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Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more
Looking to be baby-faced for spring? Same! Look no further than a glycolic acid peel.
Glycolic acid removes dead skin cells and debris by sloughing off the external and middle layers of skin.
If you want a deeper peel, look for a treatment with a higher percentage of glycolic acid.
Glycolic acid peels are an excellent choice for treating a number of skin concerns, but keep in mind, more intensive, deeper treatments will need to be carried out by a professional.
Zap acne and minimize acne scars
Acne happens when your pores are blocked by dead skin, bacteria, or oil. Sometimes, your hair follicles are to blame.
Each one of your pores is like a door leading to a hair follicle, and if your follicles produce too much oil that has nowhere to go, it can trap dead skin cells and bacteria, causing a breakout.
Glycolic acid helps fight acne by unclogging excess oil in your hair follicle roots. It also shrinks pores and banishes whiteheads, blackheads, pimples. And it’s antibacterial to boot.
Glycolic acid peels are effective for removing acne scars as well as cystic lesions. For atrophic acne scars, one study found that at least 6 repeat treatments with a 70 percent glycolic acid concentration was needed to see results.
Do away with dark spots (aka hyperpigmentation)
Hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, can occur for a variety of reasons, including hormones, sun damage, and damage to the skin (like acne). However, the most common culprit is the overproduction of melanin, which is the pigment that gives your skin its color.
Glycolic acid inhibits melanin production, which makes glycolic acid peels great for reducing dark spots. After 6 to 8 treatments, you’re likely to see a big difference.
Move over, melasma
Melasma is a kind of hyperpigmentation that results in grey or brown patches on the skin, often as a result of sun damage. It more commonly affects women because of hormonal changes in pregnancy and the use of hormonal birth control.
Glycolic acid peels are a particularly effective option for lightening the dark spots caused by melasma, especially in combination with hydroquinone. Peels may be spaced out, and you can expect to start seeing results after 2 months.
Tackle ingrown hairs and scarring
Ingrown hairs are quite unpleasant and sometimes painful, especially if they’re on the face.
Ingrown hairs happen after you shave, pluck, or wax, and the hair regrows sideways into the skin. So why doesn’t the hair just grow up and out? Well, dead skin cells can clog your follicles and obstruct the hair’s path.
Remember, glycolic acid is the MVP of removing dead skin, so it can help prevent the occurrence of ingrown hairs. It also helps minimize scarring.
Shrink stretch marks
Stretch marks are caused by, you guessed it, skin stretching. The hormone cortisone also has a party to play; too much of it can cause your skin to lose elasticity.
There are a lot of DIY methods to minimize the appearance of stretch marks. Glycolic acid peels work on stretch marks from the inside out by stimulating collagen production.
One study found that combinations of 20 percent glycolic acid with .05 percent tretinoin or 10 percent L-ascorbic acid were both effective at improving the appearance of stretch marks.
Photoaging? Not on this face
Too much time in the sun can cause your skin to age a little faster than it would normally. Some telltale signs of photoaging include sagging, wrinkling, and dark spots.
Glycolic acid peels are suitable for treating mild photoaging. Some peeps may see better results with glycolic acid-trichloroacetic acid (TCA) combination. TCA is particularly good at handling wrinkles.
Here’s the great news: Glycolic peels are considered safe for all skin types.
But what about acne-prone, sensitive skin?
You bet. Glycolic acid peels, which are relatively mild compared to other chemical peels, are totally safe for acne-prone and sensitive skin. That being said, if you’re at all worried, talk to your dermatologist before trying it out for yourself.
And during pregnancy?
With the exception of treatments that contain hydroquinone, glycolic acid peels are considered safe for pregnant women.
However, research suggests that glycolic acid can be absorbed by the body, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and stick to lower concentrations you can buy over the counter.
If you have lingering concerns or questions, it’s best to consult your OB/GYN and dermatologist.
If you want a deeper peel, you’ll have to seek out the services of a professional.
Where to go?
You don’t have to make a trip to the doctor’s office to get a good glycolic peel.
Many medical spas offer this service. Just make sure whoever does your peel is a licensed aesthetician or a board-certified dermatologist. They’ll be able to assess your skin and recommend products to prepare you for the treatment a few days, or even weeks, beforehand.
While it’s not the most expensive treatment on the market, a moderate glycolic acid peel will lighten your wallet by $100 to $600. Keep in mind, these treatments are widely considered “cosmetic,” so it’s not likely to be covered by health insurance.
What to know before you peel
Depending on the strength of your peel, downtime ranges anywhere from 1 to 14 days post-peel.
A certain degree of redness, crusting, and swelling is to be expected, so you’ll want to plan your schedule accordingly — not exactly the best time to plan a first date.
You also won’t be able to apply makeup and other cosmetics for a few days while your skin recuperates. While glycolic peels are generally considered safe, people with extra sensitive skin should be careful.
Do NOT get a glycolic peel if you have a skin infection, sunburn, or any blisters.
Also, those with darker complexions should opt for a mild to moderate-strength peel, and it wouldn’t hurt to seek out the services of a professional who specializes in your unique skin tone.
