Glycolic acid is a skin-care heavyweight, showing up in exfoliating cleansers, toners, and masks. But what kinds of benefits can you get from a professional glycolic acid peel? If you’ve only ever used glycolic acid in your at-home skin-care products, you might be wondering what these popular treatments can do for you.
However, because highly concentrated acids like those used in peels can be irritating, they should be treated with care—and so should the outer layer of your skin. So we spoke to a few experts about what a professional glycolic acid peel entails and how to know if it’s the right treatment for you.
1. What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is a colorless, odorless alpha-hydroxy-acid (AHA) derived from sugarcane. It’s a type of chemical exfoliant that dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be wiped away easily, revealing smooth, younger skin below.
It’s actually the smallest naturally occurring AHA, Zeljka Kreptic, Ph.D., a lecturer in physical chemistry at the University of Salford, tells SELF. That means it can penetrate the skin more deeply and easily compared to other AHAs you might know, like lactic acid, which is why it is so commonly used.
AHAs like glycolic acid are water soluble, which means they dissolve in water. On the other hand, beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, are oil soluble, meaning they dissolve in oil and can penetrate deeper into oily pores, Marisa Garshick M.D., board-certified dermatologist at the Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Center, tells SELF.
But that doesn’t mean AHAs aren’t effective. If used correctly, as in a glycolic acid peel, they can be an easy way to get smoother, glowing skin.
2. Who should try a glycolic acid peel?
Do your skin concerns include managing hyperpigmentation or fending off fine lines and wrinkles? If yes, then a glycolic acid peel might be the treatment for you. Because it’s a powerful exfoliant, it can visibly reduce signs of aging and hyperpigmentation by weakening the connections between the cells in the top layer of the skin, which helps remove the dead skin cells, giving the skin a refreshed look and a glowing complexion.
More specifically, glycolic acid reacts readily with the upper layer of the skin, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold the dead skin cells together through a process called desquamation. That allows the outer skin to dissolve, subsequently revealing the underlying skin, Dr. Kreptic says.
These effects can be used to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, sunspots, melasma, and acne scars, Dr. Garshick explains. Regularly exfoliating can also help manage acne because it prevents pores from getting clogged.
When it comes to managing melasma, glycolic acid can be used to suppress the formation of melanin pigment in the skin. It does so by inhibiting the actions of tyrosinase, an enzyme that normally speeds up the complex process by which the pigment melanin is produced by certain types of skin cells. Slowing this process down results in less hyperpigmentation. But don’t expect to see results straight away; it normally takes between four and eight treatments before you see a significant difference.
3. Can you get a glycolic acid peel if you have acne-prone or sensitive skin?
We know that chemical peels can, over time, improve the appearance of some acne scars. But can you get them done if you have active acne? Yes! In fact, there’s some research to show that glycolic acid has antibacterial effects on P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for inflammatory acne.
However, if you have sensitive skin or a condition like psoriasis, rosacea, or eczema, is it essential to speak with a board-certified dermatologist prior to any chemical peels. Glycolic acid tends to be more irritating than other chemical exfoliants, so you may need to choose a different acid or figure out a different treatment option.
It’s also important to avoid doing a peel if you have a sunburn or active skin infection. And if you’re taking any prescription medications for your acne, you should talk about that with your dermatologist before doing a peel, as these can also irritate your skin.
4. Can you get a glycolic acid peel if you’re pregnant?
Lower concentrations (up to about 10%) found in over-the-counter products that you can use at home are fine, Dr. Gershick says. But at higher concentrations, the acid makes its way deeper into the skin and possibly into the bloodstream.
There aren’t a ton of great studies about exactly how much glycolic acid gets into the bloodstream or what effects that might have during pregnancy. But the little research we do have suggests that, actually, the vast majority of the acid is absorbed by the skin—even in peels with high concentrations. Still, Dr. Garshick says these peels should generally be avoided while pregnant, just to be totally sure. You can talk it over with your ob-gyn and your dermatologist to figure out what makes sense in your unique situation.
5. What concentration of glycolic acid should you ask for?
There are three major types of glycolic acid peels, which differ based on both the concentration of the glycolic acid in the product being used and the amount of time that it stays on your skin, Debra Jaliman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, tells SELF.
Here’s what to expect with each level of in-office peel:
Light: A light, or “superficial,” peel involves the use of 20% to 30% glycolic acid, which is applied for just a minute or two. This will only peel the surface layer of the skin, which is helpful for mild hyperpigmentation. A light peel doesn’t require any actual downtime, but you should refrain from using skin-care or makeup products for 24 hours after the peel to give your skin time to recuperate.
Medium: At this level, you can expect to receive a 35% to 50% concentration of glycolic acid for two to five minutes. With that application, the acid can penetrate into the papillary dermis (the uppermost layer of the dermis, which sits below the epidermis). Medium-depth peels can be helpful for melasma and hyperpigmentation as well as improving the skin’s overall texture. However, expect about a week of downtime (meaning your skin may be red and sensitive, and you’ll have to refrain from using makeup and certain skin-care products) with a medium-depth peel.
