5 topical skin treatments that actually work

Want to turn back the clock without going under the knife? These 5 evidence-based topical treatments will help treat your skin concerns and restore your glow.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

If injecting anti-wrinkle treatments and fillers into your face isn’t your jam, you may be wondering whether topical skin treatments – those that are applied to the surface of the skin – are effective or an overhyped waste of money.

And how can you go about figuring out which one of the seemingly endless list of treatments is right for you? Your sister swears by a chemical peel with a fancy name you can never remember while your neighbour thinks microneedling is the bee’s knees. Who’s right?

The good news is that several topical skin treatments are backed by science and produce visible results, but deciding on the best treatment for you requires a consultation with a skin specialist.

“It’s imperative to consult with a qualified aesthetic practitioner or therapist to identify your skin concerns, evaluate your suitability for a specific treatment and ensure you don’t have any contraindications,” says qualified dermal clinician Brodie Pfeiffer.

Cara learned that some treatments can aggravate skin conditions if they’re not suitable for your skin or carried out properly the hard way.

“I had a tiny bit of melasma [a skin condition characterised by brownish patches of pigmentation on the face] and I had a chemical peel, but it did nothing for it,” she explains.

“Then I tried IPL and I thought it had helped, but then more areas of melasma appeared on my cheeks and forehead. I’ve since found out that, before the IPL, I should have been using pigment inhibitors because I’m prone to pigmentation. I’m now using a hydroquinone cream and it’s helping. I still have the forehead melasma, but it’s a lot better and I’ve come to terms with it.”

So, which topical skin treatments produce the best results? Brodie weighs in on 5 of the most effective treatments on the market.


Targets: all types of pigmentation including sunspots, freckles and persistent hormonal melasma

Recovery time: up to 14 days

Average number of treatments needed: 1 (or 2 for severe pigmentation)

Average cost per treatment: $1900-$2300

You may have heard about the trending Cosmelan depigmentation peel, but Brodie recommends dermamelan instead.

“Dermamelan works similarly to Cosmelan, but with a 25% stronger corrective and regulating action because it contains higher amounts of the active ingredients,” she explains.

“It encourages cellular renewal and stops melanin from accumulating in the outermost layers of the skin. This combined effect gets rid of pigmentation and creates a visibly brighter and more evenly toned complexion.

“If my client is a suitable candidate and can endure the extended downtime, dermamelan would be my treatment of choice because it’s more powerful and will achieve a greater result in just one session.”

Salicylic acid peel

Targets: adult acne

Recovery time: 1-3 days

Average number of treatments needed: 2 to 5 peels spaced a few weeks apart

Average cost per treatment: $90-$250 per peel

Who would’ve thought you’d be battling wrinkles and pimples at the same time? With more than 15% of women aged 50 and over suffering from acne, it’s an issue Brodie commonly treats in her older clients.

And while salicylic acid isn’t the go-to chemical to treat pigmentation issues including sunspots, freckles and melasma, it can also help lighten them in the process.

“Salicylic acid peels are an excellent choice for acne-prone skin including blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules and enlarged pores,” says Brodie.

“Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that’s lipid-soluble, meaning it can penetrate the pores and have a deep exfoliating effect on oily and congested skin. In addition to unclogging pores, it can reduce inflammation, decrease bacteria and suppress further oil production.

“These peels are a cost-effective and integral part of managing acne-prone skin types. I encourage my clients to use them fortnightly in combination with a prescription-grade skin-care regime.”

Vitamin A peel

Targets: signs of ageing, pigmentation, acne and skin texture

Recovery time: 1-6 days

Average number of treatments needed: 2 to 6

Average cost per treatment: $160-$280

You’ve probably heard the beauty buzzwords retinol, retinoids and retinoic acid - all of which are forms of vitamin A.

“These compounds fulfil diverse roles within our skin's structure,” explains Brodie. “Vitamin A stands out as one of the most potent stimulants of collagen production and forms the basis of most anti-ageing treatments.

“They’re also effective in treating skin congestion, pigmentation, sun damage, acne, keratosis pilaris [a skin condition with rough patches and small bumps] and overall skin texture resurfacing.

“When they’re administered in a medical-based dermal clinic, vitamin A peels often contain specialist strength retinoic acid, the most potent form of vitamin A, which creates incredible skin resurfacing results.

“I encourage my clients to start having regular vitamin A skin peels at the first sign of visible skin concerns to help decelerate them and prevent further damage.”


Targets: skin ageing, sun damage, pigmentation, acne and scarring

Recovery time: minimal to none

Average number of treatments needed: 3-6

Average cost per treatment: $200-$250

Want the benefits of a peel without the extended downtime? BioRePeel could be the treatment for you.

“BioRePeel is one of the most innovative chemical peels on the market,” says Brodie. “It contains 35% trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and several other active ingredients, and it’s uniquely formulated to bypass the epidermal layer to treat the skin from the inside out. Its major benefits are that it has little to no downtime and it’s suitable for all skin types.”

“As opposed to traditional TCA peels, BioRePeel delivers the active ingredients beyond your skin barrier without disrupting it and targets everything from fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage to acne, redness and rosacea.

“This is one of the best peels you can get because it’s an all-rounder that can address a myriad of skin concerns.”


Targets: a short-term boost in hydration and glow

Recovery time: 1-2 days

Average number of treatments needed: as desired

Average cost per treatment: from $400

While not a purely topical treatment, mesotherapy is a minimally invasive procedure that can give your skin an instant boost of hydration to make it appear more youthful and radiant.

“Mesotherapy refers to the process of delivering vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other compounds through the dermis via channels,” Brodie explains. “These channels can be created using needles, microneedles, nanoneedles or non-laser heat.

“Whether mesotherapy is genuinely effective or merely hype hinges on the specific ingredients and delivery methods that are used. Most commonly, corrective ingredients including hyaluronic, retinoic and ascorbic acid are used and can produce visible results.

“While there are superior therapies that produce more consistent results for damaged and declined skin, I recommend mesotherapy as a pre-event treatment. If you view it as a skin booster to improve skin quality instantly with little or no downtime, you’ll be satisfied with the results.”


The information on this page is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. This content does not replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your healthcare provider for any medical concerns.

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