You might have heard about the refreshing and rejuvenating effects of glycolic acid peels, but maybe you weren't really sure how they worked and if there were any pros and cons. Well, we're here to walk you through the amazing powers a glycolic acid peel can have on your skin. We asked two dermatologists to help us break down the ins and outs of the treatment so you can figure out if it's right for your specific skin type and your own skin needs and concerns.
So first, it's probably important to start with what exactly glycolic acid is. "Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made from sugarcane," explains Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics. "It is a popular active ingredient in skincare for its exfoliation properties. In low concentrations, it can be used as a face wash or in leave-on creams or lotions. You can apply a glycolic acid solution to the face, which is called a chemical peel or glycolic peel. Glycolic peels remove the stratum corneum (the outermost layers of the skin) and clear clogged pores to reveal fresh, smooth, and bright skin. Glycolic acid peels come in different concentrations, ranging from 20% up to 70%. They target different types of acne, skin discoloration, or uneven tone and texture."
Benefits of Glycolic Acid Peels
"Glycolic peels have some amazing benefits. By removing those dull, damaged layers and dead skin cells, you can address skin concerns like hyperpigmentation, photoaging, scars, uneven skin tones, fine lines, wrinkles, and even clear up acne," Rodney says. "It also stimulates collagen production and keeps excess oil at bay, giving you healthier skin for longer. It's a procedure I recommend to my patients often, especially if they've struggled with skin discoloration or simply want more youthful, glowing skin."
Should You Get a Glycolic Acid Peel?
Co-founder and partner of Dermatology and Surgery Specialists of North Atlanta Kathleen S. Viscusi, MD, FAAD, FACMS, says the treatment is good for anyone who has general concerns over skin tone and texture and is looking for a noninvasive way to target those issues. Rodney adds that glycolic acid peels at lower concentrations are generally safe for all skin types. "Patients in generally good health who struggle with mild acne and uneven skin tones are good candidates," she explains. "Even then, your dermatologist will start with a mild glycolic peel (a 20% concentration) to help avoid potential burning or skin irritation. If all works well, they'll increase the concentration since you should do a series of multiple peels to get the best results."
But if you have sensitive skin or know that you're sensitive to acids, Viscusi says you may want to avoid getting the peels. Rodney says that if you have an active infection of the skin (bacterial, viral, or fungal), you should also avoid peels until the condition clears. The same goes for sunburns. "If you've been using prescription medication (specifically retinols or retinoids) to treat acne, adding a glycolic peel can cause burning and discoloration of your skin," Rodney adds. You should stop the retinols for two weeks before your glycolic peel. If you have sensitive skin or suffer from overactive scars like keloids, then chemical peels (including glycolic peels) may not be right for you. Be sure to speak with your dermatologist before getting a peel done."
And there's a common misconception that darker skin types should avoid chemical peels. Rodney says that people of color are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, so she suggests working with a dermatologist instead of trying at-home peels.
As for side effects, you will probably experience some mild ones like you would with any treatment. "Directly after your peel, your most common side effects will be your skin feeling tight, potentially burning a bit, and appearing red," Viscusi says. "It's also extremely common to experience some dryness, flakiness, redness, and, of course, peeling in the days following your peel. How much you peel depends on the strength of your peel. Regardless, never pull the peeling skin off; let it fall on its own. For intense peeling, it may be safe to trim excess skin with clean, sharp scissors, but any skin still attached to the face should be left alone. Before trying the latter, I'd consult your dermatologist and their medical esthetician for safety and guidance."
Rodney adds that you might also notice a breakout or two, but as the skin heals, you'll begin to see results after seven to 14 days, depending on the depth of the peel.
What to Do Before and After a Peel
"A week or two prior to your appointment, be sure to avoid any exfoliants, including manual exfoliation and any exfoliating products such as retinols and retinoids," Viscusi says. "This can lead to increased irritation. I also advise avoiding any harsh scrubs or any AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs the week prior." You'll also want to avoid bleaching, waxing, or a lot of sun exposure. Rodney says if you plan on being in the sun before your peel, be sure to use sunscreen.
And if you're doing a medium-depth peel, your dermatologist might give you a combination of topical treatments to prep your skin in the weeks leading up to the peel. Rodney says it's important to stay consistent with the skincare regimen in order to have a better experience.
"After your glycolic peel, your skin is sensitive, especially when it starts to peel, so hydrating your skin should be your top priority," Rodney says. "Use moisturizers with lots of humectants, ceramides, and other hydrating properties. Glycolic acid peels also increase your risk of sun damage. Avoid the sun or wear protective hats and shades if you have to head outside. Of course, be sure to apply a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen (with an SPF of at least 30) every morning with reapplication throughout the day."
Viscusi adds that you'll want to avoid any exfoliating products or devices, and be very gentle with the skin.
Since glycolic peels are quite powerful and must be handled carefully, Rodney doesn't recommend performing glycolic peels at home, since the chances of chemical burns and hyperpigmentation are very high, especially for people of color. "If you still choose to do them at home, start with the lowest concentration possible (about 5% to 10%)," Rodney says. "Read the instructions carefully and perform a test on a small area of your skin. Then, closely inspect the results after a few days. You should also put away all exfoliating treatments, retinol, and products with AHAs and BHAs to prevent skin damage. When you're done, seal as much moisture back into your skin as possible with a moisturizer with sunscreen."
Viscusi also recommends consulting a board-certified dermatologist before performing at-home peels and to look for derm-recommended products. We compiled a few options below.
Glycolic Acid Peels and Other Glycolic Acid Treatments
"They are a great option for easy application," Viscusi says. "These powerhouse pads contain a triple acid blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid in conjunction with a retinoid to dramatically fade hyperpigmentation and target lines and wrinkles!"
"It is a great at-home option. It contains glycolic acid along with papain and bromelain enzymes to provide exfoliation and remove dead skin cells while diglycerin, kukui-seed oil, and safflower-seed oil replenish hydration and lipids to help restore and reinforce the skin barrier," Viscusi says.
This peel is infused with 10% glycolic acid and retinol plus 10% phytic acid, caviar lime extract, and fruit enzymes. It's formulated to improve skin tone and texture and also reduce the signs of aging.
These exfoliating pads clear pores, slough off dead skin cells, tone the skin, and encourage cell renewal. In addition to the trio of glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids, the formula also contains witch hazel to minimize the appearance of pores and fine lines.
Paula's Choice's AHA/BHA peel is a rinse-off peel that brightens the skin and refines texture. The formula contains a 25% blend of AHAs (glycolic, lactic, mandelic, tartaric, and malic acids) and 2% of the BHA salicylic acid. It also has butterfly pea flower, which calms redness and any irritation.
Goop's peel pads are inspired by the treatments you would get at the dermatologist's office. Formulated with 15% glycolic acid, Australian kakadu plum, and hyaluronic acid, the formula is meant to be applied at night and rinsed off in the morning.
Each of these pads contains 10% glycolic acid and 10% salicylic acid to unclog pores, slough off dead skin cells, promote cell renewal, and target acne and acne scars.