since no one said anything, but then I would go to the washroom during my lunch break and saw how dry and flaky my skin looked. If you try wearing makeup in this time (which I wouldn't recommend as your skin is healing), the flakes could be even more visible and you can't add cream to it either. I tried to time my peels for a Wednesday or Thursday evening, so most flaking would take time during the weekend when I can stay home and hide.

7. Don't be cheap!
I know a lot of us are so eager to get rid of our skin issues, but a lot of us are trying to find that magic serum for under $25. Thankfully with brands like The Ordinary, you can get stronger products without breaking the bank, but if they don't work for you, be open to spending for stronger products or professional treatments. This is an investment. Don't be like past me: excited to buy the first $3 item that promises to brighten your skin, and then ending up with a bigger problem than you started with.

8. Patience and persistence.
The two most important things in skincare:

First, your skin needs time to heal after treatments or peels. I used to use rough or strong exfoliants everyday thinking the more I scrub, the faster I'll see brighter skin, but sadly that's not how our skin works. I was doing more damage than good and compromising my natural skin barrier because I never gave it a break. Patience also comes into play between products. You have to give your face time to absorb face masks or serums before moving on to moisturizer or you would just dilute the product and its effects won't be as noticeable.

Second, persistence is important. Any skincare treatment takes time; it takes months and even years. Just like how you can't play piano or learn a language in a week, your skin isn't going to change in a week. You need to have persistence. Persistence to wash your face everyday, apply sunscreen everyday, remove your makeup everyday, and apply the right products everyday. You can't give up. Keep with it. If something isn't working after a month or two, try something new and stick with it. One trip to a MediSpa isn't going to solve your problems. It will take a few treatments. It takes time and money, but remember, it is an investment. Your skin is not only your biggest organ, but one of the most important organs. It's what protects our insides from the outside and it's what people see. It's what you see when you look in the mirror everyday. Remember your goals, remember the future. Maybe you can be one of those 60 year olds who looks 35. Skincare is a lifelong journey, so stick with it, be consistent, it will change, and you will feel proud in your skin, even if you're caught off guard with no makeup on.  Don't lose hope. You can do it if you keep with it. I believe in you.