If you’re trying to make your acne scars disappear, a chemical peel might seem like a good way to banish those annoying reminders of past zits.
Chemical peels are basically topical solutions applied to the skin to improve the texture and appearance of the treated area. Here’s how a chemical peel might and might not help your acne scars.
Do chemical peels work for acne scars?
Depending on the type of scarring and your skin type, chemical peels may help reduce the appearance of acne scars.
Professional medium and deep peels work best to help resurface the skin, smooth scarring, and lighten dark spots. But chemical peels will be more effective for those with lighter skin tones and deep acne scars.
The ingredients in chemical peels help shed the top layer of skin. This turnover of skin cells can help reveal fresh skin that will likely be clearer, and more even in tone and texture.
- Prevent future breakouts. Light chemical peels can help remove pore-clogging gunk to prevent pimples.
- Smooth out the texture of acne scars. Medium and deep chemical peels can reach deeper levels of skin, and remove these layers to help improve skin texture.
- Lighten dark spots. Peels can also help fade dark patches (akahyperpigmentation) caused by acne.
For deep acne scars
Atrophic acne scars are those that form deep indentations in the skin. These are the kind you think of as pits or craters. Medically, the three types of atrophic acne scars are categorized as:
- Ice pick acne scars. Small and narrow pits, almost like deep pores.
- Boxcar acne scars. Flat bottomed divots with raised edges.
- Rolling acne scars. Indentation without a defined edge that’s usually on your cheeks.
According to a 2015 review, medium and deep chemical peels are likely your best option to help treat these deep scars. But results can vary and you’ll likely still have some scarring.
You’ll also have to see a professional to get a legit medium or deep peel done safely and properly.
For raised acne scars
Raised scars, or hypertrophic acne scars, are less common and look like bumps on the surface of your skin. These can form when the skin has an abnormal response to healing from injury (more reasons to stop picking your zits). Hypertrophic scars are also more likely to form from body acne.
Unfortunately, using chemical peels to treat hypertrophic scars isn’t very effective. Other medical or at-home treatments recommended by your dermatologist are a better bet.
Most products available for home use are going to be milder, lighter-impact peels. They’re aimed at helping with more superficial skin issues like surface acne scars, spots of discoloration, and minor wrinkles. So, temper your expectations to some degree.
Look for quality, reputable products that feature these acids (which are what do the peeling):
|Type of acid||Skin types||Benefit|
|salicylic acid||oily, acne-prone skin||lifts dirt out of the pores|
|glycolic acid||normal to oily skin||exfoliates epidermis|
|lactic acid||all skin types||lightens dark spots|
|mandelic acid||all skin types + darker skin tones||shrinks big pores|
|phytic acid||sensitive skin||lessens appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation|
How to give yourself a chemical peel at home
- Skip the chemical peel if your skin is inflamed.
- Always do a patch test on a discreet part of your body, like the inside of your wrist, when trying a new product.
- Apply the peel according to the product instructions and use the minimum duration the first time you use it. Don’t apply the chemical peel on or near your eyes or mouth.
- Avoid scrubbing or otherwise physically exfoliating your skin for a day before or after your peel.
- Skip retin-A, other acids, and acne-clearing treatments for several days pre- and post-peel.
- Don’t use products containing trichloroacetic acid (TCA) — they’re a bit advanced for amateur/self-use.
- Stick to proper aftercare, like moisturizing.
- Avoid sun exposure after your peel and wear sunscreen.
There are two types of skin care experts to consider when looking for a chemical peel pro: dermatologists and estheticians. Dermatologists are medical doctors with additional specialized training in skin health; they practice in a variety of healthcare and medspa settings. Estheticians are nonmedical skin care specialists who work in spas and salons.
If you have deep acne scars, visiting a pro for a more potent, medical-grade chemical peel is typically a more effective treatment — including ingredients like phenol and trichloroacetic acid (TCA).
Chemical peels you can get from a qualified professional might include:
|Type of peel||Potential ingredients/ peel names||Healing time|
|light, refreshing, superficial, or “lunchtime” peels||alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA), glycolic acid, lactic and mandelic acids, salicylic acid, pyruvic acid||1–7 days of red, flakey skin (It might require a few sessions to get results.)|
|medium peels||low-to-moderate-concentration TCA solutions, glycolic acid, Jessner’s peel, salicylic acid, pyruvic acid||7–14 days (It might make your face and eyelids swell during first 2 days — you may also get blisters that burst and crust over for 2 weeks.) |
|deep peels||high-concentration TCA solutions, Baker-Gordon phenol peel, phenol (aka carbolic acid)||14–21 days (You’ll need to keep the area bandaged, take antiviral meds, do daily soaks, and have several follow-up appointments.)|
Many factors can affect the final outcome of your chemical peel. These include:
- severity of your acne
- your skin type
- your skin tone
- other treatments you’re pursuing (for acne or other conditions)
A 2018 study of 473 chemical peels done over 5 years found that people with darker skin tones experienced higher rates of negative side effects like crusting and hyperpigmentation. Other research concluded folks with darker skin tones should avoid deep peels because they are more susceptible to scarring and severe discoloration.
But if you have darker skin prone to hyperpigmentation and still want to try a chemical peel, research suggests glycolic peels might be best.
Also, because different kinds of skin, acne, and acne scars respond differently to various chemical peels, it may take some trial and error.
To find what chemical peel works for you, it may be necessary to:
- Try a variety of chemical peels (both in terms of agents used as well as how deep they go into the skin).
- Repeat the application of chemical peels over time (i.e., 3–4 rounds spaced 6–8 weeks apart).
- Employ complementary treatments in addition to peels — like an over-the-counter scar cream or dermabrasion sesh.
If you’re not interested in getting a chemical peel — or they haven’t worked the way you hoped — consider an alternative like:
- topical over-the counter scar and acne treatments
- microneedling or dermarolling
- platelet-rich plasma (PRP) facials
- laser resurfacing and treatments
- punch excision
- subcision or surgical removal
- punch grafting
- steroid injections
- TCA CROSS
Just keep in mind that results, price, side effects, and recovery time for each method can vary.
Chemical peels can be an effective treatment for acne and acne scars. But results can vary on several factors — like the type of acne scarring, skin type, and tone. It may take some trial and error.
There are plenty of at-home peel products to try. But, going to a professional — or at the very least getting guidance on which DIY products to try — may be your best bet for a safe and effective peel.