Your practitioner will be the best judge of how strong to go, but here’s a basic guideline of glycolic acid peel strengths:
- Mild: This peel uses 20 to 30 percent glycolic acid and is pretty superficial, making it great for addressing mild hyperpigmentation. The peel is only left on for a couple minutes, and recovery time is typically a short and sweet (around 24 hours).
- Medium: Medium peels turn up the concentration to 35 to 50 percent. The treatment is left on for up to 5 minutes, allowing the product to access the first layer of the dermis. Remember, a more intense peel means more downtime — in this case, about a week. Medium peels are good for smoothing skin texture and addressing more moderate cases of hyperpigmentation or melasma.
- Deep: To penetrate the lower level of dermis, a deep peel will use a 55 to 70 percent glycolic acid, which is left on the skin from anywhere to 3 to 15 minutes. Deeper peels come with all the benefits of their less intense cousins, but they’re also used to minimize deep wrinkles and acne scarring.
The peel play-by-play
A glycolic peel is a relatively quick procedure. The treatment is usually left on your face for just a few minutes. Your practitioner will be careful to protect the corners of your mouth, nose, and of course your eyes.
During the peel you might feel a tingling sensation, but no intense burning or discomfort. If you’re having a particularly deep peel, your practitioner may apply a local anesthetic.
After the treatment is applied and does its thing, it’ll be neutralized with water or another product to stop the exfoliating effects from continuing.
Right after the peel, your skin will be a little red and it might feel tight. Within 2 to 3 days, you’ll notice some peeling that may vary in severity depending on how strong your treatment was.
After a professional peel, your dermatologist or aesthetician will tell you to avoid the sun for 1 to 2 weeks, as glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays.
You should steer clear of saunas, while you’re at it. It’s important to hydrate your skin thoroughly and avoid any additional exfoliation.
Try to wash your skin with cool instead of hot or warm water. You can address any swelling or tightness with an ice pack and/or over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever.
As long as your practitioner is experienced, side effects are rather rare. Smoking and sun exposure can make any potential side effects worse.
Possible side effects of glycolic acid peels include:
- changes in skin tone
- burning or stinging sensation
- feeling like your skin is being pulled tight
- eye irritation (this happens if your eyes weren’t properly protected)
- skin irritation
- aggravation of cold sores
- skin crusting that is susceptible to infection when picked
Some less likely side effects to consider include scarring, permanent lighting of the skin (aka hypopigmentation), and blisters.
When will you see results?
Compared to more intense chemical peels, glycolic acid peels are a little easier on the skin and typically require a few treatments in order to see results.
Results are highly individual and will depend on the strength of your peels. But in general, you should see a difference after 3 to 6 treatments.
How frequently do you need to peel?
It’s important to space out your peels so as to not overexfoliate the skin.
For professional peels, your practitioner will likely recommend a regimen that takes into account your skin type, the intensity of the peel, and the results you’re trying to achieve.
The frequency could range from every 3 weeks to every few months.
At-home glycolic acid peels are typically milder than professional treatments, and will cost you anywhere from $20 to more than $100.
When selecting a product, make sure to choose one from a reputable manufacturer who is transparent about their ingredients. Here are some favorites to consider:
- Paula’s Choice makes an 8 percent glycolic acid exfoliator that is suitable for all skin types and won’t break the bank.
- The Ordinary Peeling Solution offers a more potent option with a 30 percent concentration and a fun wine color.
- Bliss That’s Incredi-Peel pads are more than just a cute name; these pads pack a 10 percent glycolic acid concentration, and there’s no need to rinse after use.
- L’Oreal makes a pure, 10 percent concentration serum that’s great for those with sensitivities to other ingredients.
- QRxLabs Renewal Serum offers a middle-of-the-road option with a 15 percent concentration.
If you’re feeling uneasy before or after an at-home glycolic peel, don’t hesitate to follow up with a professional.
Post at-home peel care
The same rules pretty much apply to caring for your skin at home, post-peel. At-home peels are much milder, so you probably won’t have to be as vigilant but should not be approached nonchalantly.
Make sure to consult the manufacturer’s instructions. If you have any lingering questions about aftercare, contact a healthcare professional or licensed aesthetician.
Not sold on glycolic acid? There are some other options to consider…
Tea tree oil works well as a spot treatment, and you can incorporate a gentle exfoliating mask too. You can also try OTC products that contain benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, or alpha-hydroxy acid.
In the event of a major breakout situation, prescription isotretinoin and certain antibiotics may be administered by a doctor.
While hormonal melasma usually clears up all by itself, some people have had success treating it with aloe vera.
Prescription medications that contain active ingredients like trichloroacetic acid, corticosteroids, azelaic acid, tretinoin, or hydroquinone can help deal with these dark spots.
Other medical options
Glycolic acid just may not be the ingredient for you, and that’s okay. Talk to a professional about your options — there are a wide variety of chemical peels from which to choose.
For a more intense peel to address photoaging, a treatment using phenol may be more suitable.
Of all the things you can do to your face these days, a glycolic acid peel ranks relatively low on the intensity scale. They’ve been around for a while, so they’re not anything to get too worked up about but should still be approached respectfully.
That being said, if you’re not sure about how your skin might react, schedule a consultation with a doctor or skin care professional to answer all your questions.