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Chemical peels are a type of cosmetic treatment used to exfoliate skin. Professionally done chemical peels come in three strengths: mild, medium, and deep.

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid, derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and other substances. It’s used as a medium-strength chemical peel. Glycolic acid has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Glycolic acid peels are effective for treating several skin conditions. This treatment is done professionally by doctors and licensed cosmetologists or aestheticians.

Mild glycolic peel versions can also be purchased for use at home.

Glycolic acid peels slough off the surface and middle layers of skin, removing dead skin cells and debris.

Since glycolic acid is made up of small molecules, it readily penetrates skin, removing the lipids that hold dead skin cells together. The percentage of glycolic acid contained in the peel determines how deeply it can penetrate the skin’s layers.

Glycolic acid also loosens and lifts excess oil from hair follicle roots, which is why it’s often used to treat acne.

It’s also thought to suppress the production of melanin, which may be why it’s beneficial for reducing dark spots.

Glycolic acid peels are the most common alpha-hydroxy acid peels used by dermatologists.

When used correctly, they’re considered safe and cause no downtime for people who get them. To acquire optimal results, you may require several peels over a period of time as determined by a doctor.

Glycolic acid peels have proven benefits in the treatment of several skin conditions:

Acne and acne scars

Glycolic acid peels are effective for removing blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples from skin. They also help to reduce pore size.

Consistent and repeated use of glycolic acid peels have been shown to be effective for removing cystic lesions and acne scars from skin.

Ingrown hairs and scarring

Glycolic acid has been found to be effective for reducing the occurrence of ingrown hairs on the face and body. It also helps reduce the scarring caused by ingrown hairs.

Stretch marks

Stretch marks often start out as red or purple (striae ruba). They tend to fade in color, turning white over time.

Glycolic acid peels stimulate collagen production in the skin, and have been found to be effective for treating white stretch marks (striae alba).

Dark spots (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation)

Trauma to the skin can result in producing excess melanin, which causes dark spots called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This type of trauma can result from a number of causes, including overuse of chemical products, acne, and eczema.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation presents as flat patches that are tan, brown, or black in color. This condition typically resolves completely after the application of 6 to 8 glycolic acid peels.

Melasma

Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation that causes dark patches to form on skin. These patches often occur symmetrically on the face. This condition is also known as cholasma and is common during pregnancy.

In order to optimize effectiveness, glycolic acid is sometimes mixed with other skin lightening ingredients like hydroquinone to treat this condition.

Photoaging

Too much sun exposure can cause premature aging of the skin. This is known as photoaging. Symptoms of photoaged skin include:

Photoaged skin can also appear rough with scaly patches called actinic keratosis. These can become cancerous if they’re not removed.

Mild symptoms of photoaging can often be treated effectively with glycolic acid peels.

Some people have better results when a combination of glycolic acid and trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is used. Severe signs of photoaging, such as deep wrinkles, typically require medical treatment.

Glycolic acid peels are considered safe for most people. However, they’re not without potential side effects.

Side effects are more likely to occur if acid peels are overused or if they’re applied at high strengths by inexperienced providers.

Sun exposure and cigarette smoking, before and after treatment, may exacerbate side effects.

Potential side effects include:

  • eye irritation if the eyes aren’t adequately protected
  • skin irritation
  • redness that may persist for several days
  • a pulling sensation in the skin
  • a stinging or burning sensation
  • swelling
  • changes in skin tone
  • reactivation of cold sores
  • skin crusts that can become infected if picked

Rare side effects include blisters, scarring, and hypopigmentation (permanent lightening of skin).

Glycolic acid peels are considered safe for all skin types.

People with dark skin tones should use mild- to moderate-strength peels only, and should work with a medical or cosmetic professional who specializes in treating dark skin.

People with sensitive skin should use with caution.

Do not use a glycolic acid peel if you have active skin infections, blisters, or a sunburn.

It’s important to work with a qualified provider when having any type of chemical peel done. These include board-certified dermatologists or licensed aestheticians.

A qualified provider will assess your skin prior to applying a glycolic acid peel. They may also have you prep your skin for several days or weeks prior to the treatment by using sunscreen or other lotions.

Since they’re typically classified as cosmetic procedures, glycolic acid peels are rarely covered by health insurance. The price for this procedure can vary significantly based on where you live and the provider.

In general, you can expect to spend anywhere for $100 to over $600 for a mild or moderate peel.

Glycolic acid peels will affect the appearance of your face for anywhere from 1 to 14 days.

Mild peels cause less down time than moderate ones. Your skin type and sensitivity are also factors that will affect how your skin looks after the peel.

Some people are comfortable returning to work immediately. Others prefer to wait until redness, swelling, and crusting is completely gone.

You won’t be able to use cosmetics on your skin for several days after the peel. Ask your provider when you’ll be able to use products like foundation.

Mild versions of glycolic acid peels can be found online and in stores. These range in price, often from $20 to over $100.

As with any product you use on your skin, only buy glycolic acid peels from transparent manufacturers with good reputations. At-home treatments may be effective for acne and other minor skin conditions.

Shop glycolic acid peels here.

Follow up with a dermatologist or other healthcare professional if you have any concerns before or after doing an at-home peel.

Ask your provider for aftercare guidelines. For 1 to 2 weeks, you should:

  • keep skin lubricated and moisturized
  • avoid products that dry the skin
  • avoid exfoliators on your skin
  • use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30
  • not pick at blisters or scabs that form on your skin
  • not smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
  • wash your skin with cool water rather than warm or hot water
  • avoid cosmetics

Call a doctor if you have uncomfortable symptoms of any kind that don’t go away.

Based on the skin condition being treated, there are a number of alternative treatments to glycolic acid peels.

Home remedies

  • Home remedies for acne include spot treatments with tea tree oil and gentle exfoliating masks.
  • Moisturizers that contain active ingredients like retinoids may help diminish some signs of photoaging, such as fine lines. It’s also important to use sunscreen to avoid additional skin damage.
  • Creams with coconut butter or oil may help reduce the look of stretch marks. Aloe vera may also help.
  • Melasma caused by hormonal conditions, such as pregnancy, often fades on its own. There’s some evidence that aloe vera may also help.

OTC and prescription medication

  • Acne and acne scars can be treated at home with products containing alpha-hydroxy acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids. A doctor may also recommend taking antibiotics, or prescription isotretinoin for severe breakouts.
  • Hyperpigmentation can be treated at home with prescription medications or with products that contain active ingredients like corticosteroids, hydroquinone, azelaic acid, tretinoin, glycolic acid, or trichloroacetic acid.

Medical treatments

Talk to a doctor about other types of peels that may be beneficial for you. These may include deep peels, such as those containing phenol.

Laser skin resurfacing may also help for conditions like acne scars and age spots.

Glycolic acid peels are considered a safe and effective treatment for a variety of skin conditions, including acne, hyperpigmentation, and photoaging.

Medium-strength peels are done by board-certified dermatologists or by licensed cosmetologists or aestheticians. Milder peels can be purchased for home use, but always be sure to find ones from reputable companies.