Glycolic Acid Peels for Acne Scarring, Hyperpigmentation & More

Glycolic acid peels can help to slough off dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. Professional peels can get into the middle layer of your skin to reduce the appearance of acne scars and dark spots.

Glycolic acid is essentially an exfoliant that can help to regenerate your skin for a brighter and smoother look.

A professional glycolic acid peel uses a higher concentration and offers a stronger treatment that will need to be done less frequently than over-the-counter products used at home. Professional medical-grade glycolic acid peels can also reach deeper levels of the skin.

For best results and to minimize potential risks, choose a trained professional like Cosmetica in Boca Raton for your cosmetic needs.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

chemical peels

Glycolic acid is simple in structure. It is the smallest and has the lowest molecular weight of all the AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids). Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.

Due to its simple structure and small molecular weight, it can easily penetrate the skin. It is an exfoliant used to help shed dead skin cells. This can help to reveal brighter and fresher layers of skin that are under the dead skin.

How Does a Glycolic Acid Peel Work?

The outer layer of your skin, the stratum corneum, is made up of bonded dead skin cells that are tightly packed. Glycolic acid works to loosen up these bonds and help to slough off the rough outer layers of dead skin cells to reveal brighter and healthier skin underneath.

Since glycolic acid is so small, it can also get into the deeper layers of your skin, the dermis, to stimulate fibroblasts to produce more collagen. Collagen is a structural protein that makes up your connective tissues. It can tighten and firm up loose skin and smooth out lines and wrinkles.

A glycolic acid peel pulls off the top layers of dead skin and can revitalize, smooth, tone, and freshen up your appearance.

Benefits of Glycolic Acid Peels

Glycolic acid peels can give the skin a healthier and more youthful look while also serving to address skin concerns and problems. The peels can:

  • Prevent pores from getting clogged to manage acne.
  • Reduce the appearance of acne scars.
  • Minimize lines and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
  • Even out sunspots, discoloration in the skin, and hyperpigmentation.
  • Suppress the formation of melanin pigment in the skin to manage melasma.

Levels of Professional Glycolic Acid Peels

There are three main levels of professional glycolic acid peels: light, medium, and deep. Each level involves a different concentration of glycolic acid and stays on your skin for a different duration of time.

The levels are as follows:

  • Light:  The “superficial” peel will use a concentration of 20-30% glycolic acid that remains on your skin for about one to two minutes. This only affects the surface layer of your skin, which is beneficial for mild hyperpigmentation. There is a quick recovery time of only about 24 hours.
  • Medium: With this level of peel, a concentration of 35-50% glycolic acid is left on your skin for two to five minutes. This will penetrate into the layer of skin just below the outermost layer, the papillary dermis, which is just under the epidermis.

    This level peel can improve the texture of your skin and also treat melasma and hyperpigmentation. The recovery time for a medium peel is about a week.
  • Deep: The highest level of peel uses a concentration of 55-70% glycolic acid that is left on your skin for at least three minutes, up to as long as 15 minutes. This can get to the lower level of the dermis, the reticular dermis, to improve the appearance of acne scars and help everything that medium-level peels do. The recovery time for a deep peel is generally two weeks.

Candidates for Glycolic Acid Peels

Chemical peels using glycolic acid can help to keep your skin looking and feeling healthier while smoothing out lines, acne scars, and wrinkles, as well as reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and sunspots. Glycolic acid peels can inhibit the release of the enzyme tyrosinase, which can slow down the production of the pigment melanin produced by some skin cells and resulting in hyperpigmentation. If you have any of the following, you may be a good candidate for a glycolic acid peel:

  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Acne scars
  • Acne
  • Lines or sunspots

Even if none of these apply to you, and you are just looking to freshen up your face for a more youthful, glowing appearance, a glycolic acid peel can be a good option. If you have sensitive skin, are taking prescription acne medication, or have a skin condition, be sure to talk to a dermatologist before getting a chemical peel.

Why Seek a Professional vs. Trying at Home?

There are numerous glycolic acid peels and products on the market today, and you can buy many over the counter to apply at home. The benefit to a professional application is that the pads used are medical-grade, and they can give you better results.

A trained professional can work with you if you have active acne or sensitive skin to determine the safety and effectiveness of a glycolic acid peel. They can also assess the appropriate level to use on your skin.

When done in an office setting, professionals can ensure that you are safe. Reactions, and therefore side effects, are kept to a minimum.

The Process

With a professional glycolic acid peel, the clinician will first clean your skin. Then, they will apply the glycolic acid in the concentration desired and for the specific amount of time needed.

If your skin shows a reaction to the peel, the provider will stop the peel before the time. To neutralize the acid, either water or another neutralizing agent is applied to your skin, which stops it from working.

During the procedure, you may feel some minor stinging or tingling. For a deeper peel, your provider may use a local or regional anesthetic to numb your face before beginning the treatment. A cool compress is often applied after the acid is neutralized.


The recovery after a glycolic acid peel will depend on the level of treatment you have received. The lighter the treatment, the lower the downtime and recovery period.

After having a glycolic acid peel, you should refrain from using skin care products or makeup while your skin is healing. It will likely be red, sensitive, and irritated during the healing process.

Follow all of your providers instructions for caring for your face and skin after a glycolic acid peel, including their advice on the use of products on your skin and limiting sun and environmental exposures. Avoid anything that can dry out your skin, such as saunas, hot water, or steam rooms. Use gentle skin-care products (when recommended) and lukewarm water when washing your face.

Your provider can recommend an ointment, like petroleum jelly, to protect your skin after a glycolic acid peel. Ice packs and over-the-counter pain medications can help to reduce swelling and discomfort when needed.

Possible Side Effects

When administered by a trained professional, glycolic acid peels are considered safe and effective. They typically have few, if any, minor side effects. Potential side effects may include the following:

  • A stinging sensation
  • Superficial skin reddening, or erythema
  • Feeling like skin is tight or pulling
  • Mild burning
  • Transient (temporary) post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

There is a small risk for scarring and hyperpigmentation with a glycolic acid peel, especially when used with combination treatments, but the risk is still considered low. Risks are usually higher if you use other products before the treatment or have dry skin.

Costs of Glycolic Acid Peels

The cost of a glycolic acid peel is related to where you get it done, what level of treatment you need, and your specific skin and conditions. Costs typically average between $200 and $600 per treatment. Often, more than one treatment is needed.

Alternatives to a Glycolic Acid Peel

There are other forms of chemical peels that can be applied instead of glycolic acid, including salicylic acid peels or TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peels. Salicylic acid peels are also used for light peels to target oil glands in the skin, while TCA peels are either medium-level or deep-level peels that can work on hyperpigmentation or scarring. Your dermatologist can help you to determine which chemical peel is best for your skin.

Alternatives to a chemical peel include:

  • Laser treatments, which resurface the skin using lasers.
  • Microdermabrasion, which uses a diamond-tipped device to buff skin cells.
  • Hydradermabrasion, which uses a combination of oxygen and water to buff the outer layer of skin.
  • Microneedling, which pierces the skin with microneedles to make it regenerate.

FAQ About Glycolic Acid Peels

How often should you get a glycolic acid peel?

Your skin and goals will impact how often and how many peels you will need. On average, people will get a new treatment about once every one to two weeks for a period of up to four months.

Deeper peels may only need to be applied once, however. The deeper the level of peel, the more recovery time you will need between treatments. You’ll also need fewer treatments overall with deep peels.

How long does it take to see results?

Usually, you will see results from a glycolic acid peel within 14 days as the new skin develops. If you have a deep peel, the redness can persist for a few months. Sometimes, it can also take a few treatments to see the desired results.

How many treatments will I need?

Typically, it can take between three and six treatments to achieve desired results. Everyone’s skin is different, and you may have different goals, so be sure to discuss this with your treatment provider.

Can you get a glycolic acid peel if you have active acne?

Yes, glycolic acid peels can aid in managing acne by helping to unclog pores. It can also have antibacterial effects that can minimize inflammatory acne. Talk to your dermatologist first, especially if you are taking acne medications.

Can I still get a peel if I have sensitive skin?

If you have sensitive skin or a skin condition, you can still be a candidate for a glycolic acid peel. Talk to your dermatologist to find out if it is right for you and what the potential risks may be.

Can I get a peel while pregnant?

Glycolic acid is believed to be mostly absorbed by the skin; however, it can still potentially enter the bloodstream. While lower concentration peels that are used at home are likely safe, high-level peels should probably be avoided during pregnancy. Check with your doctor to confirm.

Will a chemical peel damage my skin?

Glycolic acid peels are considered safe treatments. As with any procedure, however, they are not without risk. Talk to your provider about your skin specifically, and follow all instructions for best results.

If I have a sunburn or skin infection, do I need to reschedule?

When you have an active skin infection or sunburn, you should not get a glycolic acid peel. Instead, you should wait for the issue to clear. You can reschedule your appointment for a later date.If you are aiming for a healthier looking you in southern Florida, Cosmetica can help! Our trained professionals serve Boca Raton, creating younger-looking brighter faces daily.


Everything You Need to Know About Glycolic Acid, Explained. (November 2020). Glamour.

10 Things You Should Know Before Getting a Glycolic Acid Peel. (December 2019). Self.

Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy: A Current Review. (November 2013). Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology.

Severe Hyperpigmentation and Scarring Following Glycolic Acid Peel Treatment in Combination with Low-Dose Isotretinoin. (November 2014). European Journal of Medical Research.

Comparative Study of 35% Glycolic Acid, 20% Salicylic–10% Mandelic Acid, and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in the Treatment of Active Acne and Postacne Pigmentation. (2019). Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery.

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