- Chemical peels can effectively treat acne and some forms of acne scars.
- Choose your chemical peel based on your skin tone and sensitivity level.
- Professional treatments provide 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 layer or layers of skin on the face. Chemical peels for acne are effective as a treatment and a preventative for this common skin concern. By exfoliating the skin and reducing oil levels, these peels can reduce both acne and acne scars.
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; more severe acne with open lesions may be irritated by peels.
The first step in managing this skin condition is establishing a dedicated anti-acne skin care routine. Recurrent acne can be treated with medicated face washes and topical creams or gels. Look for products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinol.
Once that routine is established, regular peels can offer an added layer of treatment if you continue to struggle with frequent breakouts.
Can they treat acne scars?
There are three types of acne scars: postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, hypertrophic or raised scars, and atrophic or depressed scars.
However, standard chemical peels cannot treat hypertrophic scars and have limited applicability for deep atrophic scars, also called icepick or boxcar scars. Instead, they can be effectively 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 contributes to acne. The peel you choose will depend on your skin tone and sensitivity.
Glycolic acid is one of the most commonly used peeling agents. It is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that easily penetrates the skin to deeply exfoliate. Glycolic acid is safe for use on all skin types but may irritate sensitive skin.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), an acid similar in molecular structure to an AHA. Unlike an AHA, salicylic acid and other BHAs are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in oil. This property allows salicylic acid to effectively loosen dirt and sebum from clogged pores.
In addition to its 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, although frequent use may be too drying for some.
Lactic acid is mild enough for all skin types, even sensitive skin. This chemical peel gently exfoliates while brightening post acne hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
Mandelic acid is a gentle BHA. It is best suited as a peel for darker skin, which can develop hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation after treatment with other types of chemical peels.
Mandelic acid produces very subtle results and must be used multiple times to achieve a noticeable effect.
Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is a highly effective treatment for both acne and acne scars. It is the most commonly chosen chemical for medium-strength peels, which offer more dramatic results than light peels.
Although medium peels are traditionally not recommended for darker skin tones, one study with more than 900 patients established a safe technique for use of TCA on all skin types.
Unlike the other peels discussed here, a Jessner peel uses a combination of acids: lactic, salicylic and resorcinol acid.
A medium-strength Jessner peel is an effective treatment for acne, as the salicylic acid reduces sebum production; however, one 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 provider will first cleanse your face and place protection over your eyes. They will then apply the acid solution over your face and let it rest for thirty seconds to fifteen minutes, based on your skin’s tolerance to the solution and the results desired.
Depending on the type of peel, they will apply a neutralizing solution or simply wash off the acid. Some chemical peels do not need to be washed off and neutralize on their own.
A cooling solution may be applied 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 and at-home peels are the same, they differ in strength and how often they can be used.
Professional peels use higher concentration acids. While most at-home products have about 2% acid, professional peels have 20–70%.
This means that professional results are more immediate, noticeable and long-lasting. Since your skin needs time to heal and recover after a professional peel, the procedure can only be performed once a month. Over the course of several months, a series of peels can provide significant improvements in your skin.
At-home peels offer more gradual results with little to no recovery time. Because their effect on your skin is so mild, they can be used frequently: some products are safe for everyday use. Using at-home products regularly for several months may generate the same effect of a single light peel.
Another difference between professional and at-home peels is the price: a product you can use at home many times is considerably less expensive than a one-time professional visit.
After one light chemical peel, your skin appears brighter and more even in tone and texture. Blackheads and whiteheads are usually removed by the procedure, while larger active acne lesions may heal more quickly. You should experience fewer breakouts in the weeks after your peel.
After a medium peel, you see greater improvement in the overall quality of your skin, including fewer new lesions and faster healing. Rolling scars are marginally less visible, while hyperpigmentation is significantly lightened or erased.
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 after a few days.
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 highly concentrated acids online to use at home. These products carry a high risk of undesirable side effects including chemical burns and skin discoloration.
Acne and dark skin
Dark skin that is acne-prone is at risk for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and raised scarring.
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. If you choose to perform a peel at home, ensure that the peeling agent in the product you use is considered safe for dark skin.
While hyperpigmentation in dark skin can be safely treated with a chemical peel such as glycolic or mandelic acid, chemical peels have little effect on raised scars. Instead, these can be treated with corticosteroid injections, cryotherapy or laser therapy.
Before and Afters
The cost of a professional chemical peel depends on your location and the kind of peel you receive.
A light peel treating mild acne and light hyperpigmentation or scarring costs about $100. Medium peels addressing more severe acne or deeper acne scars can range from $1000–$2000, while peels targeted at only one area of the face will be less expensive.
At-home chemical peel products cost approximately $20–$100, depending on the strength and brand.
Alternatives to Chemical Peels for Acne
Many options beyond chemical peels are available to treat recurrent breakouts.
Microdermabrasion uses a diamond-tipped device to exfoliate skin, smoothing mild acne scars and removing pore-clogging dead skin cells.
For more severe forms of acne, steroid injections, and drainage and extraction procedures can temporarily help manage cysts and other types of acne.
Used in conjunction with an effective anti-acne skin care routine, chemical peels can help reduce the symptoms of acne including whiteheads, blackheads and other types of pimples. These peels reduce both the inflammation that accompanies active acne and the additional concerns of scarring and hyperpigmentation.
While professional treatments provide the most immediate results, at-home chemical peel kits can improve acne over time at a lower cost. Both professional and at-home treatments use the same active ingredients: glycolic, salicylic and lactic acid.
If chemical peels are not suitable for you, other options are available such as prescription-strength oral or topical medication as well as professional treatments. Consult a dermatologist to determine the best course of action for your situation.
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