Deep: For deep peels, dermatologists use 55% to 70% glycolic acid, applied for at least three minutes and possibly up to 15 minutes. These peels can penetrate into the reticular dermis (the lower level of the dermis, below the papillary dermis). Deep peels can do everything that medium-depth peels can, as well as even improve the appearance of acne scars. Deep peels also typically require downtime of up to two weeks. This level of peel is usually reserved for treating deeper wrinkles or precancerous growths because it can come with serious side effects, including a risk for infection and scarring.
High or unregulated concentrations of glycolic acid (anything above 70%) would be considered too high even for a peel that only stays on your skin for a few minutes.
However, keep in mind that the exact procedure and time of exposure will vary based on your particular skin goals. And as always, your dermatologist will be able to provide you with all the information you need to decide which depth is right for you.
6. What happens during a glycolic acid peel?
In some cases the process starts before you even get to the office, as your dermatologist might recommended you use a retinoid and/or brightening cream in the days leading up to the peel to speed up the healing process and prevent hyperpigmentation after the procedure, Dr. Garshick says. But you should only do this if your derm tells you to, as in some cases it’s recommended that you actually avoid certain medicated creams before and after the treatment.
During the first stage of the actual treatment, the technician will cleanse the skin. Then the glycolic acid solution can be applied, being careful to protect your eyes and the corners of your nose and mouth. You may feel some mild tingling or stinging during the peel, which is completely normal and indicates that the acid is beginning to work. If you’re having a deep peel, you may actually be given local or regional anesthesia to numb your face while the chemical works.
After the required exposure time has passed, the glycolic acid is neutralized with water or another solution. The neutralizing agent can also be applied earlier if the skin is uniformly red (which would suggest your skin is too sensitive for the treatment) or if frosting (the skin turning white from the exfoliation) occurs, Dr. Garshick says. The end of the treatment is crucial in determining the result of the treatment, as glycolic acid needs to be neutralized to stop the reaction and any unwanted side effects.
Once the acid is off your face, your dermatologist will likely apply a cool compress to soothe your skin.
7. How should you care for your skin after the peel?
As noted above, the healing time can take anywhere between one and 14 days. During that time it’s important to be super gentle with your skin. That means avoiding any additional exfoliation, using only gentle skin-care products (if any), and always using sun protection.
Depending on the depth of your peel, your dermatologist may recommend using an ointment (like petroleum jelly) to keep the skin protected. If your skin is feeling tight or swollen (after a medium or deep peel), you may be able to use a fan or ice packs to help it feel better. You can also use over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen.
It’s also important to keep the skin hydrated and avoid steam rooms, saunas, and anything that can dry your skin out quickly. This includes washing your face with water that’s too hot—stick to using lukewarm water on your face, now and always.
8. What kinds of side effects should you expect?
The most common side effects include redness, irritation, scarring, and discoloration, but the potential side effects of a glycolic acid peel depend on the depth of the peel and your skin.
After a light or medium peel, the skin may feel tight and have some mild redness, for instance. And over the course of two to three days after the peel, you might also notice some dryness or shedding of the skin, Dr. Garshick says.
Deeper peels can lead to more severe side effects, including scarring and infections, SELF explained previously.
9. How long will it take to see results?
The general rule is that you’ll see results once your skin has fully healed. That depends on the depth of the peel, the concentration of glycolic acid used, and the amount of time you were exposed to the peel. Overall, it can take up to two weeks for new skin to develop.
But remember that in many cases it will take repeated treatments to see really noticeable results. And unfortunately, any results you see may not be permanent because your skin will continue to age, the AAD explains. And your skin’s personality will stay the same. For instance, if you’re prone to visible sun damage or acne-related hyperpigmentation, you will still be likely to experience those things after the peel.
10. How often should you get peels?
For most people, it’s recommended to do multiple peels to get the best results, usually between three and six treatments. But the amount of treatments that’s right for you depends on both your desired results and your budget. Peels can cost between $80 and $200 each, Dr. Garshick says, and that adds up quickly when you’re doing multiple treatments. It’s also good to remember that peels aren’t usually covered by insurance.
That makes it all the more important to have a thorough conversation with your dermatologist when deciding on a treatment regimen for your unique skin needs. They should also talk you through the recovery time and the possible side effects and complications of the treatment, which can vary from person to person.
And know that once you start the treatment, the course might change. It’s especially important to be mindful of how your skin is feeling after the first peel, which will clue you and your derm in to how well your skin can tolerate the acid and whether it can tolerate more peels. Over-exfoliating the skin can cause irritation and sensitivity, so it’s crucial to make sure you’re approaching the procedure with care.