How do chemical peels help with acne scars?

There’s never a clean breakup with acne. Even when flare-ups have gone, there may still be a variety of scars left to remind us of a not so amazing time.

While time can heal these marks, there are several expert-approved methods to address speed time on your schedule. One of the popular methods is the chemical peel.

A peek into the potential benefits chemical peels can have on acne-prone skin include:

  • smoother texture and tone
  • lightening of dark spots
  • unclogging of pores to help prevent future breakouts

“Chemical peels work by removing the top layer of skin, allowing new, healthy skin to present,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital and co-creator of Pure BioDerm.

“Overall, chemical peels can be a great way to maintain and rejuvenate the skin,” she says.

“[These] are more effective at exfoliation than physical exfoliators (topical scrubs, for example). The trauma inflicted by the chemical not only kills and removes dead skin cells at the surface, but the intentional damage caused also stimulates the body’s natural response to produce collagen, which can help fill in scars.”

As a rule of thumb, chemical peels might not be the best for severe raised or depressed scars.

Not all scars are equal

Scars develop during the healing process when the skin acts fast and sends cells to form new collagen fibers or attack infections. As a result, this can create hypertrophic scars or atrophic scars. Hypertrophic scars are bumpy, raised tissues on the surface of the skin that occur after the body produces too much collagen when healing. Atrophic scars are depressed scars that develop when there’s a loss of tissue. Ice pick or boxcar scars fall in this category.

Picking the right type of chemical peel may not be an easy task, especially when a solution can go wrong and be too harsh. But knowledge is protection.

Read on to learn what kind of chemical peels are safe to try at home, which ones need a dermatologist’s guidance, how often you’ll need a peel, and so much more.

If you’re tempted to do a chemical peel at home, make sure you’re picking the right acids for your skin type and understand your results.

Chemicals safe to use at home often help with light surface scars, such as fading dark spots. Make sure you’re purchasing your peels from a reputable provider and not from an online source that you or no one else is familiar with — some sources have been known to provide questionable products.

“Look for alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), including salicylic acid and glycolic acid,” Robinson says. “If your skin is sensitive, you may want to try something that is glycolic- or lactic acid-based, as they can be more gentle than salicylic acid.”

Here are some of the acids to look for in at-home chemical peels:

  • Glycolic acid is good for normal and oily skin types and exfoliating the surface layer of your skin.
  • Salicylic acid is good for oily and acne-prone skin to loosen dirt from pores.
  • Lactic acid is good for all skin types and for fading dark spots.
  • Mandelic acid is good for all skin types and darker skin tones, especially for treating large pores.
  • Phytic acid is good for sensitive skin and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Cautions before and after a peel

  • Don’t do a physical exfoliation for 24 hours before and after use.
  • Don’t use retin-A, acids, and acne-clearing products 3–5 days before and after use.
  • Avoid applying the product to inflamed skin.
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Some at-home peels include an ingredient called trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Robinson advises against using it without expert supervision.

“I would stay away from anything TCA-based, which can be dangerous if used incorrectly,” she says. “At-home peels are great for ongoing skin maintenance, but if you’re trying to repair hyperpigmentation and acne scarring, they are unlikely to have much impact.”

Most side effects are a result of what you do following a peel, Robinson says. It’s important to avoid sun exposure, as that’s the primary culprit in pigmentation problems. Scarring can occur if the peel isn’t strong or used incorrectly.

If you’re looking for a more intense treatment, you’ll want to go to the pros. Some of the ingredients you’ll see used include phenol and trichloroacetic acid. For results, what should you expect?

“It depends on the treatment plan,” Robinson says.

“However, we always advise our patients to stop using their retinol 7 to 14 days prior to their peel. Furthermore, if you have active psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, rosacea, or erosions, you would not be a candidate.”

In general, there are three different types of in-office chemical peels. You’ll want to avoid the sun during healing time as well as layer on sun protection as aftercare:

Type of pro peelWhat to knowHealing timeFollow-up?
superficial, refreshing, or “lunchtime” peellightest and quickest to heal, but may require several sessions for desired results1–7 days for redness and flaking to diminishusually not necessary
mediumtake an antiviral medication for 10–14 days 7–14 days to heal, as swelling to the face and eyelids may occur in the first 48 hours; blisters may form and break open, and the skin crusts and peels for up to 2 weeksneeds a follow-up visit
deepdaily soaks, antiviral medication, and other post-procedure maintenance is required14–21 days to heal; the treated area will need to be bandaged after the procedureneeds several follow-up visits

Research performed on Asian populations suggests that chemical peels may be an effective treatment for acne scars in lighter skin.

People with darker skin tones may need to be more selective in the type of peel they choose. If they’re experiencing melasma, a hyperpigmentation disorder, research shows they may want to stick with traditional glycolic peels.

Of course, like any medical treatment — major or minor — there are potential negative effects.

How to do a peel at home

  1. Instructions may vary depending on the product. Use as directed, especially when it comes to timing. Always do a patch test before using. Avoid contact with eyes and lips.
  2. Clean your skin with a neutral cleanser (avoid active ingredients and acids).
  3. Prep your skin with a pH solution to make sure your skin is clean and balanced as an optimal surface.
  4. Apply the peeling solution, working from forehead to chin.
  5. Wait 3–10 minutes, depending on product instructions. If it’s your first peel, start on the lower end of time.
  6. Wash off with warm water and neutral cleanser. (Following this instruction may be determined by the type of peel you utilize as some don’t require washing off, and doing so may actually reactivate the chemical of the peel. Follow instructions provided on your product.)
  7. Dry and follow up with a neutral moisturizer (no retinoid or acids).
  8. Do not repeat until next week. Downtime after an at-home peel is usually not necessary, but still be vigilant with moisturizing, sun protection, and avoiding exercise for the next 24 hours.
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Glycolic peels may have complications like crusting and hyperpigmentation. They generally resolve within eight months of treatment and are less common in the winter months (potentially due to reduced sun exposure).

And according to Robinson, “The risks are persistent redness and temporary hyper- or hypopigmentation. Most of these side effects are a result of the patient’s lifestyle choices following their peel. It’s important to avoid sun exposure, as that is the primary culprit in pigmentation problems. Less likely, scarring can occur if the peel is not strong or incorrectly used.”

While chemical peels sound like a promising answer to acne scars, they may not be the best answer for the type of scars you have. Research has shown that superficial or light peels may help manage acne, while medium and deep peels may help more in treating moderate acne scars.

The degree to which chemical peels work may also depend on your budget. Light and at-home peels, which are cheaper, are less effective for raised or pitted scars than medium and deep peels.

Alternative treatments for scars

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“For patients with depressed scars (craters), treatments such as PicoSure laser or a series of microneedling with PRP [platelet-rich plasma] might be more effective,” Robinson says.

“For flat scars that are pigmented, IPL [intense pulsed light] might be a good choice.”

The good news is that you don’t have to stick to one type of treatment

As long as you give your skin time to heal between sessions, you could combine treatments to achieve the skin you want, like peels and microneedling or peels and lasering.

It’ll of course cost more. But when has fast-forwarding healing been cheap?

So, when it comes to alleviating the stress scars may bring, the best thing you can do is set realistic expectations to how your skin heals. No matter how many chemical peels you can afford, your skin needs rest to function at its best.

As you wait, get to know your skin. Touch it (with clean hands!) after cleansing, and learn what it’s like when it feels optimal and when it doesn’t. After all, skin isn’t just about the surface. As cliché as it sounds, a healthy diet counts too, especially with wound healing.

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and more.