Glycolic Acid Peel for Acne, Dark Spots, and Brighter Skin

  • A glycolic acid peel exfoliates facial skin to help treat acne, dark spots, and more.
  • Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid that removes dead cells on the surface of the skin.
  • A peel from a dermatologist costs about $300, but you can also get store-bought glycolic acid. 
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

If you’re longing for healthy-looking, glowing skin, a glycolic acid peel may be a good option. Or if you’re hoping to improve your acne, fine lines, or hyperpigmentation, glycolic acid peels can help with that, as well.

A glycolic acid peel typically yields greater, faster results than store-bought products because these peels contain a higher concentration of glycolic acid. 

The high amount of glycolic acid in these chemical peels is also why you can’t do them at home — you must schedule one with a dermatologist. 

What is a glycolic acid peel?

A glycolic acid peel exfoliates the outermost layer of the skin, removing dead skin cells from the surface of your face. 

It does this by using glycolic acid to break apart the connections between old cells so they easily slough off, says Jeannette Graf, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. 

It takes three to five minutes for a glycolic acid peel to work — during this time, it might cause a mild burning sensation as it exfoliates, says Graf. 

If you want glycolic acid peels regularly, you can get them around every three to four weeks, Graf says. This won’t be cheap, though, as each peel will cost $200 to $400 depending on your geographic location and dermatologist office.

The benefits of a glycolic acid peel

  • Brighter, glowing skin: If your skin is dull and lifeless, a glycolic acid peel can brighten up your skin, since the peel gets rid of dead skin cells and reveals younger, healthier new skin cells. A 2013 review found that glycolic acid peels performed on patients with acne resulted in smoother and brighter-looking skin in most study participants.
  • Less acne: According to a 2020 study, glycolic acid reduces acne-causing bacteria by disrupting the cell membranes of the bacteria, killing the bacteria in the process thereby eliminating subsequent acne. Additionally, a small 2014 study of people with moderate acne found that five glycolic acid peels, each two weeks apart, were effective in significantly reducing acne.
  • More even skin tone: If you are dealing with hyperpigmentation, or dark spots or patches, glycolic acid peels can help correct this, since new fresh skin cells will be replacing the older dead ones. 

The risks of a glycolic acid peel

Graf says the main risks of glycolic acid peels are increased sun sensitivity and irritation –– especially if the glycolic acid concentration is particularly high and the pH is very low. 

Since these peels make you more prone to sunburns and sun damage, it’s crucial that you always wear sunscreen on your face, particularly in the week after getting a peel, says Graf. 

If your skin is very sensitive, you should probably avoid in-office glycolic acid peels. Instead, Graf recommends using an over-the-counter glycolic acid product, which will have a higher pH and a lower concentration of glycolic acid. That means it won’t penetrate as deeply or rapidly, resulting in less potential irritation. 

Alternatively, Graf says people with very sensitive skin may choose to forgo glycolic acid and try lactic acid, which is another type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). 

Insider’s takeaway

Glycolic acid peels can be painful, yet effective. Especially for those experiencing acne, dull skin, or hyperpigmentation.

These fairly acidic, highly concentrated chemical peels should only be conducted by a dermatologist and can cost hundreds of dollars per peel. 

Therefore, schedule a consultation with a dermatologist first, to help you determine the best path forward for you and your skin.

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