- Glycolic acid peels are a type of chemical peel, which are used as a resurfacing treatment.
- Chemical peels using glycolic acid are commonly used to treat acne, to lighten skin discoloration, and for anti-aging benefits.
- Though effective, glycolic acid peels may have side effects and longer recovery periods than other resurfacing treatments.
Glycolic acid peels are resurfacing treatments that removes the top layer of the skin, revealing the smoother, younger skin underneath. They’re commonly used to treat acne, reduce the appearance of fine lines or wrinkles, and lighten hyperpigmentation or skin discoloration. Though often effective, glycolic peels can be irritating and involve recovery time.
What is a Glycolic Acid Peel?
Glycolic acid peels are applied directly to the skin, and the acid slowly breaks up the “glue” holding the top layer of dead skin cells together, allowing them to be removed and revealing the newer, smooth skin underneath. Because they also penetrate deeper into the skin, they can result in firmer skin by thickening it. It may also boost collagen production, which leads to the appearance of plumper, more youthful skin.
Benefits of Glycolic Acid Peels
Glycolic acid exfoliates and penetrates the skin, resulting in three key benefits.
In addition to providing exfoliating benefits that can help prevent and treat acne, it also is able to get into the pores and break up sebum that likely would have led to the formation of acne in the future. Multiple studies have shown that glycolic acid peels can effectively treat acne vulgaris and inflammation associated with it, and its resurfacing abilities can even smooth out acne scars.
Signs of Aging
Since glycolic acid peels are resurfacing treatments, they can smooth out the skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Their ability to stimulate collagen production is also key, resulting in plumper, younger-looking skin. The peel’s lightening abilities can take away age spots and sunspots, which also helps with the anti-aging effects.
Uneven Skin Tone
Though the glycolic acid peels can cause redness and irritation immediately after use, they can result in an even, uniform skin complexion. The lightening abilities of the acid can fade freckles, sun spots, and hyperpigmentation. It can even treat melasma, which creates patches or grey or brown on the skin can can be hard to treat with other methods.
Ideal Candidates for Glycolic Acid Peels
Many people are able to use at-home glycolic acid peels as long as they don’t have rosacea and aren’t currently using retinol or other acne products.
For professional peels, patients should be at least eighteen years old and have healthy skin with strong oil production.
Those who have rosacea, dark skin tones, and sensitive skin should proceed with caution. Sensitive skin may be irritated and experience pain for longer periods of time, and those with rosacea may experience a flare up of symptoms. People with darker skin may experience unwanted lightening or pigmentation in treated areas.
What to Expect During the Treatment
Glycolic acid peels will come with different concentrations. Those containing 10% of glycolic acid or less are available for home use. You can also receive clinical-grade glycolic acid peels from your dermatologist’s office or aesthetician, which may contain anywhere from 20-70% glycolic acid.
For in-office treatments, there are three different options for glycolic acid peels: light chemical peels, medium chemical peels, and deep chemical peels.
Before the procedure, the doctor may cover up the patient’s hair or eyes, and cleanse the skin. For deep peels, local anesthesia may be applied and a sedative may be delivered through an IV.
During the procedure, the chemical peel containing glycolic acid will be applied to the skin with a brush, cottonball, or gauze. Some tingling is normal during a light peel, though medium and deep peels may cause stinging or burning. After a few minutes, the skin will be cleansed, and neutralizers are applied for medium and deep peels.
Light chemical and medium peels peels may only take five to ten minutes from start to finish, though deep peels may take up to 90 minutes since the practitioner will only apply the peel to certain areas of the face at a time to limit exposure.
In many cases, it’s best to start with peels that have a low concentration of glycolic acid and work your way up, allowing the skin to adjust.
Aftercare of a glycolic acid peel will depend heavily on what type of peel you’ve received.
In-office chemical peels will require more aftercare.
For light chemical peels, the patient may be advised to apply ointment like petroleum jelly to soothe the area. Recovery may take between one to seven days, and involve redness and flaking.
