- Chemical peels can treat acne and some forms of acne scarring
- Choose your chemical peel based on skin tone and sensitivity level
- Professional treatments give faster results than at-home peels
- Side effects include redness, swelling and peeling; complications are rare
A chemical peel involves applying an acid to remove the topmost layers of skin of the face. It exfoliates the skin and stimulates collagen growth for a brighter, healthier-looking complexion.
Chemical peels can be used to both treat the symptoms of acne and prevent it from recurring.
Can Chemical Peels Help with Acne?
Chemical peels loosen and remove the dead skin cells and excess oil that contributes to acne formation. They are most effective for mild to moderate forms of acne.
Although chemical peels do treat acne, they should be considered secondary to a daily anti-acne skin care routine. If you have established a thorough skin care routine but still experience regular breakouts or chronic acne, you may consider regular chemical peels as an acne treatment.
Can they treat acne scars?
However, standard chemical peels cannot treat hypertrophic or raised scars and have limited applicability to treat deep atrophic, indented scars, also called icepick or boxcar scars.
Atrophic scars can be instead treated by a special application known as the CROSS technique, which targets an acid at individual depressions in the skin to reconstruct scar tissue.
Best Chemical Peel Ingredients for Treating Acne
The same chemicals used for anti-aging peels are also used to treat acne.
These acids exfoliate at various strength levels; some have the additional benefit of reducing production of sebum, the oil produced by your skin that can contribute to acne. The peel you choose will depend on your skin tone and sensitivity.
Glycolic acid is the most commonly used type of chemical peel. It is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that easily penetrates the skin for a deep exfoliation. Glycolic acid is safe for use on all skin tones but may irritate sensitive skin.
Salicylic acid is lipophilic, which means it dissolves in oil and can loosen dirt and sebum from clogged pores. It is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), the other main type of acid used in chemical peels.
In addition to its keratolytic exfoliating properties, salicylic acid also helps regulate sebum production in the skin, preventing further breakouts caused by excess oiliness.
Salicylic acid is safe for use on all skin types, though frequent use may be too drying for some people.
Sensitive skin can benefit from a lactic acid peel. This chemical peel gently exfoliates while brightening post-acne hyperpigmentation and dark spots. It is mild enough for all skin types.
Mandelic acid is a gentle BHA. It works well as a peel for darker skin, which can experience hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation after some other types of chemical peels.
Mandelic acid produces very subtle results and must be used multiple times to achieve a noticeable effect.
Trichloroacetic acid or TCA can be used to treat acne and acne scars. It is the most common chemical used for medium-strength peels, which offer more dramatic results than light peels.
Although medium peels are traditionally recommended for darker skin tones, one study involving over 900 patients established a safe technique for use of TCA on all skin types.
Unlike the other ingredients listed here, a Jessner peel uses a mixture of acids. The Jessner solution used for this peel combines lactic acid, salicylic acid and resorcinol.
A medium-strength Jessner peel works well for acne because the salicylic acid it contains reduces sebum production; however, one 2017 study found that salicylic acid on its own was more effective at treating acne than Jessner’s solution.
What to Expect During Your Chemical Peel
During a professional chemical peel, your dermatologist or clinician first cleanses your face. He or she then applies the acid for the peel all over the face and lets it sit for thirty seconds to fifteen minutes.
Depending on the type of peel, he or she then applies a neutralizing solution or simply washes off the acid. Some chemical peels do not need to be washed off and neutralize on their own.
The clinician may then apply a cooling solution to your face for a few minutes, followed by a moisturizer.
After your chemical peel, it is important to protect your face by wearing sunscreen of at least SPF 30 for light peels and avoiding sun exposure altogether, if possible, for medium-strength peels.
Your results will last longer if you continue to protect your new skin with a daily SPF.
Professional vs At Home Chemical Peels for Acne
Although the ingredients and mechanism of action for professional chemical peels and at-home chemical peels is the same, they differ in strength and how often they can be used.
Professional chemical peels use acids of a higher concentration. While most at-home products contain about 2% acid, professional chemical peels contain from 20-70%.
This means that professional results are more immediate and long-lasting. The effect on your skin is profound enough that professional peels can only be performed once a month at most. They often result in redness and peeling for a few days afterward.
If you prefer not to have the downtime that comes after a professional peel, you can use an at-home peel regularly to see more gradual results with little to no side effects.
The other difference between professional and at-home peels is the price: a product you can use at home several times is considerably less expensive than a one-time professional visit.
After one chemical peel, your skin will appear brighter and more even in tone and texture. Active acne lesions may heal more quickly.
For best results, repeat the procedure every 4-8 weeks. Over time, you should see both fewer breakouts and less post-acne scarring, hyperpigmentation and bumpiness.
Risks and side effects
Side effects of chemical peels include redness, swelling, peeling, itching or burning sensations and temporary hyperpigmentation. These symptoms usually resolve on their own after a few days.
If you have darker skin, chemical peels carry a risk of permanent skin discoloration. For this reason, it is important to work with a professional who can choose the correct peel for your skin type.
In rare cases, scarring and fungal or bacterial skin infections may occur. Stronger peels are associated with higher risks of infection.
The highest risk from a chemical peel may be in purchasing “professional-strength” chemicals online to be used at home. Use of these chemicals carries a high risk of undesirable side effects.
Acne and dark skin
Acne on dark skin is prone to leaving hyperpigmentation and hypertrophic or raised scarring.
While hyperpigmentation in dark skin can be safely treated with a chemical peel such as glycolic acid, chemical peels have no effect on raised scars.
The cost of a chemical peel depends on where you live and what kind of peel you get. A light peel may cost around $100, while a medium peel can cost from $1000 to $2000. A peel targeted at only one area of the face may be less expensive.
Alternatives to Chemical Peels for Acne
Many options beyond chemical peels exist to address acne.
Recurrent acne can be treated by using medicated face washes and topical creams or gels. Look for products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinol.
If over the counter treatments are insufficient to address your acne, consult with a dermatologist. He or she may prescribe a more powerful retinoid such as isotretinoin, antibiotics or hormonal therapy.
Used in conjunction with a good skin care routine, chemical peels can help reduce the signs and symptoms of acne. Chemical peels can reduce both current inflammation due to acne and post-inflammatory symptoms such as scarring and hyperpigmentation.
While professional treatments provide the most immediate results, at-home chemical peel kits can improve acne over time for a lower cost. Professional and at-home treatments use most of the same active ingredients, primarily glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid.
If chemical peels are not suitable for your skin, plenty of other options to address your acne exist. Consult a dermatologist to determine the best course of action for your acne treatment.