When I get complimented on my skin, as if by default I reply, “It’s my foundation, I swear! Underneath, it doesn’t look like this”—which is true. Discoloration and marks left behind from blemishes I should’ve left alone (but definitely didn’t) prevent me from having a buttery, even skin tone—one I’ve always just figured wasn’t in the cards for me.
But upon a recent visit to New York dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD, I was dealt a new hand: After examining my face, he asked his assistant to administer a two-minute glycolic peel, claiming it would brighten up my skin in no time. Truth be told, I’d never received a peel in my life, and the word "peel" has always sent shivers down my spine (do they really need to use such a physical word?), but sure enough, my skin was glowing after the appointment. It lasted for days (and no actual skin peeling occurred).
After speaking with a number of other dermatologists, the sentiment was almost unanimous: Using glycolic acid is the best and quickest way to even out your skin. I needed to know more about this, so I elicited the help of some top physicians to find out more out about this miracle ingredient. Keep scrolling to read all about it.
“When we do our glycolic peels and show people [their skin] in the mirror right afterward, they’re shocked,” says Schultz. “One of the reasons it evens skin tone is because taking off dead cells makes the skin smoother and helps it reflect more light. Also, some of the cells it takes off are cells with too much brown in them, so it cuts down on brown discoloration.”
Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology group agrees, but adds that you can’t forget one key step: “An easy method of achieving even skin is using topical wipes or washes containing glycolic acid or topical vitamins C and E, which minimize the production of melanin, the substance that causes skin darkening, and even out skin tone. But as a must, use sunscreen! At least broad-spectrum SPF 30 daily,” she explains.
If your skin is vexed with redness, glycolic acid won’t, unfortunately, be your saving grace. “Frankly,” explains Schultz, “it’s not going to help redness most of the time. It helps with tans, browns—it makes your skin brighter. It’s literally an instant glow.”
To help remove pesky red blotchiness from broken capillaries, Hadley King, MD, dermatologist at Skinney Medspa, suggests taking a prescription route: “There is a prescription cream called Mirvaso that works similarly to how Visine works—it takes the red out by temporarily constricting the blood vessels that are causing the red color. It’s temporary, but the results can be remarkable.”
King says you can also try intense pulsed light (IPL) to even out both redness and brown spots. For other causes of redness, like acne-based rosacea and eczema, speak with a dermatologist about the right solutions for you.
Shop some high-performing products with glycolic acid below.
This one-step product comes packed with pharmaceutical-grade glycolic acid, which corrects pigmentation, evens skin tone, and pretty much brings your skin back to life. Plus, it works to reduce the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots to boot.
Just like the bottle says, this cleanser removes impurities resting on the surface of your skin to even skin tone and give you an extra glow.
This spot treatment contains 2% hydroquinone, which lightens any unwanted dark spots on your skin in a shorter period of time than most products we've tried.
Peels are amazing for removing dead cells and clogged pores from the surface (and below the surface) of your skin. Caudalie's glycolic version tightens pores, improves the texture of your skin, and adds instant radiance.
Enriched with a cocktail of AHAs (glycolic, lactic, citric, and tartaric acids) from pineapple, passion fruit, lemon, and grape, this mask gives you a multi-action exfoliation like none other. Dead skin cells are dissolved, and your skin tone is evened out in minutes.
Combining chemical and physical exfoliation, these Beauty Rx pads remove the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal a glowy, brighter, more even skin tone.
Ed note: Quotes have been edited for content.
This post was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.