For medium chemical peels, petroleum jelly, ice packs wrapped in cloths, or breeze from a fan may be used to soothe discomfort. Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuoprofen can be used for several days to reduce discomfort. There will likely be a follow up appointment a week after treatment to monitor healing. Treated areas may take one to two weeks to heel. Avoid using cosmetics or applying makeup until those two weeks are up.
After a deep chemical peel, swelling and severe redness is normal. Watertight dressings are applied to the skin, and prescription painkillers may be needed. Sleeping in a slightly upright position can reduce swelling. Cosmetics or makeup shouldn’t be used until two weeks after the procedure.
All glycolic acid can make the skin more susceptible to sun damage, so wear high quality sunscreen, and avoid exfoliating for several days after the peel. Use gentle moisturizer to prevent flaking. It’s also best to avoid products with high concentrations of retinol or vitamin C, as they can result in excessive dryness.
How often should a glycolic acid peel be performed?
There’s no set answer to how often glycolic acid peels are needed, as this will vary heavily from person to person.
At-home glycolic acid peels can be used once per week, as long as they’re well tolerated.
In-office peels may be used up to once per month during initial treatment and starting with lighter peels, and then switching to once per every three or six months depending on the patient’s needs and the strength of the peel.
Some people, however, will choose to only get a peel a month before a big event like a wedding or graduation.
Side Effects of Glycolic Acid Peels
Glycolic acid peels can have severe side effects, so it’s important to use them with caution. Even at-home peels can cause severe irritation and burns if left on too long, so it’s important to choose a good quality product and follow its care instructions. Some skin discoloration is possible, including hyperpigmentation or unwanted lightening of the skin.
Tingling and mild itching sensations are normal, and you shouldn’t feel burning unless you’re receiving a professional treatment.
In deep peels, swelling is normal, and the eyes may be swollen shut for up to a day or two after treatment. Redness can last for months after deep peels.
Sun sensitivity will increase after all types of peels, and redness, irritation, and peeling are common. Moisturizing with dermatologist-approved, non-comedogenic products can soothe some of the peeling, as can avoiding overexposure to the sun. Avoid any acne products that contain retinol, salicylic acid, or other exfoliants.
The cost of a glycolic acid peel will depend on a number of different factors, including what type of peel you’re receiving, your location, and the office of your choice. Because it’s considered a cosmetic procedure, it won’t be covered by insurance.
In most cases, the cost of a light glycolic peel will be between $150-300. Medium peels may cost between $800-1500. Deep peels that require IV sedation or in-patient stays however, can cost up to $3000.
At-home glycolic acid peels start as low as $7 but can go up to $200 or more per product. That being said, these products aren’t as effective as an in-office procedure, and may be riskier since a professional isn’t supervising the process.
Glycolic acid peels can be incredibly effective, but they also can come with a number of side effects. Different alternative treatments include:
- Laser resurfacing procedures
- HydraFacials and hydra-microdermabrasion
- Traditional microdermabrasion
- Oxygen masks
Glycolic acid peels can be effective treatments for conditions like acne, scarring, hyperpigmentation, fine links and wrinkles, and melasma. It’s relatively gentle compared to other acid-based peels, and practitioners are able to offer a variety of different peels in different strengths and concentrations to best suit each patients’ needs. That being said, there are side effects and longer recovery times associated with all treatments, so start carefully with peels that have low concentrations of the acid and work your way up from there.
- Funasaka, Y., et all. (2001). The effeciacy of glycolic acid for treating wrinkles: analysis using newly developed facial imaging systems equipped with fluorescent illumation. Journal of Dermatologic Sciences. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11514125
- Sarkar, R., et all. (2017). Chemical peels in melasma: a review with consensus recommendations by Indian pigmentary expert group. Indian Journal of Dermatology. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5724304/
- Sharad, J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy– a current review. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigative Dermatology. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/