Are Peeling Masks Just A Big Hoax?


Maybe it’s happened to you—you’re scrolling through Instagram when you’re confronted with a video of a happy, molting person. You deduce that the molting is for skincare reasons, but what it is exactly, you cannot say. All you are sure about is that this magic product causes skin to ball up and peel off like a medical-grade chemical peel done at home—or, does it? They’re called gommage peels, and they sure have the most dramatic looking process. But what are gommage peels, and do they actually do any peeling? To get to the bottom of it, I spoke to medical aesthetician Manon Pilon, aesthetician and founder of La Suite Skincare Rhea Souhleris, and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jennifer Chwalek. It turns out that gommage peels do work—just not how you think they do.

So, what is a gommage peel?

Gommage isn’t a product category whipped up by a clever marketing exec—it’s actually just "a French term for exfoliation,” explains Pilon, specifically meaning “to erase.” Now this is where it can get confusing, because in France "gommage" is synonymous to "scrub," but gommage peels don't rely on abraisive particles at all. Instead, the peels work in the way that pencil erasers do, in that a marriage of friction and formula fades uneven textures and tones.

The peels usually combine two exfoliation methods: chemical and physical. “Gommage peels contain enzyme-rich gels, often in the form of various fruit acids,” elaborates Dr. Chwalek—that’s the chemical exfoliation. These enzymes are often derived from pineapple, papaya, and pumpkin. “Once the gel dries, it’s massaged off,” adding physical exfoliation. Et voila!

Is it the same thing as an alpha hydroxy acid peel?

Both are forms of chemical exfoliation, but AHAs like glycolic and lactic work a lot harder. “Glycolic peels penetrate deeper into the epidermis than enzyme peels do,” says Souhleris. Dr. Chwalek seconds this, and adds that, “while gommage peels may help give a temporary glow to the skin—and possibly aid in hydration depending on what is in the formulation—they are unlikely to provide the long-term benefits that occur with regular AHA use.” Those benefits include improving hyperpigmentation, reducing the appearance of pores, and stimulating collagen production. Another benefit to AHAs is that they balance the pH of skin, making it slightly more acidic and therefore inhospitable to acne-causing bacteria. Balancing your pH is something enzymatic acids can't do, so they’re less effective in preventing breakouts.

Enzymes do have one major strength over AHAs, which is that they are less likely to irritate sensitive skin. “Gommage is generally a more gentle peel than a glycolic peel, and consequently more tolerable,” says Dr. Chwalek. And, for those looking for an at-home exfoliating treatment a couple times a week, she thinks gommage is a good option.

Is it the same thing as a scrub?

“Even though a gommage peel is a manual exfoliation,” says Souhleris, “it relies on friction instead of micro-grains or abrasive particles.” One part exfoliation and one part massage, these friction movements exfoliate more gently, and result in the peely, satisfying results of gommage.

So what are those flakes that I rub off after the peel? Dead skin?

No! Well, not entirely anyway. “Most of what flakes off the skin in a gommage peel is the product itself,” says Dr. Chwalek. She points specifically at acrylate polymers specific to gommage peels for this effect (check the label for cellulose or carbomer). When these plastics interact with the oils in your skin, they start to ball up or peel. “Mostly, you see the product,” adds Souhleris. “But if it comes off looking a little darker or dirty, that's a pretty good tell that there are impurities attached to the gommage.” These impurities include dirt, oil, and, as Dr. Chwalek notes, “superficial skin cells from the top layer of skin.”

You sure it’s not dead skin? My friend/aesthetician/favorite Instagram beauty guru told me it’s dead skin.

Yep, I’m sure! Despite anything you might have read about gommage peels, the part that peels off is mostly not dead skin. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: product pilling off is a normal part of gommage. Exfoliation is happening! Just not a reptilian amount of it.

Would gommage be a good exfoliation method for my [insert skin type here] skin?

Those with sensitive and/or dry skin may benefit the most from a gommage peel. “Gommage peels are typically a gentle cream texture—many of them have hydrating ingredients working simultaneously,” says Souhleris. Soothing hydration is particularly important for these two skin types, as both sensitivity and dryness can be heightened by over exfoliation.

However, don’t underestimate gommage—even though it’s one of the gentlest forms of exfoliation, it’s still not for everyone. “If someone has active acne, I would not recommend a gommage peel. The friction required could possibly spread bacteria,” says Souhleris. Pilon echoes this, saying “Gommage on acne and rosacea can irritate the skin and increase the chance of bacteria proliferation.” Gommage also might not be the best choice if you know that your face is prone to peach-fuzz. “The gommage can adhere to the hair,” says Souhleris, “making removal quite difficult and sometimes painful.” To avoid an accidental face wax, stick to products you can wash off.

Is there anything else I should know?

Sure, just one. “Depending on the formulation or ingredients,” says Dr. Chwalek, “gommage peels may still cause irritation in sensitive skin types.” She recommends consulting a dermatologist or aesthetician before trying it at home. But if you’re ready to dive right in, these products are a good place to start.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG.