Glycolic Acid Peel: The Ultimate Guide
Glycolic acid peel is a skin resurfacing treatment used for a number of skin concerns. Here’s everything you need to know about a glycolic peel facial before booking.
A glycolic chemical peel is one of the more common types of chemical peels as can be used for pretty much any skin type.
Glycolic acid as an ingredient is a great solution for a number of skin concerns and so the peeling agent started gaining a lot of popularity and showing up in exfoliating cleansers, toners, and masks.
Let’s explore what makes glycolic peel so beloved and if it’s the right choice for you.
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What Is Glycolic Acid Peel?
Glycolic acid peel is a type of chemical peel where the peeling agent of choice is – glycolic acid.
It is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) of a natural origin. It is derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and other substances. This ingredient is colorless and odorless. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
The molecule of glycolic acid is very small – one of the smallest naturally occurring AHAs actually. And because of that, it can penetrate deeper than other, larger molecules can.
When the molecules penetrate the skin, they dissolve the lipids that are holding the dead skin cells together, separating the old from the new skin layer.
In other words, glycolic acid peel loosens and lifts the excess oils from the roots of hair follicles and cleans out the debris from the first two skin layers. In doing so, it brings many benefits to the table.
Image source: Instagram @jfyspa
Glycolic Peel Benefits
So what are the benefits of a glycolic peel?
- It removes dead skin cells that contribute to the dry and dull-looking skin
- It helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles, making the skin more youthful and plump
- It removes germs, dirt, and debris that lead to blocked pores and cause breakouts
- It eliminates rough skin texture and makes the skin smooth to the touch and more even in tone
- It helps skincare ingredients reach deeper, aiding in anti-aging or anti-acne properties of the products
- It helps reduce scarring, hyperpigmentation, and dark patches.
As you can see, it’s a universally beneficial treatment.
Glycolic Acid Peel Intensity
Chemical peeling treatments are tailored to the individual’s skin needs and their skin type.
Glycolic acid peels are among the most commonly used AHA peels as they’re well suited to all skin types. But the intensity of the peel is what makes the difference in the results.
Higher concentration means the treatment is more intense and the results are more dramatic.
The technician will decide what the necessary concentration of acid is.
The percentage of glycolic acid contained in the solution determines how deeply it can penetrate the skin’s layers. Glycolic acid peel is usually used in light to medium-strength, but its concentration can be upped for deep peels as well.
Light Glycolic Acid Peel
This is a superficial peel that uses 20-30% glycolic acid. The time it spends on the skin is just around 2 minutes. Because it’s so mild, it doesn’t require any downtime and can be used quite often.
Light glycolic acid peel is great for skin rejuvenation and it’s enough to even treat mild hyperpigmentation.
This option is especially great for people with darker skin tones as they’re more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can often be caused by high-intensity peels.
Medium Glycolic Acid Peel
It’s done with a bit higher concentration of glycolic acid, at around 35-50% and it’s left on the skin a bit longer – for up to 5 minutes.
Because of this, the acid is able to penetrate the papillary dermis (the layer that sits just below the epidermis, the first skin layer). The medium-depth peel is great for fighting more severe cases of hyperpigmentation and very textured skin.
This intensity, however, requires some downtime (a week or so) and carries more commitment regarding the recovery process.
Deep Glycolic Acid Peel
For a deep peel, you need to go to a medical professional, as peels of concentrations that are as high as 70% are very serious procedures. Concentrations higher than 70% are too high to be put on the skin, even if it is just a few minutes.
For deep exfoliation, the solution is left on the face for up to 15 minutes so it’s able to penetrate all the way to the deepest layer of the dermis, the reticular dermis.
These deep peels are usually used for serious cases of scarring, wrinkles, and sometimes precancerous growths. They require the most downtime – even up to 2 weeks during which you need to follow quite a rigorous aftercare regimen.
What Conditions Does Glycolic Acid Peel Treat?
The glycolic acid peel has become the go-to peel. It’s very effective in treating many skin conditions.
Glycolic Acid for Acne
Glycolic acid peel has proven to be successful with all types of acne – especially comedonal acne.
A glycolic acid peel can penetrate to the root of the hair follicle, clean the excess oils, and prevent bacteria from feeding on it. It’s effective for eliminating blackheads, whiteheads and reducing pore size which helps prevent future acne.
Plus, due to the antibacterial effects, the glycolic acid peel can even be used over active acne to help calm it down.
Image source: Instagram @ayahslaserspa
Glycolic Acid for Acne Scars
In general, chemical peels are a great solution for treating acne scars. You can read more about that here.
Removal of the damaged skin layers lessens the appearance of scarring and over time, eliminates it completely. Regular use of glycolic acid has been shown to help reduce cystic lesions and acne scars.
Glycolic Acid for Dark Spots
Dark spots occur as a result of excess melanin production triggered during the post-inflammatory pigmentation. And inflammation happens when the skin suffers trauma.
Chemical peels work effectively in peeling off the affected skin layers and diminishing these marks. On top of that, glycolic acid can be mixed with other skin-lightening ingredients to maximize the effects.
Glycolic Acid Peel for Hyperpigmentation Prevention
On top of getting rid of already existing dark spots, the glycolic acid peel also suppresses the production of melanin – which is the pigment responsible for the formation of hyperpigmentation in the first place.
This means glycolic acid peel is also very successful in preventing the formation of hyperpigmentation.
Image source: Instagram @skinbybru
Glycolic Acid Peel for Photoaging
Photoaging is a result of too much unprotected sun exposure. This leads to premature aging and dark spots. It can also appear as rough, scaly patches called actinic keratosis which can become cancerogenic.
A glycolic chemical peel has been shown very effective in treating mild cases of photoaging, but more severe cases typically require medical treatments or deep peels.
Glycolic Acid Peel for Fine Lines and Wrinkles
By taking off the first skin layer and with it all the dead skin that causes the complexion to look dull, glycolic acid peel helps visibly reduce signs of aging and leaves the skin looking glowy and youthful.
Plus, the minor injuries caused in the process help jumpstart additional collagen production. Elastin and collagen production accelerates during the healing process and help plump up and strengthen the skin.
Image source: Instagram @jade_exposuredudley
Limitations of the Glycolic Acid Peel
While this peel is pretty universally beneficial, there still are some limitations. Before booking a glycolic peel facial, consult a dermatologist:
- If your skin is very sensitive or if you have a condition like psoriasis, rosacea, or eczema. Glycolic acid can be more irritating than other chemical exfoliants, so you may need a different acid or seek a different treatment.
- If you have active acne, or are taking prescription medications for acne.
- If you are pregnant – you can only use low concentration glycolic acid peels. Highly concentrated peels penetrate deeper into the skin, and they can get into the bloodstream, so they’re not recommended.
In general, you should leave the decision of which peel to get and how intense it should be to a professional.
How to Prepare for a Glycolic Acid Peel?
Preparing for a glycolic peel facial should start at least a week prior.
Avoid exfoliating products and ingredients that irritate the skin. So anything that contains ingredients with AHA, BHA, PHA, or mechanical exfoliants (like scrubs) is off-limits.
Topical retinols and retinoids should also be paused for at least a week prior to the appointment, but ideally even longer.
What Happens During the Glycolic Peel Facial?
The process is done in 3 steps: prep, application and neutralization.
First, the technician needs to clean your skin. They will remove your makeup with a gentle cleanser, and residual impurities with a toner. The skin is also degreased with alcohol or acetone-based solution.
This will ensure the peel can penetrate better.
Extra protection like vaseline or cotton pads may be applied to ensure no acid gets in your eyes, nose, or mouth, and to avoid the acid pooling in very sensitive areas. If the peel is really strong, some technicians apply numbing cream.
After the skin is properly prepared, the chemical peeling solution is applied. You may feel slight tingling and stinging.
The tech will pay attention to how your skin reacts to the strength and then after a few minutes they’ll apply a neutralizing solution.
In the case of glycolic acid, the neutralizing agent is usually water, as the AHA acid type is water-soluble.
The timing here is crucial, as neutralizing is what stops the chemical process from further tearing apart the skin cells.
If the skin is overly reactive to the acid, the neutralizer will be applied as soon as the reaction shows. Most often the indicators are redness and frosting (the skin starts turning white from the exfoliation).
