For some people, skincare is a second language. For others, beauty buzzwords are confusing and vague and leave them feeling unsure and intimidated—especially when it comes to the varied categories of exfoliants—so we're here to help. We've met with leading skincare professionals to understand the benefits, side effects, and all that's in between when it comes to skin exfoliating treatments.
One such treatment that has exploded in popularity in recent years is the glycolic acid peel. But what is a glycolic peel, exactly? And what can it do for our skin that maybe other treatments can't? To find out, keep scrolling for what experts had to say about what makes glycolic acid peels one of skin's most coveted exfoliating treatments.
What Is a Glycolic Acid Peel?
A glycolic acid peel is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) chemical exfoliation treatment. It is known to improve the health and appearance of skin by improving its tone, texture, and overall complexion.
According to Krista Eichten, a licensed esthetician and VP of products and services at Sanitas Skincare, glycolic acid reigns supreme as far as chemical peels go. Carl Thornfeldt, MD, founder of Epionce, clarifies, "A peel is any compound put on the skin to increase epidermal cell proliferation and remove stratum corneum and plugs within pores." Essentially it refers to the process of putting acid on the skin to exfoliate (acid that hasn't been mixed or diluted with other skincare ingredients).
"Glycolic acid is the gold standard in chemical peel formulations and is the go-to for many professional skin therapists for its proven ability to transform the health and appearance of a multitude of skin types," says Eichten. As to what makes it so effective, she adds, "Glycolic acid has a small molecular structure, giving it the ability to travel deep into the layers of the skin. Once there, the acid dissolves excess sebum and dead skin cells, revealing smoother, brighter, and younger-looking skin."
Benefits of Glycolic Acid Peels
The benefits of undergoing a glycolic peel include:
- Reducing hyperpigmentation
- Evening out skin tone
- Smoothing fine lines and wrinkles
- Adding glow and luster to skin
Cecilia Wong, founder of Cecilia Wong Skincare and a celebrity facialist, lauds glycolic acid peels for stimulating natural collagen production, along with diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles over time. It's much more than an anti-aging product, though; glycolic acid also lightens discolorations such as sun and age spots. It can even help skin that's prone to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne by keeping pores clear of old skin that tends to clog them and cause problems. As Eichten mentioned, it penetrates deeply into the skin to reform texture and dullness. It leaves skin looking refreshed, bright, and refined.
What's also notable is the fact that it's safe to use during pregnancy. "Glycolic acid is great for combating the hyperpigmentation that can occur from the hormonal surges that occur in pregnancy, called chloasma," says Dendy Engelman, MD, dermatologist, and director of dermatologic surgery at Metropolitan Hospital Center. "When I was pregnant, I used Elizabeth Arden's Skin Illuminating Retexturizing Pads ($56). I would often wash with a gentle cleanser then use these as a treatment toner two to three times a week," adds Engelman.
How to Prepare for a Glycolic Acid Peel
Prior to your appointment—at least a week, but ideally more—avoid all forms of exfoliation—treatments and products—since this will only serve to damage and irritate skin. While exfoliating cleansers and scrubs might be the obvious products to steer clear of, you should also check your skincare routine for products with any AHAs, BHAs, PHAs, and certain botanicals since these ingredients possess exfoliating properties.
What to Expect During a Glycolic Acid Peel
A glycolic acid peel done in a dermatologist's office is a quick and effective way to rejuvenate the skin. Dermatologists use a 30 to 40 percent concentration of glycolic acid, and it stays on your skin for only two or three minutes. These are often called "lunchtime peels" because they can be done easily during your break, with little downtime.
While the term "peel" makes the treatment sound harsh, it's actually quite gentle. You'll feel some tingling, but there's no burning, redness, or discomfort. New York City dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz performs an in-office glycolic peel in less than five minutes.
In-Office vs. At-Home Glycolic Acid Peels
Seek out a board-certified dermatologist or esthetician for an in-clinic peel, which delivers a higher concentration of glycolic acid, and ultimately, better results—but those come at a steep price (typically $200 to $400 per session). If you're on a budget and would like to see how your skin reacts before committing to an in-office peel, try an at-home glycolic acid peel like The Ordinary's AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution ($7).
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources. There are a variety of different ones out there, some of which include glycolic (derived from sugarcane) and lactic (derived from sour milk). While they all act on the surface of the skin as chemical exfoliants, they differ in size, and subsequently penetration and potency.
Eichten advises, "To ensure a great and safe peel, look for a glycolic acid level around 5 percent and a pH level between three and four. Some favorites in our collection are Brightening Peel Pads ($74) and GlycoSolution 5% ($31). Incorporate glycolic acid slowly, as there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Start by using two to three times per week. If excess drying or irritation occurs, cut back. With continued use, skin will become stronger and healthier."
According to Eichten, "It is common to experience redness, dryness, and peeling. Typically, immediately after the peel, the skin will feel tight and look red. With some, by day two to three, post-peel skin can begin to slough and shed. The level of peeling again depends on the intensity of the peel. With mild peels, expect gentle sloughing, and with stronger peels, skin can peel more dramatically. The complete turnaround time typically is between five to seven days. In this time, be sure to treat skin gently. Do not use any exfoliation products or devices, and it's imperative that precautions against UV exposure be taken to prevent hyperpigmentation."
Ceramides are a part of a complex family of fats or lipids called a sphingolipid. They work to restore the skin barrier and lock in moisture.
Engleman recommends hydrating skin post-treatment by "[Looking] for products with ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and peptides to strengthen the skin barrier." She explains, "Chemical exfoliants used in conjunction with retinol or vitamin C can increase sensitivity and dryness. Overworking the skin with too many actives can start to break the bonds between healthy skin cells and thin the skin."
You also need to be wary of the sun. Glycolic acid can increase your skin's sensitivity to UV rays, so wear a hat, stay in the shade, and as always, use sunscreen in between treatments. It will protect your skin from harmful (not to mention aging) sun damage. La Roche Posay's Anthelios Clear Skin Oil Free Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion - SPF 60 ($20) is lightweight and nonirritating.
Finally, don't book a glycolic peel or even use at-home glycolic chemical exfoliation products back to back. "Excessive exfoliation can break down the stratum corneum—its job is to be a barrier against pathogens," Engelman says. "If the barrier function is damaged, skin becomes vulnerable to infection from microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungus, leading to sensitivity and irritation. Even if the barrier function isn't visibly damaged, the skin may experience a low amount of inflammation (called chronic inflammation), which prematurely ages skin over time."
Before and After
The Final Takeaway
So now that we've regaled you with the ins and outs of glycolic peels—thanks to a little (no, a lot of) help from our expert friends—will you be trying this popular exfoliant anytime soon? Take it from us: If done correctly (and you care for your skin properly after the treatment), glycolic acid peels can be a total miracle-worker in leaving skin looking refreshed and radiant.
Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013;6:281-288. doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029
Kornhauser A, Coelho SG, Hearing VJ. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010;3:135-142. doi:10.2147/CCID.S9042
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Alpha Hydroxy Acids. Updated August 24, 2020.