The last step is cleaning the face and applying skincare and sun protection.
What to Expect After a Glycolic Peel?
This depends on the intensity of the peel as lesser concentrations have less pronounced side effects.
In the days following the procedure, it’s pretty common to experience redness, dryness and peeling. Your skin may also feel tight and irritated.
Make sure to keep the skin moisturized and protected from the sun as the glycolic acid peel increases the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.
Usually, the aftercare for glycolic acid peel is pretty much the same as for any other chemical peel. You can read about it here.
The final results will be visible once the skin is fully healed, in about a week or so. For light peels, the results are instantly visible, while deep peels take up to 2 weeks. If your symptoms aren’t going away, go to a doctor.
Image source: Instagram @bev_daniel_hair_beauty
How Safe Is the Glycolic Peel Facial?
When used correctly, glycolic peel facials are safe and usually don’t even require any downtime (depending on the intensity). However, they do carry some potential risks and side effects.
The side effects are more likely to occur when a higher concentration peel is used or if the peel has been applied for too long. Or chemical peels are done too often.
In those cases, side effects are mostly redness, irritation and some discoloration. But in particularly bad cases it can even lead to blisters and scarring.
How Much Does Glycolic Acid Peel Cost?
The price for a glycolic peel facial can depend on several factors, mostly the intensity of the peel and the expertise of the treatment provider (which is the most important deciding factor).
But other things like location and exclusivity of the salon can also play a part.
On average, a light to medium glycolic peel facial costs around $100-$150. But the prices can range anywhere from $80 to $600.
You also need to take into consideration that you might need multiple sessions which can rack up the price significantly. For most people, it’s recommended you get between 3 and 6 mild treatments to get the best results.
Can You Do Glycolic Acid Peel at Home?
Yes, but in-office and at-home treatments are significantly different. At-home versions are never as effective as professionally done ones, but they do help improve the complexion.
While it is possible to get professional-grade strength chemical peels, this is not advisable for non-professionals. You can get a chemical burn and seriously damage your skin.
To ensure you go about this treatment safely, stick to the products that are intended for at-home use. These at-home peels come in various forms, mostly like pre-soaked peeling pads and face masks.
They’re formulated to be safe to use in a non-professional setting, but still, pay close attention to how your skin reacts and make sure you do a patch test before use!
In case you are introducing this ingredient in skincare products rather than doing it as a peel, start off slowly – no more than 2-3 times a week. If you notice your skin can’t handle it, cut back a bit.
Skincare After a Glycolic Acid Peel at Home
If you are doing this treatment by yourself – and especially if you are using the glycolic acid ingredient in a product that’s a regular part of your skincare routine – you need to know what cannot be mixed with glycolic acid.
Ingredients like retinol, retinoids and vitamin C increase sensitivity and irritate it to the point of breakout. In general, any powerful active ingredient can break the bonds between healthy skin cells and thin out the skin.
Instead, look for products that contain ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and peptides as these ingredients are focused on repairing the skin barrier and locking the moisture in.
Alternative Treatments to a Glycolic Peel
If you don’t want or can’t get a glycolic peel for whatever reason, there are a number of alternatives, depending on the skin condition being treated.
See how they compare to chemical peels:
Glycolic Acid Peel – Main Takeaways
Glycolic acid peel has the advantage of penetrating deeper than most other chemical exfoliants. Glycolic peel benefits those that want to reduce sun damage and even out their skin tone and improve texture.
It also works great for acne and as an anti-aging treatment.
Usually, it’s done as a light to medium-intensity peel, and as long as it’s done by a certified and experienced professional, it’s perfectly safe.
- Sharad, Jaishree. “Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy – A Current Review.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 2013, p. 281.
- Valle-González, Elba R., et al. “Ph-Dependent Antibacterial Activity of Glycolic Acid: Implications for Anti-Acne Formulations.” Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020.
- Mikulec, Kelly. “Glycolic Acid for Acne: How It Works, Efficacy, Best Products, Side Effects.” Derm Collective, 22 June 2022.
- West, Mary. “Glycolic Acid for the Skin: Benefits and How to Use It.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 27 Apr. 2022.